Features  / 03.13 /

Women with wings

Helping female pilots find success


teaching a class

Photography by Tom Hussey

Patti Shannon arrived at Wilbarger County Airport in Vernon, Texas, on a Friday afternoon in November 2012 with a wide smile that masked some trepidation. Flown there by her husband in his Experimental Zenith, she had hated the turbulence they experienced so much that she told him to fly the airplane back to Houston and return by car—she wasn’t flying home.

After spending one week at an all-women’s flight camp, Shannon soloed in a Cessna 150 and now loves flying. She got her private pilot certificate on December 29, 2012.

How did this transformation take place—and can it be duplicated at flight schools around the country?

tabletsPatti Shannon arrived at Wilbarger County Airport in Vernon, Texas, on a Friday afternoon in November 2012 with a wide smile that masked some trepidation. Flown there by her husband in his Experimental Zenith, she had hated the turbulence they experienced so much that she told him to fly the airplane back to Houston and return by car—she wasn’t flying home.

After spending one week at an all-women’s flight camp, Shannon soloed in a Cessna 150 and now loves flying. She got her private pilot certificate on December 29, 2012.

How did this transformation take place—and can it be duplicated at flight schools around the country?

Where are the women? The number of women pilots in the United States has remained at a stubborn 6 percent of the total pilot population for decades (see "Career Pilot," page 45). Meanwhile, consider the numbers of women who ride motorcycles: about 7.2 million riders out of 27 million in 2009, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Many grassroots groups view the problem as one of access to aviation. Girls with Wings, Women of Aviation Worldwide, and others are working hard to introduce girls and young women to aviation through a variety of methods: airport open houses, free airplane rides, and more.

But what about women who already have an interest in aviation—either directly or through a flying spouse or partner? Such students should be prime candidates for successful flight training. And yet often they struggle and, ultimately, let the dream of flying dissolve.

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

During decades of flight instructing, designated pilot examiner Mary Latimer has picked up on some gender differences among student pilots. Particularly in a ground school setting, she says, “women do want a little more in-depth comprehension of what’s going on…..They know they don’t necessarily need that information, but they want to know the ‘why’ behind the do-this/do-this/do-this. It makes them more comfortable as fliers. They understand what’s going on, and if you know what’s going on, there’s less reason to be afraid.” Unfortunately, in a traditional ground school setting where males outnumber women by a wide margin, females will hesitate to ask questions if no one else in the class has raised a hand, Latimer says.

Knowing this, Latimer started brainstorming a new way to give women a supportive setting in which they could learn about flying and ask as many questions as they needed to. She called it GIFT—Girls in Flight Training—a weeklong, all-female academy in which she would provide free ground school, free or low-cost housing, and free flight instruction with reduced rates for aircraft rental.

group of women

SLEEP-AWAY CAMP

In a cavernous hangar at the Vernon airport, 30 or so women sit on folding chairs, listening intently as Latimer explains weight-and-balance concepts. It’s a little chilly on this November morning, and some of the women are swathed in blankets, brought from a small house on the airport. It’s one of three free housing options for the students.

The first GIFT, held in 2011, attracted 18 women. In 2012, thanks to advance notice in AOPA publications, nearly 40 have arrived. They range in age from early twenties to mid-sixties, but all share a common bond: They want to learn to fly, or they’re struggling with something that is keeping them from being successful. Several are married to aviation—their husbands are pilots.

Then there’s Jessi Jenison, from Tyler, Texas, who has wanted to fly since she was 12. Nobody in her family is a pilot, and she’s had no encouragement from anyone during two years and 30 hours of sporadic training. “This is a blessing for me,” she says.

An orange-and-white Cessna 152 taxis up to the hangar and shuts down. A woman emerges from the left seat, smiling ear to ear. Latimer’s husband, Lawrence, follows her into the hangar to endorse her logbook.

“Who hasn’t flown?” Mary Latimer asks the group. “Who wants to fly next?” It is a sequence that will repeat itself many, many times. By week’s end, eight women will have soloed. Five will have passed knowledge tests. Two will complete private pilot checkrides.

“Everyone has an agenda,” Latimer says. “Mine is to have the women pilot population hit 10 percent before I die.”

Fellowship, food, ground school.Delicious odors are making their way through the hangar courtesy of a trio of men in cowboy hats who are cooking sandwich steaks on a sizzling grill. A local catering company has donated a week’s worth of meals. The women line up for lunch and use the time to get to know each other a bit better. “How many hours do you have?” they ask one another. A woman from Denver asks how long the runway is at Vernon. Four thousand feet, she’s told. “That’s all?” she replies.

The students who have already flown with Lawrence Latimer are ready to take him home with them. “He showed me how to do a stall and it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Shannon says. The other women congratulate her. Latimer overhears and grins. This community and support that has mushroomed is exactly what she hoped—and knew—would happen.

pilotsBUILDING A COMMUNITY

Community and support are two tenants of Peg Ballou’s flight instructing business, Ballou Skies Aviation, at Port Bucyrus-Crawford County Airport in Bucyrus, Ohio. She says she’s prepared to train five or six women at a time and offers a guest house for that purpose. She envisions that women could not only learn to fly but also network with and provide support for each other in the process. “We have the two major support organizations [the Ninety-Nines and Women in Aviation International], but day to day, who is here to say, ‘Atta girl’?”

Gender differences in learning are built into Ballou’s syllabus. “Gender is the elephant in the living room,” she says. “We’re supposed to take everybody equally. People are not equal in their backgrounds, in their aptitudes, or in their attitudes and understanding of things.” For example, she says gender research indicates females hear better than males, even as newborns and throughout all stages of life. That means women tend to be more aware of all types of noise—so learning a concept in the cockpit without ever having addressed it on the ground underscores the old saying that the cockpit makes a lousy classroom.

SUCCESS STORIES

Mary Latimer continues to receive happy emails and calls from GIFT participants. Several returned to Vernon for additional training. One of these was Patti Shannon, who brought with her not only with her pilot husband but also her three teenage sons. “One had [already] soloed and wants to pursue aviation. Two were not interested [in flying], [but] we fixed that,” Latimer says. Shannon is perhaps Latimer’s greatest success. “She went from ‘hell, no,’ to ‘let’s go!’”

Latimer plans to host GIFT in 2013, but what she would like even more is to show other flight schools how to set up this model. For any flight school that thinks providing a week of free ground school is a waste of time and effort, Latimer says they need only look at Patti Shannon and her family—and the other women who returned to get additional training—to see that it can reap long-term financial benefits.

Shannon and her husband plan to get instrument ratings, and they’ve talked about buying a bigger airplane in which to travel, Latimer says. What’s more, hearing of Patti’s success, her brother-in-law planned to bring his teenage sons to Vernon so that they could begin their flight lessons. “By me reaching out to Patti, now I have eight students coming 350 miles to fly with me,” Latimer says. She could’ve booked a solid month of instruction in January, had she wanted to.

The students “are willing to travel hundreds of miles for a good instructor and training environment,” she says.

Jill Tallman is technical editor of Flight Training magazine.

women at table

Good things

If a woman spies another woman at the airport, good things can happen. Faith Drewry and Lacey Smith opened the FL Aviation Center at Tallahassee Regional Airport in September 2012. "At our open house, we had 80 men and four women," Drewry said. "All four women were there because they really wanted to fly and had seen an article in the newspaper that two women had opened an flight school, and maybe that means it's OK" to go check it out, she said. "They'd never told anybody they wanted to fly." Drewry suspects that female students may have to build up the confidence to say, "Yes, I'm going to do this."

What can general aviation do to help women be successful?

Recommendations from "Teaching Women to Fly" by Penny Rafferty Hamilton:

  • Develop a no-cost, readily available database of female mentors for female student pilots, and promote it through flight schools and aviation media. Create an online "keep flying" support community for female student pilots.
  • Develop flight training that utilizes more simulator time, and increase women's confidence level by building what they already know instead of going strictly by the FAA curriculum steps. A sequence of instruction needs to be flexible to recognize the difference in learning styles.
  • Individualize and personalize the flight training with additional self-study options for women (for example, map-reading and geography through free websites such as www.nationalgeographic.com and www.knowledgehouse.info).

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