Listening in on the Air Traffic Control broadcast from my local airport I was recently pleased to hear both a female controller and female pilot talking to each other. I knew what I was hearing was rare, because while preparing this very article I learned from the Federal Aviation Administration that in 2010 there were 202,020 active private pilots in the US and 13,566 of those pilots were women. That works out to roughly 6.7%.
Photo by Ladyheart
As both a woman and a pilot it has been hard for me to digest that 6.7%. Part of me wants to scold myself that I shouldn’t be as personally bothered as I am. It’s with mixed feelings I celebrate that when I apply full power for takeoff I’m propelling myself beyond gender norms. Make no mistake, I am thrilled to be working toward earning the privilege to be a Pilot in Command again. At the same time, I can’t stop myself from feeling lonely that there aren’t more women in the air with me.
Thanks to a conversation with my friends I’ve become aware that I it was due to advantages growing up that helped me to get to a point in my life where I could be a Pilot in Command at all. When I was a child my parents knew I loved flying, and thanks to the gender I was perceived to be at that time, my affection for flying didn’t stop with me looking up. I was given the Lego Airport set one Christmas. I was given toy airplanes. My friend Devan observed during our conversation, “…according to most products, boys get to play with the entire world while girls get to play with the safe, cuddly inside of their houses.” Indeed with toys like Lego Friends offered, where is the inspiration for girls to get into the cockpit?
Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to do much of anything on the toy front. But I am a writer and I hope my story around what flying means to me can help.
When I started to earn my private pilot’s license my parents didn’t know the root cause of my low self esteem, which they were trying to use flying lessons to help treat. As I wasn’t ready to accept being trans myself, I was OK with becoming a pilot, even though it was treating the symptom of my low self esteem and not the cause which I actually needed to heal. In the end, learning to fly did give me something that made me feel good about myself, and which helped me buy the time I needed to get through life events like High School.
Through those early lessons I learned something that would be key to my recent return to the air: when you go up in a plane you’re pretty much guaranteed to land with a story to tell. Looking over the pages of my log book I can find notes of happy memories like, “Oh yeah! That’s when I flew my friends to Wisconsin Dells just to buy fudge!” “Ha ha! That’s when I flew my Advanced Biology teacher to Appleton, Wisconsin to pickup the chicken eggs we were going to raise in class!” “That first flight with my parents nearly didn’t happen because my Dad had been on AOL, tying up the phone line so I couldn’t call home to let them know I’d gotten my license!” Good times indeed.
I also dealt with some situations while flying that bespeak the danger and risk of flight. There was a time my instructor and I were on final approach to the airport and we found ourselves with a real engine failure to contend with in a single engine plane thanks to, I’ll just say bravado, on the part of my instructor. While he tried restarting the engine, I landed our “glider” safely and then remembered we were in a plane with a pull start. Once I yanked on it, our propeller started to spin and I got us off the runway just in time to keep a DC-9 airliner from having to go around.
On another occasion I had difficulty finding the airport I was going to in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Below me all I could see were trees, but I knew there was an alternate airport to my south. I didn’t panic. I just got on the radio frequency of the airport I was trying to find and called for help with successful results. Then there was spin training. Yeah, roller coasters have been nothing for me after that.
Proving that I had learned from my training on how to get through those challenges, along with being able to share aviation with my friends, became fuel to gave me some self worth at a time in my life when I needed some. I’ve kept those experiences close to me ever since, but I haven’t had a chance to make any new ones since 1996 . The time involved with going to college, and the expense, effectively grounded me until 2015.
Applying full power to take off on runway 28R from my local airport, I was feeling a little hurried as I guided my plane into the air. Soon after we took off I got a correction from my instructor about me keeping my eyes on the instruments too much, prompting me to look out to see that I really was flying again. I had my hands full with airspeed, altitude, and my heading, but I was flying.
In the month and a half before that takeoff I’d been feeling rough thanks to events at work. On my first day up in the air those woes were left on the ground and I haven’t found them since. True, I had an instructor in the seat next to me, but it was my job to fly the airplane and ultimately land. That responsibility in my hand transformed what was bringing me down into just some unfair things that happened to me, and things I was rising above.
I find being a pilot participating in General Aviation to be an empowering activity that I can’t wait to share with my friends, especially my female friends. Yet I must admit as a woman I find it alienating too. Knowing I’m doing something that is so rarely done by women has been yielding these moments where I feel like an outsider when I’m with a group of girlfriends. I am optimistic that will change once we can start having adventures. More importantly though, aviation can be good for the soul as it has been for mine, and there is no logical reason why girls and women shouldn’t or can’t fly. That’s our sky above us ladies, let us soar in it!
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