Sunday, February 6, 2011

February is Women in Aviation Month

Because February is Women in Aviation Month, I was asked to focus this month’s column on this topic and believe me, this was a very interesting request. I spent most of the last month thinking about the women who have inspired me, and realizing my responsibility to the next generation.

In 2010, I attended my first Oshkosh. During this event, I made sure I was on-site for the Women in Aviation Photo Shoot. An estimated 600 joined together in our yellow t-shirts for this special event. Long time pilot, Betty “Boopsie” Sherman was with me while I searched the area for others. I wanted to stand with my California Pilot Pals and other special friends. We gathered together long time pilots Andrea Eldridge, Debby Rihn-Harvey, Carri Hoagland and new pilots Bonnie “Bonz” Ritchey and Jan Causey Johnson. That was an amazing time for me. I felt the pride of all of those women and realized I was not alone in my experiences.


Caption: Me and about 600 of my closest friends - can you find me?

A recent study tried to determine why, in the USA – women comprise over 50% of the population, but less than 6% of pilots. The study results suggested several reasons – some I will disregard because they can be attributed to either gender. Examples include; Flight School Closed, Frequent Instructor Changes and Limited Funds – those aren’t gender specific.

The ones I focused on included; Limited Mechanical Knowledge, Instructor Incompatibility and No Female Mentors. I believe these items are relevant and realistic.

Another study focused on air crashes between 1983 and 1997 – studying 144 female and 287 male pilot’s incidents. The results showed the male pilots had more flawed decision making while the females were more fearful and hence, mishandled the aircraft. More fear – more aptitude issues.

Some of my Mentors

I was lucky enough to have some amazing female mentors in my life. The first one I always think of would be Marta Meyer. Marta was a World Class Aerobatic Competitor; she was a Chief Engineer for NASA at their Dryden Flight Research Center, was the first female crew member on the SR-71 and worked on many other incredible projects. She was a CFI, A&P and IA. She also was a prankster and a wonderful friend.

She taught me that training removes fear. Know more about your aircraft, know how it works, how the engine works, how it spins and why, if you always learn – knowledge will replace your fear. She also taught me that you need to be serious when you’re in the aircraft – but when you’re not, it’s perfectly acceptable to throw a dinner roll and start a food fight at the banquet. I treasure the time I had with her and still think of her often. I was blessed to call her my friend.

Vicki Cruse is a name many of you will know. She was a National Unlimited Aerobatic Champion, World Class Aerobatic Pilot, President of an aviation company, President of the IAC, Sport Class Racer and friend. Vicki knew so much about her aircraft – she wrote a column about the technical side to flying. She was incredibly talented and incredibly learned.

Many of you won’t know the name Andrea Rice. Andrea was the first Lead for the Patriots. She was incredibly talented and I learned much from her by listening and watching. She was a leader – an amazing woman.

Another woman who taught me much was a Naval Aviator – who wrote a book about her experience called “She's Just Another Navy Pilot:” If you haven’t read it – you should. Loree Draude Hirschman was one of the first women combat pilots aboard a ship in 1995. While the news was all about gender bias and the pressing social issues of the time – Loree looked at herself as “just another navy pilot” and did her job without calling attention to her gender. Her story is about proving yourself and using your skill, courage and determination to make it in a new role. She taught me more than she’ll ever know.


Caption: She’s more than just another Navy Pilot – with her F18 driving husband, "Hairball".

What women should know before becoming a pilot …

Women think differently than men. When an instructor or a coach tells you that you need more top rudder in your rolls, it doesn’t mean you’re not a good person, or that you are stupid, or your mother wears army boots. It most likely means that you need more top rudder in your rolls. Learning to take constructive criticism without taking it personally is essential to becoming a better pilot.

Avgas is terrible on nails. Yes, it practically eats away at nail polish. Wearing gloves doesn’t help much. But, it’s VERY important for you to fuel your own aircraft. Every time you touch your plane, you have the chance to learn something. Every time you wash your own plane, you learn something. Take every chance, learn everything, if you have the ability to help with your annual inspections – do it.

Helmets and headsets do terrible things to your hair. May I suggest a hat? Safety gear is not sexy – but it’s also essential. Helmets, parachutes, flight suits, whatever it takes, wear them. You can look pretty later – at the banquet, party, dinner, etc.

The airport is the place to be. I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of “big brothers” at my airport who have taken me under their wing (pun intended) and answered my questions, taught me things, flew with me and basically became my airport family. I am incredibly lucky to have these people in my life! I love you guys – the Cantina Crew!

I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy – loved sports, cars, racing, etc. – this certainly helped me out in getting along with my fellow pilots. However, just being confident, skilled and determined is all our wingmen ask of us. It’s not easy – but it’s worth it.

My turn

Lately, more and more people have reminded me that it is now my turn. I now have the chance to repay all of the women who have helped me along the way by making myself available to help others. In 2010, I took five women for their first small airplane ride. I promise to continue introducing women to aviation.

Believe me, I know that I have a lot to learn about flying – but I will take a more active role in mentoring others – to being there when someone has a question, listening, giving an encouraging word – it’s all part of it. I hope that I can inspire the next generation of female pilots - one flight at a time.

Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing


Caption: The Aviator - Any day I'm flying is one of the happiest days of my life!