When pilots learn to fly, they learn to believe in such forces as thrust, lift and drag. But I also learned to believe in the power that I bring to flying as a woman.
Flying gives me a sense of satisfaction at being able to handle an airplane, navigate, and work the same system used by the airlines. But I also enjoy taxiing up to the airport and seeing the expressions of the mechanics and instructors, usually all males—looks of surprise that a five-foot-nothing, 110 pound woman just climbed out of the cockpit. Alone. Their stares are validation that my ability to fly is special.
But I certainly didn’t think there was anything special about it during my first lesson. I was just like any other new student, with the same limited skills, same fears and fascinations. I was too mesmerized by the sheer wonder and freedom of flight to realize that having my hands on the yoke and my voice on the radio was unusual. In fact, it took two months of lessons—and wondering why the women’s restroom at the airport was the cleanest I’d ever seen—before I looked around the flight school and realized that I was the only woman there. The owner was a man, all the instructors were men, and all the students—except me—were also men. It didn’t stop at the school door. The linemen were just that—line men. So were the corporate pilots who cruised through in their shiny jets. Only one of controllers was female, and I had never called for a weather briefing and been greeted by a female voice. Later, I learned that of the approximately 300,000 licensed pilots in the U.S., less than 6% are women.
One August, at the Osh Kosh fly-in, I visited the Women in Aviation booth. Women of all ages crowded inside to buy T-shirts, mugs, key rings…but of all the women I spoke with, not one was a pilot. They were wives, daughters, girlfriends of pilots who had dragged them to the fly-in under the guise of a family vacation. One woman, when I asked if she flew, joked, “Only if my husband throws me really hard.” Not one of the women felt left out at not being a pilot. None claimed discrimination or sexism. Yet, I also suspected that none of them truly appreciated the role that women play in aviation, or even how rare a woman in aviation is to begin with.
Before I left, I purchased a sweatshirt, decorated by two simple words: WOMEN FLY. To others, it’s little more than a cute marketing ploy or an unarguable fact; after all, women do indeed fly. Perhaps some view it as a feminist declaration, noble in spirit yet sadly lacking the same power as burning bras. But to me, a woman who flies, those words are a powerful confirmation of my special existence in a world which is itself special. WOMEN FLY. Repeat it often enough and soon you’ll believe it, too. WOMEN FLY…WOMEN FLY…WOMEN FLY.
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