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Women in Aviation Magazine

"Getting Girls Interested in Aviation: A "How To" Guide for Parents"

September/October 1997, by Amy Laboda

It's 7:37 a.m. and the dilemma is what to take to school (that fits in a backpack) for the science corner. The letter of the week is "S," so we are limited here. My six-year-old daughter Rosie is loosely enthusiastic. I'm not much for brainstorming that early either, but we've got to get this done. Panning the room, I finally lock on: a wooden model of Discovery, the space shuttle, sits on a low shelf in the den. There are no moving parts and it's not heavy enough to serve as a weapon. Rosie's eyes light up when I suggest it. Ten minutes later it's swathed in plastic padding, tucked into the book bag and on its way to an adventure in kindergarten only matched by being on a real launch.

Maybe that model could launch a whole career, if Rosie's interest holds, I think. Astronauts have some of the best government jobs on the roster. I certainly wouldn't want my firstborn to discount it. But how do I keep that sparkle in her eye when we talk about or do all things aviating? I'm sure I'm not the only parent with the problem.

Girls, in particular, need encouragement to keep them on the learning track that leads to aviation careers. Numerous studies show that girls ditch math and science in the middle school years because it's no longer cool to be smart in that way. If my girls want to be pilots, controllers, airport managers or even astronauts and engineers, they'll have to stick it out and stay involved in math and science, even if it's not the most popular thing to do.

Worried as I am, I studied the issue hoping to get a head start on Rosie, before she knows what I'm up to and tries that rebellion thing. Here are a few techniques I have uncovered for keeping a youngster's eyes twinkling with interest over anything flyable.

1. Take your daughter flying: Better yet, give her the right seat, throw a headset on her and put her to work. I've found that a few cues are all even a five-year-old needs to get her started on pilotage. Let's face it, before kids can read, the whole world's a picture to them, and a sectional chart is simply another rendition of one of those wonderful "Where's Waldo" pages. If the two of you plan the flight out, you'll be surprised at how quickly your youngster learns to pick out landmarks and keep you on the straight track to your destination.

Older children can be even more helpful as co-pilots. By the time I was 10 years old, changing radio frequencies, dialing in squawk codes and tuning VORs were all within my capabilities. Supervision is the key here. Every good pilot I've ever flown right seat with looked and checked frequencies before they began transmitting. Two heads are better than one in the cockpit, if both brains remain engaged at all times.

Make sure your daughter has a chance to fly right up front with you and see firsthand why you you love it. When she is old enough, she may want to learn to fly. She needs to be 14 years old to earn glider solo privileges, 16 years old to solo an airplane, and 17 years old to earn a recreational or private pilot certificate. When that time comes, offer her flying lessons or hitch her up with one of the many organizations that cater to young aviators, including the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), Junior ROTC, and the Boy Scouts Aviation Explorers (it's co-ed). The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), CAP and NASA all run summer programs for youths.

If you aren't a pilot, you can still encourage her. Just hanging out at the local Fixed Base Operation (FBO) on a weekend is an education in aviation. Show up often enough and you and your daughter are sure to hook up with an empathetic pilot or two willing to give you a ride. In lieu of that, contact your local chapter of the EAA and find out about its "Young Eagles" program, which offers first airplane rides to youngsters who are interested in aviation. Your local FAA office is always happy to give tours, as is the Flight Service Station, the Control Tower or Air Route Traffic Control Center. Airlines are also keen on the good public relations they earn when they give kids operations and cockpit tours.

If you have a tough time getting any of these organizations to open their doors to you and your daughter, take the idea to her teachers at school. They'll be happy for a class project. The FAA, AOPA, GAMA and Linda Finch's "You Can Soar" program all offer accessible aviation curricula.

2. Teach her about airplanes: why they fly, their history, their internal workings. Airplanes, or at least the concept of airplanes, have been around since Leonardo da Vinci. You can check out books from the library on airplanes and read them together. You can go to airshows and talk to the people who restore and fly antique and classic airplanes. There's not a kid born yet who can resist a photorealistic multimedia adventure in surround-sound, something all of these museums offer.

If you do some of your own maintenance on your airplane, let your daughter get greasy with you from time to time out in the shop. She'll benefit from both the basic skills you can show her, as well as the one-on-one time with you. There's nothing like understanding the craft from the inside out to make a good pilot.

3. Show her women who fly: If little girls never see women in aviation related careers, particularly as pilots and mechanics, they won't know that they can be pilots and mechanics too. Women may not make up much more than six percent of the total U.S. pilot population (and less than one percent of the mechanics) but thousands are out there making good livings and enjoying good jobs with great benefits. Take time to expose your daughter to role models: women pilots, flight instructors, mechanics, and engineers. Your daughter needs to see that girls grow up and enter these careers--otherwise she's likely to turn to you and say, "Yeah, this is cool, but girls don't get grease under their nails, and they certainly don't fly."

If she does that, point out astronaut Shannon Lucid who is a mom, a multiengine rated pilot, a biochemical engineer, and a space flight record holder. Astronaut Eileen Collins flew jets for the Air Force and taught math before piloting the space shuttle. She is also a mom. Both women have managed to build excellent careers in aviation and have a family life at the same time. Not easy, but doable. Need more glitz? Talk to the aerobatic show pilots such as Patty Wagstaff, Michele Thonney and Julie Clark. There are more women than you might think turning airplanes upside down and sideways. They enjoy talking about it to the crowd.

Women in Aviation, International (WAI) members are happy to hook your daughter up with a real female airline mechanic or military aviator, an airport manager or an FBO executive, and she can ask questions to her heart's delight. WAI was created for just that purpose.

There are good aviation careers out there for girls if they want them. The trick is keeping that spark in my little girl's eye alive, so that each time she hears an airplane overhead she turns toward it and thinks, "I could do that." As long as she knows it is possible, the doors stay open. And open doors are the beginning of some wonderful futures.

© Reprinted with permission from Amy Laboda 2000


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