“Building Runways” – 8 Women in Military Aviation to Inspire the Next Generation

AUG 18, 2020
By

National Aviation Day on August 19th celebrates the achievements and accomplishments in all areas of aviation. However, let’s use this opportunity to honor an underrepresented subset of the industry: women in military aviation.

The world of military aviation (and aviation in general) has a disproportionate ratio of men. According to the Pensacola News Journal, in 2018, female pilots only accounted for less than 7% of all pilots in the Navy, and the amount of female ground crew were and still are significantly less.

“Women are underrepresented in many areas of aviation, with the largest gaps in technical operations and leadership positions,” Dr. Rebecca Lutte, University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute, reported in her study for the nonprofit group Women in Aviation International (source).

Alaska Airlines Captain Kimberly Ford, who followed in the footsteps of her father, a military pilot, and grandfather, a Tuskegee Airman, cited preparation as a barrier to women and minorities who are not exposed early to aviation careers.
“They may not see people who look like them so they may not think of aviation as a career,” Ford, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and one of three African-American pilots at Alaska, tells CNN Travel.

There are so many women who are making waves and building runways for the next generation of women in military aviation.

Now, more than ever, women in aviation are breaking the ‘glass ceiling,’ because once airborne, the ceiling is only defined by your aircraft and weather conditions (aviation humor!). But all joking aside, the following women are only a small handful of inspiring women in military aviation. For many of them the “runway” wasn’t built when they reported for duty; they had to build it themselves. They had to overcome obstacles and figure out how to thrive as a woman in a male-centric industry.

From wondering if the physical demands of birth would mean an end to their career to feeling the need to prove their worth and value amongst their male peers, these women are not just an inspiration to our daughters who dream of a future career in aviation. They are an inspiration to us all.

 

What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

Growing up, Air Force jets from Holloman Air Force Base anchored their dogfighting practice over our farm. We lived at the end of civilization at the end of the road, and there was nothing but BLM land after that. So seeing military aviation and being exposed to it was the first thing.

We didn’t have a telephone or television back then, so books were a big deal in our house. I read a book called Jungle Pilot about a WWII veteran who tried to get into aviation through the military, and it chronicled his journey as a pilot.

The “seed” was seeing aviation, the “water” was reading about aviation, and the “ground” that it was all planted in was the foundation of the home. Because I couldn’t afford the books, let alone the lessons, the military was the only way I was going to get into a cockpit. Having a love of family produced a love of country, so flying in the Navy was like a dream come true.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

No matter who we are and no matter what we choose to do, there are going to be some fences to cross over. Don’t let an offense get in the way of an opportunity. And that can be for anyone doing anything!
One of the things that were put in my path was figuring out if the answer I was given was a no or an opinion. As humans, we have to be willing to accept no as an answer. That doesn’t mean that’s the end of all of our effort. We just have to change tactics or directions. And sometimes it’s an opinion. It may be spoken with conviction, but it’s really not the answer.
Initially, I faced a lot of no’s, starting with career day in high school! The pilot in charge told me this was career day, not hobby day, and I should go find something girls can do.
One of the big lessons learned in the Navy that I can think of is from when I became a SERGRAD in T-2’s. My old Skipper really went to bat for me to be able to have me. The commodore of that base used some rather colorful language to my Skipper saying, “We will not have a blankety-blank female instructor on this base.” But my commander chose me, and likely to the detriment of his FitRep too.
Well, halfway through that tour, there was a change of command where my Skipper got a new commander who was not happy about inheriting a female instructor. He very publicly shamed me and took my dream job of teaching guns. Instead, he gave me “Out of Control Flight” which no one wanted to fly, let alone teach every day. Even though he meant it as a punishment, I decided that I was going to do what God put before me to do to the best of my abilities. It never grew to be fun, but I refused to be scared away. And it ended up being the best training I’ve ever had. So, do not let an offense get in the way of an opportunity.

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

Just less than a year ago, aviation was in a pilot crisis; there were pilots needed and none on the way. And now that has shifted to where there are not as many openings, in commercial aviation anyway. But don’t let that stop you. Go for it anyway! There are still many avenues of aviation that have not only continued but are thriving better than they ever have. So if you find that you have a draw towards aviation and have the skillset – maybe not the tools yet – then I would really recommend it.

Aviation is objective. Gravity is gravity no matter who you are. You don’t need a network or name to enter the industry. Study hard, and just get started.

What do you want to tell women who are currently serving in military aviation?

You are still crossing frontiers in aviation. There’s been a lot of time that women have been allowed into the military, but there are not very many women who have been drawn into military aviation. You are still very outnumbered.
One of the things I always say is, “Don’t check-in your girl card.” We can enjoy the camaraderie of the squadron, but you won’t earn their respect by trying to become a guy. The differences between men and women are complementary. Don’t lose that.

You can read more about Tammie Jo Shults’ career in the Navy and her heroic landing of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 on her website here. And be sure to watch my interview with her here! Be sure to grab a copy of her book, Nerves of Steel!

 

You can listen to the full interview with Tammie Jo Shults here


What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

My father was in the military, so my desire to serve came from him. However, I found myself always wanting to be around aircraft. More importantly, at a young age, I always wanted to have superpowers. As I grew up I realized that being invincible wasn’t an option, but flying still was… in its own sort of way of course. Aviation was a way to show that I can do anything I put my mind to, regardless of superpowers.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

The United States has made leaps and bounds in regards to its integration of women into the military; to say we are finished would be a blatant lie, but I do believe we are headed the right direction.
I have seen sexism my whole life. I was and always will be a “type A” personality that wasn’t scared to say how I feel, nor do what people claimed I couldn’t. In fact, most of my life has been spent proving my doubters wrong. Unfortunately, the military was no different.
Throughout ROTC I had to deal with the constant gripe of guys saying if the physical standards were the same for all genders then I wouldn’t be top in my class. When my scorecard was accidentally graded according to the male scale and I still scored higher than 80% of my male counterparts it became abundantly clear that this was a “them” issue, not a “me” issue. One story that I can so vividly remember is when one of my first instructor pilots told me before our first flight that, “We [Army/men] are still learning how to deal with estrogen in the cockpit.” I’ve seen that to be true, but I continued to sore through flight school and earned my aircraft, The Boeing CH-47 Chinook.
At the moment, I’m not just the only female, commissioned officer in my aviation battalion, but I am also the sole female pilot for the only forward-deployed rotary-wing heavy-lift asset within in SOUTHCOM. (No pressure, right?!) To be clear, many of my counterparts treat me as one of their own, specifically those close to my age, but every once in a while I still run into “toxic masculinity.”

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

Believe you can and you are already halfway there! For generations, women have created a foundation for you to stand on. Do not be scared to fail, but also do not sell yourself short. Whatever it is you want, go for it and surround yourself with people who consistently support that dream.

What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

I joined the Navy to earn money for college when I graduated high school. When I took the ASVAB (Armed Serviced Vocational Aptitude Battery), I qualified for a few aviation jobs, but the ejection seats really caught my attention. I think the mechanics of the seat mixed with the explosives are so fascinating.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

This has been the hardest part of the job. There are more females in my rate now, but when I first came in almost 17 years ago, there weren’t very many. In fact, I was the only female in A School (where Sailors go to receive training in their field) at the time I was there. The only other female was a Marine Sergeant who was an instructor. The biggest obstacle has been that men think I have slept my way to get where I am. They don’t understand that women in a male-dominated industry are stronger than they are given credit for. I think we work harder than them to prove that we are equal. I earned every rank, award, and qualification; I’ve excelled through hard work and perseverance.

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

You can do anything you set your mind too. Women are amazing and powerful and strong!

What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

I joined the military when I attended the Coast Guard Academy after high school. The Coast Guard mission inspired me: “We are a humanitarian service that specializes in saving lives.” The Coast Guard does a lot of other work, but being able to rescue someone in their time of need remained my driving factor. In my eyes, the most direct way to support that mission was through becoming a Coast Guard helicopter pilot.

As a kid, it wasn’t something I ever thought I would do, but I have come to absolutely love flying. It challenges me and provides excitement and beauty. But the knowledge that by doing my job means I am saving someone’s life is one of the best feelings in the world.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

I am lucky that the Coast Guard is very supportive of women in the service. I honestly have never felt discriminated against as a woman, and I have close friendships with my male coworkers.

That being said, the simple fact that there are so few women in my position does present its challenges. How do I wear my hair under my helmet? How can I adjust my seat to reach the pedals AND collective, since I am shorter than the average male pilot? What do I do when I have to go to the bathroom? With only one other female pilot at my unit who is as junior as I am, we don’t have experienced females to ask these questions. I also have not reached the point of my life where family planning is a priority, but at some point, it will be. What happens to my career when I have kids? I have to look outside my own unit to find mentors in these areas. One example: how do you balance having children when you’re required to be out of the cockpit for so long after birth? Male pilots can have children and not miss a day of flying, but female pilots are typically out of the cockpit for 6-12 months. This raises some bigger questions about long-term success in the military, promotability, etc.

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

To young girls looking into aviation I say: just go for it! I think we, as women, are more likely to doubt our ability or confidence in a male-dominated industry, and I was nervous that I didn’t “have what it takes” when I went into flight school. Because I knew literally nothing about flying before I started! I had never worked on engines or ever taken flying lessons. But as I learned more and flew more, my confidence increased.
I know so many incredible female pilots, and you can be one of them! If you’re at all interested in aviation, look into joining aviation groups. I am a member of my local Women in Aviation International chapter, and I have met so many amazing people and learned so much about the aviation industry – military and civilian. It’s great for networking and provides so many opportunities!
I heard something recently that has stuck with me: “Exposure creates reality.” I never imagined myself as a pilot when I was young, and even when I first started considering the idea, I was very hesitant. A factor was definitely because I didn’t know any female pilots! I think it is so important to share success stories of women in these male-dominated fields, to inspire the younger generation that it is possible for them too!

What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

I grew up the daughter of an Air Force test pilot. As unoriginal as it sounds, I never really entertained another career choice. In my mind, there was nothing cooler I could pursue! I have made my own path though with Navy helicopters. I’ve never looked back!

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

I am fortunate to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to equality and fair treatment as a female. However, there are times when I just feel plain-old left out. There are conversations which, as often the only female, I’m just not a part of. When traveling with my coworkers, there is locker-room bonding that I can’t participate in. My reaction to this has been to just accept it and be confident that it isn’t personal.

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

If you’ve ever been called bossy, you are probably destined for a career as a leader. Don’t slow down. Do your homework. If you have maternal instincts, channel them and take care of your people. Keep your nose clean. Bond with your peers regardless of gender or background, but hold on tight to those female friendships. The support of your female peers is invaluable!


What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

As a woman with a Latin background, my motivation has always been thinking and acting outside of the box. I am the first person in my family to join any kind of military-affiliated service. Being an inspiration to my younger siblings and family members is what continuously pushes me to break those glass ceilings. Planes and flying has always fascinated me, so just being able to be a part of this community makes me feel very proud of what I do.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

From personal experience when I go to work, I automatically leave the concepts of sex, race or whatever other identifying descriptions exist. I come prepared to dominate the day at my fullest capacity.

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

There is absolutely no limit to how far you can go. If that includes a future working in aviation, you are automatically breaking the standards for the whole environment.

“Shoot for the stars, aim for the moon” –Pop Smoke.


What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

I initially joined the military so I could get an AFROTC scholarship to school. But going deeper, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My dad, grandfather, and some uncles served in the military, and it was my dad who suggested I apply for a scholarship. I thought “Sure, why not!” I really didn’t have a better vector at the time, and I was one of those kids itching for some freedom away from my parents. Turns out I found my tribe with a group of ROTC kids.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

Let me start with the bad first. I experienced an MST (Military Sexual Trauma) in flight school that almost ended me. There was harassment occasionally and discrimination from my Air Force CC and the DO while I was pregnant. And I always had to defend myself from the rumor mill.
But there are so many good experiences also. Brothers that treated me like I was “just one of the bros.” Deploying and flying Close Air Support missions as the only female in my squadron and adjoining A-10 Squadron where I could bring a different “voice” to the AOR (area of responsibility).
And of course, there’s been weird questions: having to learn how to pee in the jet, finding flight suits that actually fit my “womanly hips,” and getting a poopy suit that didn’t have the world’s widest and most uncomfortable zipper that ran from my belly button to the small of my back (saddle up partner, cause I was walking like a cowboy when I wore that thing!).

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

I want to tell them: GO FOR IT! 
Work your butt off and learn as much as you can.
Worry more about being helpful than being “good,” because being good will follow.
Be part of a team that is rooted in mutual respect.
Don’t take crap from anyone, regardless of rank.
Don’t care about what people think of you.
Make lots of mistakes, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions.

What inspired you to join the military and serve in aviation?

I joined the Navy ROTC program in the Spring of 1993 during my freshman year at Auburn University. They had just lifted the ban on women flying in combat, and I was drawn to the idea of being a combat pilot. I am not sure what drew me to join as I was a Marine Biology Major with no ties to the Navy, but it seemed like a job not everyone did; it was exciting and a new challenge. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to serve my country, I wanted an adventure, and I got all of that and so much more.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and overcame?

Being a woman in a male dominated field really motivated me to prove myself, not only that I was as good as all the guys, but I strived to be better. As far as obstacles, the only ones I really faced was dehydrating myself before flying, because I refused to use the relief tube in the cockpit. The other obstacles were things that just made me better and more prepared for life in general like learning how to integrate into a diverse group of individuals and work together toward a common goal. I also automatically got a bunch of big brothers that became family.

What do you want to tell girls today who are dreaming of a future career in aviation?

I’d tell young girls that if they want an exciting adventure, a life different from the norm, where they can literally reach the sky to achieve their dreams, they should consider Naval Aviation. I spent 10 years as a Naval aviator and then 11 more in the Navy as a public affairs officer. I loved every minute of it! I continue to be in touch with my squadron mates and fellow Naval Aviators; we have a bond that is unlike any other. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it!

SOURCE: Military Mom’s Blog

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