Why women stay in aviation: Interviews with 50 women pilots
Thank you to Lynsey Howell for sharing her research on the percentage of women aviators as a guest in this week's blog post and offering her unique perspective on the industry!
This project started when I was pondering the age old question about why only 6% of pilots are female. That number has held true for over 60 years, even when every other male dominated field such as aerospace engineers, has seen an increase in women.
So what’s the problem? Is it money? Babies? The system? The lifestyle?
One day I had an epiphany and realized that I needed to turn this question upside down and start asking, “What makes these 6% of pilots so outstanding? What traits do they all have in common? What has made them successful? Why didn’t they quit?”
My first interview was on April 30 and after 3 months I finished my project. On average I interviewed about 4 ladies a week and each interview was at least an hour.
I had an incredible experience during this journey of #50flygirlinterviews. Every interview was my absolute favorite. After each call I was buzzing for hours. These women have inspired me and now I am on a mission to share their stories.
Here is a brief summary of who I interviewed:
I interviewed 25 military ladies whom I found to be wholehearted badasses!
My first interview was my best friend Deidre, a Southwest Airlines first officer. Deidre and I met 20 years ago as freshman in flight school but I had never known what made her want to be a pilot until I sat down and asked her.
I laughed with the first (ever) black female pilot in the Navy.
I bonded with a helicopter pilot who flies organs in the LA basin from hospital to hospital.
I cried while listening to the vulnerable truth about a pilot, whom I flew with in the Caribbean, as she shared about her bravery flying in Africa and Dubai.
I’m pretty sure I met my soul sister who also stopped flying at one point to trek around South America before accepting aviation as her fate.
I celebrated with an KC-135 aircraft commander who has air-refueled the Thunderbird’s #5 lady pilot.
I spoke with the ONLY female helicopter pilot in the world who has flown long-line utility Christmas trees.
I interviewed a hurricane hunter who flies a G-IV for NOAA.
I interviewed a Captain at a major airline who grew up in Holland and was told girls don’t fly.
I recorded a Zoom interview with the only female in the world who flies a C-46 in Canada, and she’s only 23!
I had a heart to heart with a firefighter pilot who flies the CL-415 like a boss!
I re-kindled a friendship with a CFI, whom I met over a decade ago in Leadville, CO, who says that I was her inspiration to become a pilot.
I connected with a pilot who flies a Stearman and is also a Senior Flight Surgeon who called me personally to tell me that my First Class Medical had finally been reinstated from the Washington, D.C. office.
When I sum up my interviews and look at all of the stories, percentages, and data points, I think one of the biggest takeaways is how important it is to have a mentor and/or support system in place during one's flight training and throughout a career. 78% of the female pilots I interviewed had a mentor. Oftentimes, it was just a parent, roommate, commander, etc. who held the title of mentor; hardly ever was it in a formal capacity.
I strongly believe that if more female student pilots had a mentor, then that could bridge the gap between the 13.8% of female student pilots and 4.5% of female pilots who are ATP rated.
Most female pilots believe that their confidence comes from experience, playing sports or overcoming past failures (like a failed checkride). Another common answer was that they fake it till they make it! At some point, 40% of female pilots wanted to quit but they didn’t because they weren’t sure what else they would do instead of flying. Points of low confidence coincide with quitting.
69% of female pilots I interviewed reported having a father who played an influential role in their becoming a pilot. Many times during my interviews, it was the dad who bought the initial discovery flight or suggested to their daughters that they sit upfront. More often than not, the father was NOT a pilot himself.
When asked about imposter syndrome, 51% of female pilots have dealt with traits of feeling fraudulent at some point in their career. The other half didn’t know what imposter syndrome was. However, imposter syndrome is usually a trait felt during the beginning of a career and was not a current feeling at the time of the interview.
Also, an astonishing high rate of pilots, 44%, have a partner who is also a pilot and 42% have children. Shout out to all the moms who are being amazing role models to their kiddos and balancing this lifestyle!
I submitted a proposal to Women In Aviation to share my results at the WAI conference in Reno 2021 during an educational session. I also have a book idea swirling in my head with all of these stories.
But my big picture desire is to also take these findings and teach them to new pilots coming up in the ranks. To help ensure these new pilots have success, I will offer them the support and knowledge from the beginning, through the middle and until the end. I want to help increase the 6%. This business is hard and difficult. It takes a strong personality, a passion to fly, a solid support system and the tenacity to not quit.
The system we are working in is not necessarily broken and it’s not that aviation was made for men only, but it was not exactly designed with women in mind. We are so close to the tipping point, female pilots have now broken all barriers and we just need to keep taking-off and lifting each other up!
Lynsey Howell now takes female pilots through her 6 week group coaching program to enhance the professional pilot as a whole. You can sign up for her weekly PIREPS here and view more about her program here!