women in aviation

Why Aren't There More Chicks in the Cockpit?

I can write the words, but unless you actually sit in the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner or corporate jet, no one can know the sublime pleasure of this all-encompassing life experience.

Even as an author, my words will always fail to do justice to all the stories, vivid characters, personality changing moments, and pure passion of piloting. Aviation is one of the most rewarding and challenging careers anyone can have while at the same time, it forces heart-wrenching decisions unlike any other industry and those decisions affect men and women pilots differently.

Yes, men and women are gloriously different and yet, either can accomplish the same goals. Both can be pilots, but some men aren’t cut out to be pilots, just like some women aren’t cut out to be pilots. It has nothing to do with their gender; it has everything to do with individual skills and ambitions. The reality is that there aren’t a lot of women pilots because not a lot of women want to be pilots. Women have proven to the world that we can hurl a piece of machinery through the air at a high rate of speed just as gloriously as a man, or handle an emergency with the focus and calm of a Buddhist Monk (thank you, Tammie Jo), but it’s just not that high on our list of priorities. If a woman wants to be a pilot, she can be a pilot, so why are only 4% of all ATPs issued to women, and how does our society change that statistic?

With a confluence of factors, there is an irrefutable qualified pilot shortage looming. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been requested to research this phenomenon by influential aviation stakeholder organizations. Among the extensive list of concerns is the general question of why Private Pilot certificates have declined by 10,000 each in the past few years? But more specifically, why isn’t anyone asking: Where are all the women? By simply asking the specific question, we may be able to change perceptions.

One of the many answers is as simple as the lack of role models and mentors. While I was growing up, the most famous female icon I knew of disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, so ending up in the bottom of the deep blue sea wasn’t necessarily on my list of wants or desires. I never knew women pilots existed, so how could I ever include that in my thought process or perspective of possible career choices? The next generation sees and knows, so we will see a change, it just takes a generation, or two.

erica armstrong cockpit

I also didn’t immediately embrace the idea of flocking to a high-stress, high-demand job that requires long absences from home. My addiction started unintentionally when I got a job working the front desk of a busy FBO in Minnesota. Since I was in the right place at the right time, I met a series of mentors that propelled me forward. I was guided by their enthusiasm as well as their knowledge, but only two of them were women.

My aviation desires began with dreams of flying machines and travelling the world. I had yet to learn about crew scheduling, furloughs, junior assignments, seniority, commuting, and base changes. I learned quickly that it requires sacrifice and self-discipline and those that thrive in commercial aviation are pilots who can compartmentalize career from family.

We might as well admit that women, by design and desire, are still the primary family caregivers. Political correctness aside; it’s just the way it is and we have to acknowledge it’s a factor in the cycle. We’re good at it and it comes more naturally. There are millions of men who are just as good if not better at child rearing than women, but they’re not often pilots. And of course, that’s the catch of being in aviation.

For far too many women, it’s a fabulous ten to fifteen-year career until “it” happens. Your schedule goes haywire, you miss your child smiling, walking, birthdays, holidays, and just being home. A mechanical problem in a foreign land means you are three days late getting home…how do you find daycare to handle that kind of schedule? It’s not that men don’t feel this way about it; it’s just that more women are willing to sacrifice their careers to be the stay-at-home parent.

Our culture has not caught up with its ideology, but I will firmly state that it’s headed in the right direction. I gratefully and deeply thank all those men who watched me walk in the cockpit, never having flown with a woman before, and treated me just like everyone else. Despite what they might have thought internally, the majority was respectful, professional, and eventually got used to the idea that the chick in their cockpit was just trying to earn a living like they were. They got used to me being there and thankfully forgot that I was anything but a pilot and in return, I learned a deep appreciation for the ability of men and women to work together and thrive as a team.

When the airlines and charter companies recognize their enormous return on investment by creating an environment that acknowledges that pilots also have families, which is important to work/life balance, then you will see more women coming to aviation and more woman and men staying…but it will take time. It will take mentors encouraging women and men to join the ranks and it will take company executives to create a supportive business culture that recognized the stress this career puts on family.

It is too often with heavy hearts that many seasoned pilots cannot enthusiastically recommend this magnificent profession and in the end, women are cognizant that even though we’ve broken through the glass ceiling in the sky, we’re still the ones who have to pick up all the broken glass.

 

From the front desk of a busy FBO to the captain's seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She holds a type rating in the B727 and CE-500 series aircraft and has flown 28 different types of airplanes. She has been an international corporate, charter, hazmat, Red Cross, air ambulance and airline pilot/captain.

Erika gets to share her aviation experiences as a professor of aviation at MSU Denver and Director of Instructional Design at Advanced Aircrew Academy. She is the author of "A Chick in the Cockpit" and "The Art of Being a Pilot" which will be out next year. You can find eighty of her aviation articles at Plane & Pilot, Disciples of Flight, Flying.com, NYC Aviation, Contrails, LinkedIn Influencer, General Aviation News and Business Insider.