If you’re flying out of town any time soon, think about your pilot. That person is probably a man. In fact, 95% of all pilots in America are men.
It’s a stark reality that bold women in aviation are trying to break. Girls in Aviation Day, a special conference happening in Dallas and across the world next week, is aiming to put more women in the skies.
Reaching for the Skies
Women of flight are making headlines lately. This week, the first Black woman pilot of a spacecraft took off on Space-X. Over the summer, local aviator Wally Funk, a member of NASA's so-called Mercury 13, became the oldest person to ever go to space.
It’s a story that has been playing out over the generations.
Funk, of Grapevine, herself broke the mold for women in flight over the past 60 years. She was the first female air-safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Two months ago, NBC 5 covered a watch party for her journey into space. A room filled with dozens of women pilots from the local chapter of The Ninety-Nines and Women in Aviation International, which are national organizations dedicated to women in the aviation industry.
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That’s where we met Deborah Hecker, who has made supporting women in flight her lifelong mission.
“When you go into a field that’s really not traditional I think you really have to have a strong will and a dedication to just persevere and keep going,” she said.
She took a rather unconventional path to the skies.
“I got a degree in international relations and really knew nothing about aviation,” she said. “I didn’t know women could fly. I thought you had to be in the military.”
After graduating from Michigan State University, she traveled and eventually took up a waitressing job while studying for the LSAT. At the time, a friend whose father owned a cargo company told her she should instead become a pilot.
Her original track to law school was derailed when that friend gifted her a flight lesson for her birthday one year.
“I was hooked,” she recalls.
After that, she stopped studying for law school. Through her waitressing job, she spent years working to pay for more flight lessons and eventually bought her own plane to save money.
“It’s one thing to fly an airplane but it’s another thing to understand the mechanics behind an airplane. I had a degree in international relations rather than a science field – but you can study and learn how to do it,” Hecker said.
It paid off. Her hard work led her to a career in cargo and regional jets. Eventually, she made it to the pilot’s seat at American Airlines.
“I feel like our office is the best office that’s out there,” she said.
She’s now a captain with nearly 30 years of experience under her belt.
“A lot of people are very passionate about aviation at a very young age. Especially if they’ve been exposed to it. I was never exposed to it but found it later in life. And have certainly had an amazing career,” she said.
But she’s a minority within her industry. Out of all pilots in the U.S., only about 5% are women.
“We have around 750 women pilots at American out of 15,000. But there’s still quite a few of us,” she said.
The same is true for other airlines across the U.S. and many parts of the world.
“And it really hasn’t changed since the 1970s. As much as we do to try to promote this as a great and viable career, it still really hasn’t moved the dial,” Hecker said.
But there is an effort to change that through mentorships and programs, including the upcoming Girls in Aviation Day – hosted by Women in Aviation International. The idea sprung from "take your daughter to the conference" many years ago and has become an annual tradition for the past seven years in Dallas.
Girls ages 8 to 17 are connected with female role models in various professions throughout aviation. Mentorships are established and dreams are sparked.
In addition to Dallas’ event, there will be more than 60 other events worldwide. During the 2019 conference, they were able to reach 20,000 young women across the world.
Hecker herself has become a standout within the local chapter and national organization of WAI.
She even started the 'Keep Flying' aviation scholarship with one of her best friends from United, to encourage young pilots following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So far, they’ve given away $180,000 worth of flight training through their connection to WAI.
“It could be a mechanic, pilot, air traffic control, engineer, aviation law, design, manufacturing – the whole aviation career encompasses everything,” she said. “Our job for each of us that are in these fields is to move that dial. And encourage more people to join us.”
More people like Sydney Harper. Her love for flying sparked at just 16-years-old when she was taken on a discovery flight to see if a path in aviation is something she wanted to do.
“Once we got on top of the clouds it was just so beautiful, it was so awesome,” she said.
Like Hecker was in her early years, Harper said she was hooked on flying. At 19, she already has a private pilot’s license.
“If you would’ve asked me two years ago what I would be doing after high school, I would not I would not have told you I would be flying airplanes,” she joked.
She is now part of the American Airlines Cadet Academy, on the fast track to becoming a commercial pilot one day.
“They have a goal of getting you through and getting you to the next step. Getting you through safely and making you a great pilot,” she said.
Harper said she is seeing many other girls like herself excelling in the program, too.
“If you have a passion for it, they’re going to work hard and they’re going to get there,” she said. “I’m not going to say you have to love it right off the bat. There are going to be some days that are frustrating. And there’s going to be some days when you’re working on part of something that you struggled with and you finally get it, and you finally understand. And it’s just the greatest feeling.”
Hecker says the aviation industry needs more passionate people now than ever.
“As we move forward we know there’s going to be pilot shortages, mechanic shortages, and engineering shortages and air traffic control,” she said. “Sometimes it just takes someone to tell a young lady that they can do it. To put her mind in that space that she has the confidence to do it.”
And as so many young girls learn of their potential through groups like Women in Aviation International, the hope is that more people can realize that the sky is literally the limit.
“And it isn’t even, you can go to space,” said Hecker. “A lot of us have explorer's hearts. And it’s really just about the adventure and going to new destinations, seeing what you see from the flight deck. People can see out the side windows but what we see from the front of the flight deck is pretty incredible.”
Girls in Aviation Day
When: Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Commemorative Air Force National Aviation Education Center at Dallas Executive Airport (5657 Mariner Dr., Dallas TX 75237)
Cost: Free. Space is limited and reservation/ticket is required. Click here to register. For more information, visit www.waintx.org.
- 12 hands-on activities
- Flight simulators
- Aircraft on display from the US Air Force, Dallas Police Department (helicopter), training aircraft, and personal/GA aircraft
- 14 exhibitors
- Special program for high school age girls with minute mentoring
- Scholarship information
- In-depth sessions
Girls will not be flying in aircraft during the event. Each attendee will get a drawstring backpack with the 2021 Aviation for Girls magazine (which contains an 8-page pull-out section with activities), an aviation sectional activity, keychain, temporary tattoo, bandana, sticker, and the WAI Aviation Girl fun patch.
“This event will help North Texas girls experience the exciting careers available to them as engineers, astronauts, aircraft maintenance technicians, pilots, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and dozens of other jobs within the aviation community,” says WAI North Texas Chapter President, Lauren Featherstone. “The girls will also meet role models from all areas of the aerospace industry and in all
STEM roles in a fun, safe, and supportive atmosphere.”
- All volunteers and exhibitors will be masked
- Masks are encouraged for attendees and will be available for kids and adults at the door
- Weather permitting, giant hangar doors will be open to encourage airflow
- Weather permitting, static display of aircraft will be outside
- The facility boasts specialized air filtration systems in select areas of the facility
Families can pursue virtual opportunities on the event website.
Girls who cannot attend an in-person Girls in Aviation Day event are invited to order their free kit with Girls in Aviation Day materials, activities, and swag at www.waistore.org.
In 2020, due to COVID, WAI canceled all in-person events and developed the free Aviation For Girls app for kids to use from home. The app features hundreds of hours of interviews, tours, virtual flights, and activities. They will release new content on September 25th to celebrate our 7th GIAD. It can be used on a desktop with the link.
Search Aviation for Girls in your smartphone app store or scan the code on the flyer below: