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Women in Aviation - 2002-04-22

When bold men first began taking to the skies in airplanes in the early 20th century, only a few visionary women dared to join them. This is a new century… but still, fewer than 6 percent of the 630,000 licensed pilots in the United States are women. Similar disparities exist in related fields such as aircraft maintenance and air traffic control. The problem isn't some 'glass ceiling' aloft, it's a lack of qualified female applicants.

Professor Janet McGee of Middle Tennessee State University's Aerospace Department talks to a fourth grade class at a Nashville elementary school. These visits are important she says, because as kids meet female aviators, mechanics, and engineers, they begin to change their ideas about what is possible. "From research that I have read, adults choose the career path they originally want to start back while they're in grade school and junior high," she says. "So that's where we need to start hitting young girls just like I did today, you know girls, you can be a pilot."

In January, nashville resident Priya Hajari earned her private pilot's license, the first step on a long road toward her life-long dream: becoming an airline pilot.

"Ever since I was a little girl, it as just anytime a plane would fly by I'd just have to look at it to see it fly. And I just thought, I wish I could do that some day, but I never though I could," says Ms. Hajari. She still has years of training ahead… an expensive requirement which deters thousands of prospective career pilots each year. And since the September terror attacks prompted an abrupt end to the airline hiring boom, many new pilots may find themselves twenty or thirty thousand dollars in debt with few jobs to look forward to.

Despite those obstacles, for nearly a decade, Women in Aviation International has worked to get more women involved in aviation and keep them there. Its founder, Peggy Chabrian, was in Nashville last month (March) for the group's annual conference. She says flight students like Priya Hajari can use events like this to network. "She may strike up a conversation with someone who is, you know, a captain for Northwest Airlines flying a Boeing 747, or somebody who is flying a corporate Lear Jet and will sit down and talk to her and encourage her," she says. "There's not a competition mode or an "I fly this and you fly that…" None of that. It's very encouraging. There's a lot of mentoring that goes on this week."

With more than 18,000 hours of flight time, Sandy Anderson is exactly the sort of contact young pilots hope to make. As a seasoned captain with a major airline, she knows the ropes. Over spinach dip amid a boisterous crowd of lady pilots, Captain Anderson chats with Priya Hajari. "I sense that you have a passion for flying now, and when I go talk to students and young ladies I tell them to try to look at themselves and do an inventory," she says. "What do you have passion around? And what is it that you really want to do? Because whatever you do with your life, it's going to affect your lifestyle, it's going to affect your relationships with people. If you're happy in what you're doing, it's going to affect everything and everybody that you touch."

Ms. Anderson says the conference is a chance to see lots of people who are happy in what they're doing, and the excitement is contagious. There's a lot to be excited about… in addition to workshops on everything from job counseling to airline security and dozens of industry exhibits, each year, hundreds of thousands dollars in scholarships are awarded to students in aviation fields.

And when those enterprising women, with new funding, new friends, and renewed enthusiasm, board their flights home… they may cast more than just a wishful eye on the seats in the cockpit as they head back to their seats in the cabin.