By Patricia Luebke
Being among record-setting women isn’t unusual at the International Women in Aviation Conference. After all, it’s the professional gathering point for accomplished women in all facets of aviation: the airlines, military, aerospace and general aviation. But last month in Orlando, Fla., as members of Women in Aviation, International gathered for the 18th annual conference, it was the event itself that set new records.
This year, 3,200 women and men from around the world attended the conference, held Feb. 15 through 17. The 214 exhibit hall booths at Walt Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort sold out, but the hall was expanded to accommodate extra exhibitors.
The conference has always been about scholarships, funded by companies, organizations and individuals. Several former scholarship recipients have also formed their own award fund. This year, $385,000 in scholarship money and training was awarded to 49 applicants. Two women won more than money or training. At the conference, Continental Airlines hired two pilots and offered jobs to 10 additional scholarship applicants.
With the theme, “Imagining Your Future,” the event opened with Thursday night’s cocktail reception. On Friday and Saturday, a lineup of speakers to suit many interests led off the general sessions. Keynote speakers were featured during Friday’s lunch and Saturday’s closing banquet.
This year’s speakers included Bonnie Dunbar, Museum of Flight CEO and former astronaut; Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic president; Maj. Nicole Malachowski, USAF Thunderbird pilot; Jane Middleton, finance director of Rockwell Collins, UK; Capt. Betty Uhrig, Chevron Global Aviation chief pilot; and Lisa Piccione, National Business Aviation Association senior vice president.
Conference participants selected from dozens of educational sessions held Friday and Saturday. WAI members taught most of the sessions, covering technology, careers, history and personal development. Some of this year’s offerings included “Emerging Flight Deck Technologies,” “Choosing a Career in Aviation Law,” “Runway Safety for Mechanics,” “Enlisted Flying Careers” and “Aircraft Design: Concept to Reality.”
For those looking to start or boost aviation careers, or to network with likeminded individuals, this conference is the place. Major companies had representatives on hand to talk to applicants and field resumes.
Although the conference offers unmatched assistance for women starting careers in aviation, women with established professions benefit as well. Trisha Drape attended her first conference in 2006, as the Aircraft Electronics Association’s new director of communications.
“I assumed I wouldn’t feel the same excitement as I did last year, but I was wrong,” she said. “So many women were just as inspiring to me this year, and the event had even more energy, if that’s possible.”
Denise Waters, an A&P mechanic who flew around the world in a Twin Comanche, frequently speaks regarding long-distance flights. She has won two consecutive Air Race Classics, including one with partner Ruth Maestre. Together they flew the London-to-Sydney air race. Waters said she’s used to people being impressed by her accomplishments, but that doesn’t happen at WAI—and she likes it that way. Being among so many accomplished women, the bar is set high.
“When I tell people at a WAI conference that I’ve flown around the world in a GA aircraft, the reaction is ‘That’s nice,'” she laughs.
Even USN Rear Admiral Wendi Carpenter, the keynote speaker at the closing banquet, was feeling the pressure. After Dr. Peggy Chabrian, WAI founder and president, introduced Carpenter Saturday night, she opened her remarks, saying, “I’m a little embarrassed to have it publicly known that I have only 3,500 flight hours. It hardly makes me seem like an aviator when I think of one extraordinary woman I met today who has more than 40,000 hours, in about 30 different kinds of aircraft. Now that’s impressive!”
One conference highlight was the induction of new members into WAI’s Women Pioneer Hall of Fame. Established in 1992, the Hall of Fame honors women who have made significant contributions as record setters, pioneers or innovators, with special consideration given to individuals or groups who have helped other women become successful in aviation. Past inductees include such notable women as Bessie Coleman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Patty Wagstaff.
This year, three women were enshrined. Marie Marvingt, inducted posthumously, was a world-class athlete who learned to pilot free balloons in 1901 and became the first French woman to obtain a balloon pilot’s license. She was the third woman in the world to earn a fixed-wing pilot’s license and held the first formally recognized woman’s flying record, achieved in 1910. Two years later, she designed the first practical air ambulance and became the world’s first certified flight nurse. Marvingt died in 1963.
Inductee Major Deanna Brasseur also accomplished many firsts. She was one of the first three women to earn wings in the Canadian Forces in 1981 and was the first female jet pilot instructor assigned to two Canadian Forces flight training schools. She was the first woman pilot to be awarded a flight commander position on the T-33, at Base Flight Cold Lake, in Alberta, Canada, and held it from 1986 to 1988. Additionally, she was the first female military aircraft accident investigator.
The third inductee, Iris Cummings Critchell, competed as a swimmer in the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin. A member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, assigned to the 6th Ferrying Group at Long Beach, Calif., she served as a civilian ferry pilot with the Air Transport Command Ferrying Division. She flew 18 types of military aircraft as pilot in command, including the A-24, P-39, P-40, P-47, P-51, C-47, A-20, B-25, P-38 and P-61.
Next year’s conference is set for the Town and Country Resort in San Diego, March 13-15. Men and non-WAI members are invited to attend.
For more information about Women in Aviation International, visit [http://www.wai.org].