By Patricia Luebke,
The theme of the 17th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference was “How to Reach New Heights of Success,” but it might as well have been “Think Big,” because from all measures, this was a big conference.
This year’s conference, held March 23-25, was set in the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville. With 2,881 guest rooms and 600,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space, this facility boasts the nation’s largest contiguous exhibit hall (more than 288,000 square feet). A big venue calls for big attendance, and this year’s conference was a record setter. More than 3,100 women and men from all segments of the aviation industry came to Nashville to participate.
A membership milestone was also set during the conference. Founded in 1994, membership in Women in Aviation, International now reaches more than 15,000 members, including 278 international members from 46 nations.
“We’re extremely pleased with our strong membership growth and look forward to implementing even more exciting new programs and membership benefits. WAI, which has something to offer everyone, continues to exceed expectations and enhance the aviation industry, with its dynamic conference and networking opportunities,” said Dr. Peggy Chabrian, WAI president.
The Women in Aviation Conference is a networking and educational event that presents national speakers, dozens of educational seminars, a job fair exhibit area and a trade show showcasing more than 120 companies.
More than 3,100 attendees arrived with big hopes, big plans and big energy for the three-day experience. This year’s conference grew just a little bit bigger, because another group, Professional Women Controllers, happened to also be meeting at Opryland.
“We’re there for networking and to promote career opportunities. We want to encourage people to enter the air traffic control profession,” said PWC President Sallyanne Rice.
PWC members joined WAI members on Friday for what PWC called an educational outreach.
“We have many of the same interests as Women in Aviation and we’ve been wanting to get more involved with it,” explained Rice.
A highlight of this year’s conference was a Boeing-sponsored panel on space travel. Moderated by former NASA astronaut Hoot Gibson, the space panel included Eileen Collins, NASA astronaut, shuttle commander and veteran of four space flights; and Brian Binnie, program business manager and test pilot at Scaled Composites and SpaceShipOne pilot.
Patricia Andrews, National Business Aviation Association board member and manager of aviation services for ExxonMobil, was the luncheon keynote speaker on March 23. Her position as the senior manager of ExxonMobil’s worldwide aviation operations caps a 20-year career in corporate flight department service. With more than 6,000 hours, Andrews is an ATP, and is type rated in the Gulfstream II/III/IV, Citation III/VI, Hawker HS-125 and Beechjet/MU-300. She’s served on NBAA’s safety committee and has chaired Flight Safety Foundation working groups, related to crew fatigue and approach and landing accident reduction.
Other speakers included Department of Defense Director Clarence Johnson, as well as executives from major U.S. airlines and aircraft manufacturers. In addition to speakers, Women in Aviation attendees chose from dozens of educational sessions. Some seminars covered historical topics, such as a session on the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Women Airforce Service Pilots. Other seminars covered career counseling, aviation art, interviewing skills, women’s aeromedical health issues, aerobatics, the new sport pilot regulations, buying and building aircraft. A KC-135 air crew provided a session on military air refueling, titled “Air Refueling: Nobody Kicks Ass without Tanker Gas.”
One of the most well-attended sessions was “Flying Drunk: A Personal Experience,” given by Joe Balzer. Balzer was one of three former Northwest Airlines crewmembers who flew a loaded commercial passenger jet while under the influence of alcohol. He related how his life changed forever with that flight; he lost his job and his certificate and wound up in a maximum security prison after conviction on federal charges. Balzer spoke of his painful climb back to respectability and how, through sheer determination, he was able to legally fly again, and be hired by a different airline.
Companies, organizations and individuals awarded scholarships throughout the conference. Providing these opportunities is another big component of Women in Aviation. At this year’s conference, $511,000 in scholarships was awarded to 59 WAI members. The 2007 Women in Aviation, International scholarship opportunities will be as big, if not bigger, than those awarded this year.
“Watch the website (www.wai.org) in July, and the July/August issue of Aviation for Women magazine, and start getting letters of recommendation together today. Remember, you can’t be a winner if you don’t apply!” advises Amy Laboda, editor in chief of Aviation for Women. Men can also apply for scholarships; however, any individual who applies must be a WAI member.
The conference culminated in a banquet on Saturday evening. During the banquet, five women were inducted into WAI’s Pioneer Hall of Fame, which honors women who have made significant contributions in aviation as record setters, pioneers or innovators. This year, Fran Bera was one of the women inducted. She was the first woman to fly a helicopter without a tail rotor, was an experimental test pilot, and was one of 25 women invited to participate in a testing program for potential female astronauts, at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M.
Also inducted was Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm, USAF (ret.), the first female two-star general in U.S. military service. According to WAI, many female military aviators owe Holm a debt of gratitude for opening doors for them, and for being their advocate.
Galina Gavrilovna Korchuganova was inducted posthumously. In 1992, she founded a club of women aviators, Aviatrissa, to provide support and guidance to women in Russian aviation, and served as the organization’s first president.
The fourth inductee was Maj. Gen. Betty Mullis, USAFR (ret.), the first woman to command an air wing. Mullis was chosen for her vision and dedication to ensure that young women have greater opportunities in military aviation.
The final inductee was Col. Betty Jane Williams, USAF (ret.), a test pilot and talented videographer for the USAF and private corporations. Williams was one of the women who contacted members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots years after the war and helped organized them. Over the years, she has served in several leadership roles for the organization.
It’s a tribute to the power of WAI that some of the organization’s early scholarship recipients are now funding their own scholarships. For the young attendees who are just beginning their careers in aviation, the professional contacts and networking will be invaluable.
Information for the 2007 Women in Aviation Conference will be posted on [http://wai.org]. The dates are set for Feb. 15-17, 2007, at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla. Nominations for the Pioneer Hall of Fame are welcome and must be submitted before August 2006 for consideration.