Thanks to a stroke of good luck and a bit of favorable geographic proximity, I got to spend some time at the Women in Aviation Conference held in Orlando, Florida, last week.
If you missed it, let me tell you, you really did miss something. This is no idle gathering of vacationers disguised as convention goers. WAI is one crackerjack organization, and the conference it holds each year is nothing to sneeze at.
If you’ve got a smidgen of misogyny in your bones, this might be a good time for you to get rid of that baggage and re-evaluate your outlook.
Unless you were one of the original Mercury 7, or pioneered routes for Pan Am back in the day, the people I encountered wandering through the main exhibit area carried enough gravitas to make you take a moment to reconsider your values.
From student pilots to astronauts, filling every imaginable job classification and level of experience in between, WAI members and their guests had it in spades.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between this event and others that may seem on the surface to be similar, was the level of enthusiasm and outright joy on display. While grumpy Gus with the big ol’ beer gut may be seen with great frequency at many events, WAI was absolutely resplendent with smiles and hugs and the sound of laughter.
Frankly, the overall atmosphere was quite refreshing.
As a card carrying member of the Gruff Old Dude Club, I found it encouraging to see so many people of all ages and both genders spending time together constructively and supportively. That’s less common than it should be in my experience, yet it’s an everyday occurrence for these folks.
Because their dad is an aviation nut, my daughters have been exposed to aviation from a very young age. The older of the two went to her first major fly-in — SUN ‘n FUN — when she was only two months old. She attended the opening of Fantasy of Flight at about 4. Years later she got to fly in the back seat of a P-51D while Kermit Weeks manipulated the controls up front. She’s gotten time in a Waco VPF-7, a Stearman, and at least once left the ground in a Curtiss Headless Pusher.
Yeah, she worries me from time to time.
My youngest got into aviation early, too, even finding herself featured at the age of 10 flying a seaplane for a travel program filmed for a Philippine television network.
The point is, a pilot doesn’t always look like you might imagine a pilot would.
With deference to Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Errol Flynn, and the traditional image of every other Hollywood inspired pilot, I was particularly taken with a pilot named Jennifer Nash Franks who I encountered as she perused the booths in the display area.
As I met her, Jennifer was about as far from the image of a badass military pilot as you can get. She was wearing the standard issue flight suit, sure, but it was there the similarity stopped.
She was dressed right, but she still looked all wrong. Pushing a baby carriage stocked with all the various tools and toys a young mom might need, she weaved through the crowd with baby Emma strapped securely to her belly.
Yes, contrary to popular belief, this is what a real badass military pilot looks like.
You see, Jennifer the doting mom is also Jennifer the kick-ass pilot who flies C-130s for the Kentucky Air National Guard. She and her peers perform eight unique missions. Their role is to be trained and prepared to respond should the Governor of Kentucky or the President of the United States call on them to leap into action. So they stand ready to push four throttles forward, pull back on the yoke, and take that big utilitarian bird wherever the boss tells them it needs to go, to do whatever he or she tells them needs doing.
Jennifer’s a heck of a lot more impressive than I am, that’s all I’m saying. As a pilot, and maybe even as a parent. We’ll have to meet up again in 20 years to compare notes, I guess.
There’s really no reason to be surprised that our traditional image of what a pilot looks like is totally out of whack. It always has been.
Just consider Dawn Seymour and Bea Haydu, two WASP who held sway in front of an impressively large audience in the Fiesta 5 Ballroom.
A room that that has a capacity of more than 1,000 attendees when set up with theater-like seating. Yeah, it was a bit crowded in there.
Dawn will be 100 years old soon, with Bea just a few years behind her. They did in real life what John Wayne merely pretended.
Dawn flew the mighty B-17 Flying Fortress, while Bea was an engineering test pilot and utility pilot, often flying the AT-17, commonly referred to as the Bamboo Bomber.
They performed their jobs with considerable friction from outsiders, and precious little respect. That is finally changing, thankfully.
These women and their peers weren’t out for a Sunday stroll, after all. They were flying every type of aircraft in the military’s arsenal, and doing it with a high degree of professionalism.
And 38 of them were killed in training or in service to the United States. Respect.
If I’ve learned anything in my life, I’ve learned this: A woman’s place is wherever the hell she wants to be.
And that sounds just about right to me.