By STEVE SCHAPIRO
Mention a runway to most Miss America contestants, and they’ll likely think of evening gowns and heels. But not Miss Vermont.
Mention a runway to Erin Connor, this year’s representative from the Green Mountain State, and she’s expecting to hear, “Cleared for takeoff.”
Erin earned her private pilot certificate at the age of 17 and is using her Miss America platform to encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.
“My platform is Tailwinds: Training a New Generation of Women Scientists,” Erin said. “It really focuses in on education, helping to be a role model for young women, specifically in the field of aviation.”
To highlight her platform, Erin flew herself to the competition in a Piper Arrow, wearing her grandfather’s World War II Army Air Corps jacket.
She departed from Burlington International Airport (KBTV) with two other pilots, made a stop at Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport (KGFL) in Glens Falls, New York, and then flew down the Hudson River on her way to Atlantic City International Airport (KACY).
“We were able to get clearance to go up the Hudson River so we were able to see the Statue of Liberty, which I had never seen before,” Erin said. “It was right off my left wing. It was awesome.”
Interest at a Young Age
Her interest in aviation began as a young girl listening to her grandfather tell stories of flying B-24s during World War II in the China, Burma, India theater. But it really took off when she entered a dual enrollment program at Vermont Technical College as a high school senior. Students earn 30 college credits that count both toward a high school diploma and the first year of college.
“One of the majors was aviation. I didn’t think I would be flying. I thought I’d be learning about aviation, maybe some mechanics behind it,” Erin said. “But my first class was Flying 101. I was actually afraid of heights until I took that first flight and I fell in love with it.”
Ground school is part of the curriculum and students pay for their flight training, which is done through the Vermont Flight Academy. The flight school has a large fleet of aircraft that include Cessnas, Pipers, a Citabria for spin training, and seaplanes, including a J-3 Cub on floats and a twin SeaBee.
Students in the program fly every day or every other day, allowing them to advance quickly and build their hours. In fact, Erin earned her private pilot certificate in one semester, soloing at age 16 and getting her license at 17. Now 22, she has about 300 hours, mostly in Cessna 152s and 172s.
Living Her Platform
Although Erin had a passion for aviation and flying as a teenager, she didn’t have many female role models and she had her doubts. She was the only girl in the aviation program at Vermont Tech and she was the youngest student as well.
“When you get there you think you’re going to be outnumbered, which you are, but you think these people are going to make fun of me because I’m a girl,” Erin said. “In reality you get there and all of my instructors wanted to boost me up and build me up because we don’t have those females in the field.”
She credits her first flight instructor, Jennifer Hoy, a pilot for JetBlue, for inspiring her to pursue her passion.
“She was the first person I went up in an airplane with. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have stayed,” Erin said. “You know how as a women going into that field you’d be very intimidated. I can see where the problem is — girls are getting into these roles and there are no other females, so they are feeling outnumbered and marginalized.”
Flying on a regular basis allowed Erin to build her skills and confidence. She got a perfect score on the written test and was considered one of the best pilots in her class.
“I became a very skilled pilot. I wasn’t afraid anymore because I practiced and I knew I was very good, so I wasn’t afraid to go up with anyone, male or female,” Erin said.
“Because I was respected as an equal, I was able to conquer my initial fear of being left out, that people aren’t going to take me seriously, not only because I’m a woman but because I’m young,” Erin said. “Being able to conquer that to develop my confidence to be in aviation and in flying has really driven me to start this platform to empower other young girls.”
Since being crowned Miss Vermont in April, Erin has talked to more than 1,000 students about aviation. In addition to going to schools, “I also work with a lot of local clubs like the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, to really drive home the point of being able to talk to those young kids,” Erin said. “And I do a lot of social media campaigning.”
In the months leading up to the Miss America competition, she posted on Facebook about notable women in aviation, including Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Beryl Markman, Patty Wagstaff, and Patrice Clarke Washington, who “was told she could not go into aviation because of her race and gender. However, she proved that the color of your skin or gender doesn’t matter. She became the nation’s first African-American commercial captain,” Erin posted.
Erin noted how technology is driving society in the 21st century and capturing the attention of our youngsters.
“If I can grab them on there, maybe I can talk to them in person and drive it home. I’m a member of Women in Aviation, but I also belong to other groups online and online forums,” Erin said. “General places where you can talk to other females in the field.”
Although Erin was not selected as Miss America, flying herself to the competition attracted national attention and helped bring a spotlight to her platform. She has been contacted by hundreds of people from all over the country who have been inspired by her story.
And it’s a story she plans on continuing to write. Her goal is to complete her instrument rating and commercial certificate and become a flight instructor with an end goal of being a professional pilot for either the airlines or in corporate aviation.
As Erin continues to add ratings, she plans to create a camp for girls where they can learn about aviation and airplanes, and how they can start on their science journey.
“I really want to bring in some other females that are in the field and really engage them — showing them the airplane and the hangar and get them up in the tower,” Erin said. “Just get them that hands-on experience because I know that’s what first caught my attention — having that first flight 101 lesson where I was in the airplane taking the yoke and flying it. I want to continue building my program so we have more females in STEM in aviation.”