by Meredith Alt
WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine (online) – December 2020/January 2021
The questions at this year’s event were different from the ones pilots sometimes hear. There was: “What is your favorite thing about flying?” And: “Is it scary?” But there were also more questions about eyesight and height, the physical aspects of the job.
Perhaps in a year with so little normalcy, when what we can see and touch has taken on greater significance, we are all thinking a little differently. Or maybe those were just the questions on 11-year-old Kelly’s mind after she heard pilots and female aviators talk about their experiences at the Girls in Aviation Day virtual event.
“People used to ask me how I could fly large planes, since I’m pretty small,” Susan Schwaab, a retired United Captain who flew 777’s recalled. Milena McFeeters, a pilot and fellow member of Wisconsin’s Four Lakes chapter, likewise told girls: “I’m short and I fly. If I can do it, you can do it.”
Another participant pointed out that this year, height considerations for women caused the Air Force to make changes to the design of future aircraft to make them more accessible to women. The Air Force likewise eliminated the height requirement to fly.
Times have changed. With only 9 percent of women in the Air Force meeting the body-size standards for flying legacy aircraft (aircraft designed to meet the specifications of a male pilot in 1967), and only 7 percent of United States pilots being women, leaders across the aviation industry are trying to find new ways to encourage women to enter the industry.
Women in Aviation International (WAI) regularly notes that exposure is a key part of it; girls in aviation need role models and mentors. “If you can see it, you can be it.” That is where Girls in Aviation Day comes in.
WAI chapters around the world hold an annual outreach event in late September or early October, designed to introduce girls to women aviators and give them hands-on experience with aviation and aircraft. Last year, more than 20,000 participants participated in worldwide events, with over 150 Wisconsin girls and chaperones participating in two events at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and Dane County Airport.
This year, due to the pandemic, WAI asked chapters not to hold in-person events and to instead focus on helping get the word out about the new Girls in Aviation app, which was released September 26th.
The three Wisconsin chapters of WAI (the Four Lakes chapter in the Madison area, the Oshkosh chapter, and the Southeastern chapter in the Milwaukee area) decided to hold a statewide virtual event to coincide with the launching of the app. A host of the event and President of the Oshkosh chapter pointed out that holding the event online would allow chapters to reach girls in additional areas in the state.
Throughout this year’s event, the overall message was consistent with past events, with some creativity required in how to do online activities. The message more than 20 female pilots and aviators shared, joining live and displaying aviation backgrounds on Zoom, along with dozens of additional women who submitted pictures and videos, was: “You can do this! We are here to support and encourage you.”
Over 85 attendees participated in the free, online event, which included a large group welcome and then activities in three breakout rooms: one for elementary school girls and families, one for middle school, and one for high school.
Virtual activities included a pilot-led aerial photography game in which girls identified Wisconsin landmarks from above, question and answer sessions with aviators, a live discussion with a pilot who was at a hangar and able to show participants aircraft during the event, and an online drawing with prizes (for gift cards and a discovery flight) at the end.
The Wisconsin WAI chapters thank event sponsors Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium and A&A Aviation for generously supporting this event. The chapters also encourage girls and families to check out the inspiring videos and fun activities on the new Girls in Aviation app! (The app is free and available in the various app stores, with new content to be added year-round.)
With the success of this event and additional support from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, the chapters will be doing additional upcoming aviation education outreach activities. If you are interested in future aviation events for girls and families, please contact
Meredith Alt WisDOT Aviation Education Program Manager (and Vice President of the Wisconsin Four Lakes chapter) at firstname.lastname@example.org.