WOMEN IN AVIATION INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE 2011
By Kitty Houghton
Anyone who has watched the 99s shrink and gray as an organization over the years should attend one annual conference of Women in Aviation International (WAI) and see what the future looks like for young women (and men) who are just entering the field or are making their way up the career ladder as aviation professionals.
This year’s conference took place in Reno, Nevada Feb. 24-26, making it a short trip for Bay Area people. About 3,000 attended the event at the enormous Grand Sierra Resort hotel, situated just northwest of the approach path for Runways 16 L and R at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. A serious winter storm descended on the Truckee River valley the first full day of the conference on Thursday, delaying a few flights and keeping several SWS 99s snowed in at Truckee for a day. But when the clouds lifted, the valley and surrounding mountains sparkled with a blanket of fresh snow, and the buzz in the corridors of the conference center was almost palpable.
Large numbers of women airline pilots in uniform and women military pilots in their flight suits added a gravitas to the proceedings, and the median age looked to be about 35 (after factoring in the nonagenarian WASPs who were also there). Flight system design engineers could be overheard huddled in the public areas of the hotel. Groups of A&P mechanics met in breakout sessions targeted to their interests.
Larger groups of military pilots and support crew congregated everywhere. The U.S. Coast Guard sent nearly 200 search and rescue pilots, many of them helicopter certified, to the conference, and the Navy and Air Force had substantial representation, especially among their pilot officer ranks.
African aviators networked with Asians and Latin Americans during the day and then showed up for the banquet on Saturday night in native dress and head-dress.
WAI even has a jazz band of women aviators from all over the country who also play an instrument, and they added pizzazz with their 40’s era big band sound at the opening reception on Thursday night. The theater stage at that reception featured a full-size Boeing 727 mock-up, brought out of mothballs from the Hello Hollywood Hello! show that had a long run in the 1970s when the hotel was the MGM Grand. This was a favorite for photo-ops by the many young women from around the country and the world.
WAI is a growing organization of over 7,000 active women in all fields of aviation, of which a large percentage are pilots. It was founded 20 years ago by pilot and aviation educator Peggy Chabrian, who is still its president and runs the organization with a board of directors, but without voting input from the members. Thus, instead of a long tedious business meeting with endless discussion of new bylaw amendments, the three-day conference featured a general session each morning at 9 am with motivational and informational talks by three industry leaders, followed an hour later by the opening of the exhibit hall (picture the impressive AOPA annual expo and you get the picture), and an afternoon each day of dozens of educational seminars on every conceivable topic, from a standing room only talk by legendary SR-71 pilot Brian Shul, to a briefing led by John and Martha King, to an overflow talk by aviation humorist Rod Machado, to a session on women in aviation art. Legendary aviatrices like Wally Funk rubbed shoulders with role models such as Lt. Col. Maryse Carmichael, commander of the Canadian Snowbird Demonstration Team and a key-note speaker.
The membership of WAI is about 74 percent individuals, both professional and non-professional, with a student contingent at about 17 percent, an overseas membership at 6 percent and growing, and corporations and organizations representing just three percent overall but very visible with their generous sponsorship of every phase of the conference.
All the universities in the U.S. with major aviation programs were present, as were the airlines, the air cargo and air courier carriers, the aircraft equipment and software producers, and the many aviation associations and interest groups. The Ninety-Nines had a very professional booth which was staffed by local and regional 99s. In the course of the three days, they signed up 40 new members and re-instated two. The annual WAI conference has been dubbed a glorified job fair by some, but networking and exchange of business cards was just a small part of what was happening over the three days.
WAI gave out nearly $700,000 in scholarships this year, and it inducted a half dozen leaders into the WAI Hall of Fame. The latter included USAF Lt. General and Astronaut Susan Helms who was crew on five space shuttle missions, stayed on the international space station for over five months in 2001, and participated in the longest space walk to date, at nearly nine hours.
Most impressive of all were the hundreds of accomplished women pilots who are setting the bar higher each year for all of us. Some of those are members of the Ninety-Nines. Several of our AE Peak climbers and Northern California and Nevada chapter members attended this year’s conference, also staffing the 99s booth, and as always, getting together was one of the pluses of the occasion.
WAI is an organization to watch. Being a member is a good way to follow what is happening over a range of aviation activity, and to catch a glimpse of the future. Just Google Women in Aviation International and sign up online.