March 8, 1910 Raymonde de Laroche of France became the first woman in the world to earn a pilot license. That same year, Marthe Niel of France, Marie Marvingt of France and Helene Dutrieux of Belgium also earned theirs.
On September 16, 1910, Bessica Medlar Raiche soloed in the airplane she and her husband Francois Raiche built together at their home in Mineola, NY. The Aeronautical Society of America would accredit her as first woman aviator in America.
By 1930, many others had joined these history makers in women's aviation. Marie Marvingt of France had flown combat missions as a bomber pilot, Marga von Etzdorf of Germany became a co-pilot for Lufthansa, Florence Lowe Barnes of the United States was working as a movie stunt pilot and many women had successfully completed challenging long distance flights.
Jump ahead to the year 2010 and there are more firsts for women pilots. Ari Fuji of Japan becames the first female captain of a major Japanese commercial airliner. Jane Planchon and Cathy Arazo of France flew their first fire season at the commands of Super Scoopers. Two women, Maryse Carmichael of Canada and Virginie Guyot of France, become the leaders of their respective national military aerobatic teams, the Snowbirds and the Patrouille de France. Sara Ferrero of the United States is getting ready to become the Alabama Air National Guard's first female fighter pilot.
But wait a minute. It has now been 100 years since the first woman earned her pilot license. So, why are we still celebrating women pilots' firsts?
Could it be our sheer numbers, or rather lack thereof? When Raymonde de Laroche earned her pilot license in 1910, number 36, she represented about three percent of the pilot population at that time. One hundred years later, women still only constitute about 6% of the pilot population in most western countries. With so few women pilots, it is not difficult to understand why firsts are still being made.
But why are there so few women flying?
Like I did, I bet that many little girls dream about flying like a bird. But, I would also bet that most do not dream of growing up to do a job that requires them to dress in men's clothing complete with a straight-cut jacket, a cap designed to enhance male facial traits and a black tie. Given a choice, I suspect most little boys would not dream of doing a job that required them to wear women's clothing on a daily basis either.
With nearly 6,000 women holding an Airline Transport Pilot license in the United States alone, I find it curious to see that the airline industry and many top flight-training academies still require women to conform to this male-centric dress code. It seems as if the industry's first step in welcoming women to aviation is to attempt to take the woman out of the future woman pilot.
And why, when women constitute more than half of the total U.S. population, hold 60% of the wealth and have veto power over 95% of family purchases, is there virtually no aviation industry advertising directed at female consumers?
When women are represented, they are usually depicted as a bystander or a passenger. I recently viewed the marketing video of one of most respected aviation academies in the world and noticed that in their four-minute video, there was only one quick shot of a woman pilot and she never talked. Whether the omission was deliberate or not, today's aviation industry message is clear; women's role in aviation is negligible.
Let's take a look at how women are treated in another traditionally male sector, the motorcycle industry. Did you know that Harley Davidson reserves an entire section of their Web site to women riders with subsections such as riding courses, mentoring, the right bike, and, oh yes, riding gear and apparel? Were you aware that there is also a Women Riders' Month? It is actually just good business practice. From 2003 to 2008, Harley Davidson saw a whopping 29 percent increase in the number of female motorcycle owners.
As a flight instructor, I find many female students approach flight training as something they should not really be doing in the first place. As a result, they often need more initial encouragement to take charge than most male students do. How can we change the way women think about themselves and their role in this exciting industry?
Although we do not court women as potential students and our training programs might not always reflect their needs, every year women do come to the airport with the intention of obtaining a pilot license. In fact, women constitute more than 11% of the students who hold a student pilot certificate. Unfortunately, statistics show women are less likely to obtain a pilot license than men. Although this sad trend has been recorded for over 15 years, I am not aware of any industry effort to study and try to remedy this wasted opportunity.
It is encouraging to know that once women pass the hurdle of initial training, nearly 30 percent of them earn a commercial license and 20 percent of them earn an Airline Transport Pilot license. Moreover, as they acquire more flight experience and achieve higher ratings, they establish a natural equality with male pilots because most experienced pilots understand that to fly safely for many hours requires genuine knowledge and skills.
When asked to comment about the first space walk by a woman in 1984, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Dzanibekov said: "Without women, we stood in space on one leg only." I dare to declare that, for the last one hundred years, aviation has been standing on one leg only.
As we celebrate the Centennial of Women Pilots, let's challenge the status quo and the false assumptions. Let's reach out and genuinely invite women to join the challenging and rewarding world of aviation not as an accessory but as a desired partner.