Whirly-Girls: Silly Name, Serious Aviators

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The 62-year-old organization that has been quietly successful in providing scholarships for and mentoring women helicopter pilots is approaching a membership milestone.

When I got my first job flying freight in the mid-1970s, every single pilot I met was a white male. I didn’t really think anything about it—it was the way of the world. There were no women flying for the airlines or the military and the WASPs of World War II were not even a memory—no one spoke of them. Chief pilots made it clear over beers after work that they didn’t hire women or minorities (sadly, I still hear that from chief pilots, although from far fewer).

At the same time, I was flight instructing and about a third of my students were women. Most wanted to become professional pilots. Flying with them, I became aware of the fact that not only did they have to work as hard as any male to master what was necessary to learn to get a rating—they had to put up with overt and covert discrimination, personal attacks, constant come-ons and propositions from male pilots; examiners that set the bar higher on checkrides because they didn’t like women pilots or “didn’t want to go to an accident scene and see the mangled body of a woman” and, once they got their ratings, doors slammed in their faces when they sought employment.

When flying with a woman instrument student it wasn’t uncommon after she’d made a call to ATC for a male voice to come on the frequency with remarks ranging from “nice voice, sweetheart” to far more moronic. A couple of times on instrument cross countries with women students we ran into controllers who simply would not respond to a them, but would instantly respond if I called.

An Introduction

It was with that background that I was introduced to the Whirly-Girls organization by a colleague about 25 years ago. My initial reaction was that calling a full-grown adult a “girl” or a “boy” is a major league insult—fighting words in some places—so this has got to be some sort of group of bimbos that maybe get to stand next to helicopters for cheesecake photos.

Was I ever wrong.

The real name for the organization is Whirly-Girls International (WGI). It was formed in 1955 by Jean Howard Ross Phelan—one of the 13 known female helicopter pilots in the world at the time (nothing was known of female helicopter pilots behind the Iron Curtain)—for the purpose of supporting women in the world of rotary-wing aviation. It is a non-profit, charitable organization that provides scholarships for women to further their careers as professional helicopter pilots and to mutually encourage each other in the process.

The dry language of the formation and purpose of WGI doesn’t come close to describing the power and long-term effects on the professional lives of hundreds of aviators who have been members during its 62 years of existence. From the 13 original members, in three countries, it has grown to embrace 47 countries and, about the time this comes out, should welcome its 2000th member.

The practice of selflessness among the membership began when member numbers were first assigned—even though Jean Phelan organized Whirly-Girls International and became its first president, she gave all of the other original members lower numbers than herself. Its absolutely nonpolitical nature was established from the very beginning because its original members were a cross section of the political spectrum from the left to the very far right—and some had actively worked against the countries of others during World War II. The world’s first female helicopter pilot and militant Nazi, Hannah Reitsch, was one of the test pilots of the first true vertical flight machine, the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, when it flew in 1938. She became Whirly-Girl number one. Two of the other original members had been members of the French Resistance fighting the Nazis.

The First Meeting

Original Whirly-Girl, Dr. Valerie Andre, in a Hiller 360 in 1950.

Six of the 13 known female helo pilots (no one had any information on the number of female helicopter pilots—if any—behind the Iron Curtain) came together in Washington, D.C. for the first meeting of WGI in 1955. They included such chronic underachievers as Dr. Valerie Andre of France—veteran of the French Resistance in World War II, a neurosurgeon, the first female helicopter pilot to fly helos in combat zones (over 100 times she picked up wounded soldiers in combat, flew them to the field hospital and then operated on them herself) and first female General Officer in the French armed services.

Another was Ann Shaw Carter of the U.S.—World War II WASP and first female helicopter pilot to fly commercially. Included in the first meeting was Nancy Miller Livingston Stratford, who, after flight instructing in California, had gone to England and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary where she spent the war ferrying some 50 types of combat aircraft. She later told an interviewer that the Spitfire, in its various marks, was her favorite. Following the war she did anything she could do in aviation to keep food on the table, including crop dusting in helicopters (while men got all the good flying jobs). She went on to co-found a commercial helicopter operation in Juneau, Alaska, which she operated until retiring and selling the company to Era Helicopters. Stratford went on to create the coveted Livingston Award for the Whirly-Girls. It is awarded annually to the living woman helicopter pilot who personifies the high standards and ideals of women helicopter pilots and who contributed in a significant way to the advancement, recognition and credit of women in helicopter aviation.

Also present at the first meeting of the Whirly-Girls was Madam Jacqueline Auriol, a French resistance fighter in WWII, airshow pilot, test pilot—one of the first women to fly faster than Mach 1 and holder of five world speed records—and four-time winner of the Harmon Trophy, awarded by the President of the United States for aviation exploits.

While the business of WGI in raising funds for scholarships for women to advance their helicopter flying skills and ratings is dead serious, the Whirly-Girl name is a recognition that it’s okay to poke a little fun at oneself. It’s perhaps a reminder that while professional rotary-wing aviation requires cool, objective thinking, flying helicopters is about as much fun as it’s possible to have in aviation and it’s all right to smile and enjoy the heck out of what you’ve worked so hard to learn to do.

Texan Joni Schultz is the current president of WGI. An Enstrom owner and pilot and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, she told us that the organization has grown and changed as more women have been able to move into professional aviation as well as fly in the military. Most recently, law enforcement has increasingly opened its doors to women helicopter pilots. Schultz said that WGI members have worked to maintain its historical perspective—there are mother and daughter members—while assertively focusing on mentoring younger pilots and helping new pilots network to find job opportunities.

The annual gathering of WGI is called the Hovering—one of the coolest aviation names for a get-together I’ve run across. It is held in conjunction with the annual, international Heli-Expo organized by the Helicopter Association International of which Whirly-Girls is an affiliate.

Test pilot Jacqueline Auriol (right), one of the original 13 Whirly-Girls, with Lawrence Bell, producer of the first commercial helicopter.

At the Hovering, the recipients of the many, impressive scholarships are named, as is the recipient of the Livingston Award. During the year members of Whirly-Girls raise money through sale of WGI-themed items and actively seek donations and grants. The money goes toward the flight-training scholarships that are awarded at the Hovering. There are no paid positions within WGI—everyone working on its behalf is a volunteer. The scholarships awarded each year vary slightly, but usually include money toward flight training toward a rating; specialized flight training such as mountain flying and night-vision goggle endorsement; specialized or type-specific helicopter courses; ground school toward an advanced rating and crash survival courses.

The scholarships may or may not pay the full cost of a course or rating. If they don’t, they often put enough of a dent in the total cost that it makes the difference as to whether the recipient can afford to take the course and increase her chances of professional employment in the rotary-wing world. I heard numerous stories from women now flying helos professionally who said that the scholarship she received from WGI made it possible for her to do what she is doing now. I also learned that many of the donors to WGI’s scholarship fund are professional helicopter pilots who had themselves received a scholarship in years past. Many now have jobs that have allowed them to donate much more to Whirly-Girls than they originally received in scholarship money.

The second portion of a Hovering is social and networking—it generally starts with the group sitting in a circle and each member telling what has been going on in her aviation life. That often leads to another member passing along contact information that may lead to finding a job opening or additional training. It is networking—and mentoring—at its finest. In his Spring 2017 President’s Message, HAI president, Matthew S. Zuccaro wrote about the importance of mentoring young helicopter pilots and the effort HAI is now putting into it. He used Whirly-Girls as the shining example of effective networking and mentoring after describing some of the many obstacles historically placed in the path of women seeking employment in helicopter aviation. He wrote: “I have been impressed with how the Whirly Girl family embraces, nurtures, mentors and provides a lifetime support network to these young women. The passion and commitment from one generation to the next is evident.”

Zuccaro went on to state: “When I have attended various Whirly-Girls events, I have witnessed the discussions and developing relationships between the young ladies who attended seeking guidance and advice about the helicopter community and those women pioneers who have proudly served in the industry for decades. You could see the comfort level developing in the eyes of the young attendees as they realized that someone will walk this path with them and have their backs.”

Lechelle Dippenar was one of the women who received a Whirly-Girls International scholarship in 2016.

That’s how mentoring and networking should be—and how it is at Whirly-Girls. As one WGI member told me, “You’re inspired to give back, to walk up to a woman who said she wants to know how to get from just getting her CFI to having a job and say, ‘What can I do to help?’” Those who have been around the industry often know where the job openings are and can point those members who are looking in the right direction and give them guidance as to how to land the job.

One member told me of going to her first Hovering and sitting next to a woman who “looked like my kindergarten teacher” and turned out to be an experimental test pilot flying jets for a manufacturer. “Her accomplishments were awe-inspiring, and overwhelming, but it turned out that she was incredibly easy to talk with, without any pretension.” She said that conversation set the tone for how supportive WGI members were toward her as she moved up in professional aviation.

Terri Watson, the current Livingston Award recipient, told me that talking with another member made the difference in getting her helicopter CFI rating. She had been awarded a scholarship. With the scholarship and her savings, she would have enough money to get the rating. But she didn’t have enough money to rent a motel room in the Bay Area, where the training would take place. She was planning to spend six weeks living in her truck. At the Hovering, she asked a WGI member who lived in the Bay Area if she knew of any places where she might rent an inexpensive apartment. The woman told her that she had a guest house that wasn’t in use and offered it to Terri as a place to stay during her training—at no cost. Terri followed telling me about that experience with, “See why I give back everything I can to this organization?”

Going Forward

Joni Schultz told me that she wants to continue WGI’s traditions of assertive support for women who want to fly helicopters—while expanding the organization’s outreach. She said that she wants to make members of more of the women who are flying helos in the military and law enforcement. In talking with Terri Watson, she made the same comment. I asked her if the Whirly-Girls name adversely affected recruiting members. She said that it might, but that any time a prospective member makes an adverse comment about the name, her response is, “The name may be silly, but check out the scholarships, they’re amazing.” That sentence often makes all the difference. I asked Watson how she came to be a member. She said that shortly after getting her Army helicopter wings a captain she didn’t know came up to her, handed her a slip of paper with some information on Whirly-Girls on it and said, “You should join this organization.” The captain then walked away. Terri said she read what was on the paper and joined.

Livingston Award

To wrap this up, I think it’s appropriate to look at the background of the most recent recipient of the Livingston Award from WGI, Terri Watson. I think she’s a good example of the type of people one meets in Whirly-Girls. Full disclosure, I’ve known Terri for about 20 years, beginning when I was a volunteer pilot for LightHawk, a public benefit flying organization dedicated to using aircraft for conservation work and research, and she joined the staff. She gave me some excellent training in backcountry and mountain flying.   

Terri Watson has over 11,000 hours of flying time, equally split between fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. She entered the Army when the aviation branch was newly formed. Although women had been allowed to fly helicopters for a handful of years, many in the Army werent particularly pleased about being required to have women aviators and seemed to do their best to flunk them out. Watson passed and was issued her helicopter wings—so the Army suddenly required that she get her commercial, instrument and multi-engine ratings in a Beech Baron in 60 days. She did it—making her one of the few fixed- and rotary-wing Army Aviators. During her active duty career she flew the Grumman OV-1D Mohawk, Bell UH-1H Huey and Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk. Following active duty in the Army, she served in the Reserves and National Guard until 1997 while starting a career in civilian aviation. In the general aviation world, she did everything from establish and run a Part 135 charter operation through two summers as operations coordinator for helicopter operations for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica to civilian contractor flying Bell 412s and 407s and the Russian Mi17 in Iraq and Afghanistan and Emergency Medical Service and Search and Rescue pilot and Night Vision Goggle instructor in an Augusta 109 and then a Cessna 421 and King Air 90.

Whirly-Girls International Livingston Award recipient Terri Watson, giving an impromptu presentation on the Grumman OV-1D Mohawk, which she flew as an Army Aviator.

While she was in the Army, Watson mentored and sponsored three enlisted women to apply for the Army Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Qualification Course. She has been active with local school programs and parents to show how their school curriculum tied directly to success in aviation. While an EMS pilot, she regularly volunteered to take the flight shifts to fly the helicopter to community outreach functions and fly-ins and other public displays to matter-of-factly let communities see that women were professional pilots. She served as a member of the Board of Directors of Whirly-Girls in the 1990s and is now the Executive Director of LightHawk.

After getting to know a number of Whirly-Girls members, I am convinced that the organization is made up of Type-A overachievers who should not be able to get along with anyone, but who are the most mutually supportive people I’ve ever met in aviation. As a result, my opinion is that if you’re a woman who likes flying helicopters, one of the smartest things you could possibly do is join Whirly-Girls International immediately.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney who holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.