I want to highlight a group of women in aviation to celebrate International Women’s Day, which is today, March 8, 2014. Last night I had the pleasure of seeing 6 women speak about their experiences in aviation, a traditionally male-dominated field (female pilots make up less than 6% of all pilots, and that has been consistent, unlike medical and law school which is now closer to 50% female). The event I attended which is a part of the Women in Aviation week (March 4-10, 2014) was held at Hiller Aviation Museum, right here in San Carlos around the corner from my house. Hiller Aviation Museum is a gem of a museum and a local treasure. They host classes for youth and merit badge workshops for girl scouts and boy scouts in the area to help kids learn about aviation and weather and hopefully spark an interest in a career in aviation. I want to share a few pictures and focus on a few things that they said.
Lt. Colonel Olga E. Custodio (Air Force (Ret.)) spoke about her determination to join the Air Force and become a pilot. She wasn’t able to join the Air Force directly after graduating from high school at 16. She had a circuitous route through marriage, motherhood, and then 9 years later, finally she was able to join the Air Force and go through pilot training. It was another two years before she became the first Latina female pilot in the Air Force. After she retired from the Air Force Olga became the first Latina female pilot for American Airlines. She talked about many things throughout the evening, but s few things that she said stuck with me. First, she chose a less ambitious career path, especially with American Airlines so that she could maintain a certain schedule and amount of family time. If you don’t set boundaries, your employer most certainly won’t. Same goes for your ambitions, if you are so ambitious that it takes all of your time away from your family, what are you left with? She said it was important to her to maintain her time with her family and have a career as a pilot. Second, someone from the audience asked about getting through the low points. Olga said she had many low points but that she never considered failure an option. She was pursuing her dream and it never occurred to her to not reach her goal. The last point that she made that I thought was really important was that, yes, girls need to stick with math and science but they also need to keep music in the mix. Music is its own language, symbols-based process, and largely mathematical in nature. All of these things translate well to the technical nature of being a pilot. I found Olga to be an inspirational leader who, in retirement is doing everything she can to inspire young women to join the field of aviation.
Ana Uribe organized the event and moderated the panel and has worked hard to make sure that over 150 girls got the experience of riding in a small plane this week. She is also a private pilot. She has only been a pilot for two years but has been around planes all her life. Her father is a pilot and her husband is a pilot. She took a long route to becoming a pilot because she has a child with special needs who requires parental care. If she and her husband were both flying she wanted to make sure that there would be at least one parent around to care for their child. She wanted to make sure that she could handle any emergency type of landing, taking over from wither side fo the cockpit and generally being able to survive if something happened while both she and her husband were flying a plane. She did and now she and her husband enjoy flying on the weekends and going to brunch in far flung places like, Los Banos! Thank you Ana for putting together this week of events and this panel of stellar women, including you!
Gretchen Kelly is one tough cookie. She has 7 brothers and it never occurred to her that she couldn’t do something. She did whatever her bothers did and she did some things better than them! She went to college and studied aviation to become and airplane mechanic. When she got a job out of college as an airplane mechanic she discovered that she liked running the airport. She worked with the FAA the last few years and just returned to the San Carlos Airport as the Airport Division Manager, San Mateo County Airports (managing the San Carlos and Half Moon Bay Airports). She is also a private pilot. Managing an airport involves all kinds of things, like managing facilities, managing the pavement (everyone wants a smooth landing, rights?), public relations, managing employees, community relations, and being a good neighbor who makes lots of noise at all hours of the day and night, with 24 hour operations. Gretchen said she never has the same day at work twice and being the manager means that you sometimes have to do things like unclog a toilet. Let’s hope we see her managing SFO of SJC one of these days!
Staff Sergeant Ariel Sauvey is an Air Force veteran and is now and Air Traffic Controller at the San Carlos Airport. Now, being an air traffic controller is one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. You hold the lives of many people in your hands every day. Ariel (a great name for a women in aviation) said one of the hardest parts of the jobs is when you screw up and forget the instructions you gave to a pilot and then a few minutes later realize that you could have caused a serious accident with many fatalities. She said it is part of the job and you have to do your best to keep everyone safe. She encouraged young girls to do their research and see what jobs were available and then to make a plan to pursue those goals. She even mentioned that the FAA is one group that hires directly out of high school and doesn’t require a college degree for some positions. Now that Ariel is spending her time telling pilots what to do and where to go, let’s hope we hear her voice at one of the major airports in the future!
Beth Stanton was one of the funniest and most inspirational of the speakers. She is a masseuse and yoga instructor in Modesto. She woke up one day (when she was 42) and decided she wanted to be a pilot (or at least get her pilot’s license), except that she was afraid of going upside down and rolling. She decided to face her fears and took lessons from an aerobatics pilot. She finished her pilot’s license in two years and she is now working on a level 3 (of 5) certification for her aerobatic training. What a way to face your fears and do something amazing. She showed footage of her doing rolls and other aerobatics and the joy on her face is infectious. Seeing her flying makes me want to do more than the two pilot lessons I did back in 2008! One of the things that Beth said that I thought was important was that not only do you need your own dreams and goals, but you need the focus, determination, and discipline to make it happen. She said that getting her pilot’s license, flying solo after ~20 hours of flying time, was by far one of the hardest things she had ever done. Did she think of quitting, no, but that didn’t make it any easier to stick with and complete the pilot’s training. Hopefully we will be able to see Beth is an air show one of these days!
Captain Graciela Tiscareno-Sato is an Air Force veteran and now owns her own publishing company, Gracefully Global and is the award-winning author of a bilingual children’s book, Good Night Captain Mama. Grace is a dear, dear friend of mine. We have been inseparable since meeting at Cal Band camp our first week at UC Berkeley. I’ve heard her speak many times, but I always find what she has to say fascinating and inspiring. She answered one of the audience questions about how to handle things that happen in a male-dominated field by saying, you can’t let other people dictate your actions, you have to focus on your own performance. Let other people’s worry about you being a female pilot be their own problem. She said one of the hardest things she ever had to do was survival training where you are dropped somewhere for a week and have to survive (yes, you are given some training beforehand on what plants, bugs, worms, etc. you can eat without being poisoned and dying). As a personal friend, I remember her coming back from this week of survival training and telling me all kinds of stories. I never had any doubt she could do it! One of the audience members asked what’s in their future and Grace answered by saying that she is now an author writing books to reach and inspire others. She is limited as one person by her time and other commitments, but by writing books, which can be anywhere, she can share her experiences and inspire many others at the same time.
These women are inspirational and I loved hearing them speak. Congratulations to them and their accomplishments! Let’s celebrate them on this International Women’s Day.