On the Pedestal: Women in the Air Show Community

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Imagine the perfect day for an air show. There are clear blue skies, and sunlight gleaming off of the polished wings of the static displays. A light breeze gently fans guests while they buy hot dogs, sodas, and t-shirts from vendors. Volunteers help the crowds of families who stream in at the gate, hoping to score a front-row spot where they can watch amazing aerial feats and maybe even get a picture with some of the performers. In your vision of the ultimate air show, which of these people are women?

In the professional arena, the way women are viewed varies from industry to industry. Historically, women were more readily accepted in careers outside of the home when they used the same domestic skills they had developed as a homemaker. They have often been barred from jobs that were considered too dangerous, too technical, or thought to require a higher degree of education. Aviation’s infancy was egalitarian, and women were inspired to take to the skies alongside the men. These hopeful female flyers quickly found themselves blocked, however, by prejudice, sexism, red tape, and even legislation…despite the fact that the field had only just been created.

These women had joined a sisterhood who were being denied their vocations. For decades to come, they were forced to prove over and over with their skills and dedication that they deserved to hold the positions they had earned. According to Dorothy Cochrane, the curator for general aviation at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, “A woman had to be an extraordinarily good flyer or have an incredible force of personality just to be accepted or even permitted, much less acknowledged.” Some persevered, taking advantage of opportunities and circumstances to run airports and companies, become demo pilots, engineers and managing directors.

Although for much of history women have been marginalized as professionals, they have created in themselves the ability to succeed in any field, including the air show industry. They have not only overcome the classic gender bias; they have brought a depth of understanding and nuanced approach to the job that has changed the landscape of the industry. Each has been successful because of the qualities that she has brought to the table.

Air shows are a matrix of different tasks, skills, and personalities. The question seems to be: “Are they successful because of who they are, or who they are as women?” There are many brilliant and fearless women who are setting the record straight about their role in today’s air show business, and these women are raising the bar a little higher every day.

All of us are familiar with the classic masculine and feminine stereotypes. Of the many talents associated with the traditional female profile, multi-tasking and attention to detail are two that are integral to the job description of an air show organizer or executive director. Versatility and creativity are also high on the list. Dale Drumright is a classic example of all of these.

For the last 20 years, Dale has been the driving force behind air shows in the Norfolk, Virginia area, first with Naval Air Station Norfolk and more recently with AirPower Over Hampton Roads at Langley Air Force Base.  When she was recruited to become the NAS Norfolk show’s coordinator, Dale had been to exactly one air show in her entire life. It was her skills and experience, and not her gender, that lead to her job offer. She laughs at her recollections of the time. “I thought, ‘What’s so hard? You put an airplane in the air, sell some hot dogs and set up a t-shirt stand. I can do this.’” Before assuming her role at Langley as a civilian organizer of a military air show, Dale had to be blessed by the Pentagon, the first person, male or female, to be recognized in this way.

The show Dale took over at Langley was very different from the well-oiled air show machine that AirPower Over Hampton Roads has since become. She had a steep learning curve to overcome, as her predecessor had departed leaving behind no information on previous shows. Her ability to apply the lessons she had learned during her time at NAS Norfolk to the new challenges facing her at Langley is a testament to her leadership skills. Dale was not the first to face this dilemma. In fact, poor documentation and an incomplete “pass down” process are typical of our industry’s less successful events.

Good leaders of either gender are those with the skills and charisma to attract good people, and  to continue to inspire their confidence even in the face of challenge and adversity. Identifying the right person to manage the myriad tasks and personalities necessary to run a great air show often means finding someone with enough self-confidence to instruct and delegate without the fear of making themselves obsolete.

Barb Haluszka of Battle Creek Field of Flight is another who knows that her ability to empower the show’s staff and volunteers will impact the show’s future. On the value of surrounding herself with capable and well-trained staff, Barb has a succinct way of getting to the bottom line. “Before I am dead and they scatter my ashes over the airfield, I want to be 100 percent sure of the success of the show after I am gone.”

Leadership has many facets. One must be able to both manage people effectively, while keeping one’s objectives in clear view. And those goals can vary substantially among shows, some focusing on charitable contributions and others on educating young people about the joys and possibilities of aviation. 

While these big-picture goals are central to a show’s mission, they are not the only way that women are reaching out to the individuals who attend a weekend show. Darcy Brewer, Director of the California Capital Airshow, feels a responsibility to share her passion, and not just for aviation. “It is important to get out there and do something, dream of being something. Living what you say is an amazing tool.” Women in the air show business are quick to share their belief that air shows should be used as a vehicle to inspire young people to live their lives more fully, to be brave, to be their own person.

While men in aviation have always drawn admiration from teenagers and adults, women seem to have a unique way of reaching out and touching the very young. Margi Stivers of Silver Wings Wingwalking Team is passionate about the opportunity she has to inspire the children who watch her perform. She says, “On the wing, I am alive,” and she feels that the joy she experiences speaks directly to these children and inspires them to do something unusual and unique with their lives. Performers like Margi are doing this work not because they are women, but because it’s a passion. “For wing walkers, there are no awards. You have to love it.”

Cindy Irish, leader of the Misty Blues all-female jump team, has had experiences that suggest that women appeal not only to small children and other women, but to minorities in particular. Cindy has found herself taking pictures with, and receiving letters from, young African-American girls who were initially reluctant to attend the air show with their families, but then left with the aim of becoming pilots.

Knowing that you have a positive effect on someone’s life can have an incredible impact on your own. A number of women began working with air shows on a part-time basis, but soon became hooked by the unique satisfaction they derived from it. Many have had separate and very successful careers, and are impressively well-educated. Margi is a licensed architect with an advanced degree, and Cindy Irish is a business owner and Certified Public Accountant. Aerobatic and race pilot Vicky Benzing has a Ph.D in Chemistry…besides having been a vice president at Novellus Systems, Inc.!

Although women are involved in air shows at all levels, there is still a significant difference in how male and female performers are viewed. Some show organizers will tell you that women are respected and valued as performers just as much as the men, but that is not borne out by the relative number of female performers, and the frequency with which they are hired. Female performers are often treated as a category of act, rather than as performers judged on their own merit and on equal footing with men. Several have had the experience of being rejected by a show with the reasoning, “We already have a girl,” as though a female aerobatic routine was something you hired to round out the variety of your lineup. ‘We have a jet team, a biplane, a flying farmer, jumpers, a girl…’ This has been true even at shows that were run by women.

Some women have had the opposite experience. Vicki Benzing has found that, “Sometimes it is easier to get shows because you are a woman…there is less competition.” 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Debbie Gary has learned, “…not to listen to either criticism or praise that was gender-based. A lot of times, those are just things people say to make conversation.” The challenge is to seek out the individuals who will be honest and encouraging, and who only give praise or criticism as it is deserved. Patty Wagstaff has stressed the value of developing a supportive interaction with other women. “Women aren’t competing with each other; we have a niche. We know a little bit better what our strengths and weaknesses are. It’s really important that we get along, otherwise people won’t watch the quality of our performance.”

Teresa Stokes is an accomplished artist, pilot, and wing walker. She has performed for years and, to this day, is still asked completely different questions by the media than her partner Gene Soucy. While he is asked about his experience in the plane, Teresa is often asked personal questions like her age rather than anything relevant to her performance. From the media’s perspective, “I have never been the right age to do this. I was always either too young for the responsibility or too old to do what I was doing.”

A female performer may be the equal of (or indeed be superior to) a man, but – in many ways — men and women are more different than they are similar. According to the FAA’s website, as of December 2011, only about six percent of the over 617,000 certificated pilots in the United States were women. This figure has changed very little during the last ten years, especially when compared to licensed female airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics, whose numbers have jumped from just under 20,000 a decade ago to over 150,000 today. There must certainly be reasons why women continue to represent such a small segment of the aviation community as a whole. Although only six percent of pilots are women, the gender is better represented in the air show industry as a whole. The percentage of attendees at the 2012 ICAS Convention who are female was closer to 26 percent. Real women are a part of all aspects of modern air shows, from the very foundations of the events to the volunteers wishing show goers a safe drive home.

Although they may be exposed to aviation through a family member very early in their lives, many women do not often think of aviation as a career until later. Most start no earlier than their late teens, and many speak of taking an introductory flight in their twenties or even thirties. Some have even been actively discouraged from pursuing a pilot’s license. 

Pilot Jacquie Warda knew from the age of three that she wanted to fly. Even though her father was a pilot, she was prevented from seeking an education much less a pilot’s license. After being pushed for years into traditional domestic female roles, Jacquie started ground school at the age of 32. “If I had died the day after I got my pilot’s license, I would’ve accomplished everything I wanted to in life.” While the obstacles in Jacquie’s path were perhaps more direct than most, each of us has hurdles and challenges along our personal road. It is those challenges that develop the skills and traits that make us who we are.

The women in the air show industry have had both stepping stones and stumbling blocks, but the ones who are successful do not use their gender as the latter. They are pilots, wing walkers, support providers, show organizers, skydivers, and so much more. They are strong, brilliant, and tenacious. Certainly, gender has played a part in the stories that each of them has to tell, but it is who they are and who they have deliberately become that sets them apart rather than their sex. It is not politically correct to say that a woman is special, that she has accomplished what she has because of who she is, not through any concept of gender struggle. The truth is that the best role models are the fearless ones who are going to do whatever it takes, regardless of the obstacles, to achieve their goals. There is little room for the shy, the meek, or the wallflowers.

Clearly, without women, the air show industry would be a far poorer place. It would lack a certain approachability, perhaps even warmth. Their value is demonstrated in how they inspire people of all ages, from the small child to the 70-year-old who wants to begin taking flight lessons. The presence of women gives air shows a sense of balance, and an endless vitality.

We have a long way to go before we no longer notice that a professional is a female. Thankfully, the women who are here have a fire and determination within them that inspires us all and keeps us looking up to the skies and forward to the future.

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Devin A. Norris
Devin Norris is a pilot for a major U.S. airline who has worked in and has been associated with the air show business for nearly a decade.