“She was scared out of her wits,” said Emma Siegmund, 6, quickly adding that she, herself, wasn’t scared at all.
Emma and her 10-year-old sister, Annie, had just experienced a free, 20-minute flight over Fredericksburg in a Cessna 210 five-passenger airplane at Shannon Airport in Spotsylvania County.
“I guess I was afraid of heights. And crashing, of course,” explained Annie, acknowledging some fear, but only at first. “Once we started cruising along, I was fine after that.”
The two were among about 78 girls and women who participated in “Women Can Fly Virginia,” an event co-sponsored by The Ninety-Nines, Inc. (International Organization of Women Pilots), the Virginia Department of Aviation and participating airports.
Saturday was the first time Shannon has hosted the event, which has been held at various Virginia airports annually since 2013. Four other Virginia airports will hold similar events: Hampton Roads Executive Airport on June 16, Warrenton–Fauquier Airport on June 23, Roanoke–Blacksburg Regional Airport on June 30 and Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport on July 7.
In addition to a complimentary airplane ride, girls have the opportunity to learn about aircraft controls and safety procedures, look at several types of aircraft up close, and talk with aviators, student pilots, and other aviation professionals to learn about flight training and career opportunities.
“I’m excited that these girls are having their eyes opened to a totally different world they may not have known was out there,” said Olivia Fuller, Shannon’s operations manager and organizer of the event.
Female pilots represent less than 6 percent of the total pilot population. “Women Can Fly” hopes to improve on this statistic by exposing potential future female pilots to careers in aviation.
“We want them to experience the thrill of lifting off the ground and watching everything get smaller and smaller—the exhilaration of being free in the clouds,” Fuller said.
Fuller, 22, has been flying since she was 5—with her father, who has a private license; her grandfather, who flew for Delta; and an uncle who piloted for American Airlines. Fuller graduated from Liberty University’s school of aeronautics last year and has her commercial license.
“I like aviation because it’s different—I love flying, I love seeing everything from a new perspective,” Fuller said. “Also there are so many different kinds of careers in aviation, so many choices, and the community of aviators is wonderful. I really feel like I belong there.”
Annie Siegmund said she is most interested in the science of aviation, and how weather affects flight.
“I may be interested in a related career,” she said. “I’m good at breaking things, and then putting them back together. I think that’s interesting.”
Emma, on the other hand, is pretty sure being a veterinarian is the job for her.
“We have one dog and a cat,” she said by way of explanation.
Annie and Emma’s mother, Maureen Siegmund, was glad for the opportunity to expose her daughters to a new career choice.
“Who knows what they’ll actually end up doing?” the Stafford County mom said. “This just puts one more option into their heads.”
Katalin Gaitan attended the “Women Can Fly” event in Warrenton three years ago. Now she is a student pilot who was volunteering at Shannon on Saturday. She is a member of The Ninety-Nines and expects to have her pilot’s license by the end of the summer.
“[The Warrenton event] was the pushing point for me,” Gaitan said. “Flying with a pilot, talking to other women interested in aviation—that was when I first thought, ‘I can do this.’”
About 10 pilots volunteered Saturday to give the complimentary rides.
One of them was Bobby Cockram from Stafford County, a critical care physician’s assistant at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Cockram flies in his free time and serves in the Civil Air Patrol, providing emergency search and rescue services and disaster relief, among other responsibilities.
“I’ve always enjoyed flying,” Cockram said. “I earned my pilot’s license when I was still in high school. It’s always been kind of a passion for me.”
Cockram flew a Piper Warrior Saturday, a four-seater that soared smoothly over the still-swollen Rappahannock, with the arches of Fredericksburg’s distinctive railroad bridge easily identifiable from the air.
Of his three children, Cockram said his 13-year-old daughter is most interested in a flying career.
“She’s the one who talks about it the most and asks the most questions,” he said. “I would be thrilled to have her pursue something along those lines.”
Roberta Boucher, owner of The Plane Doctor, was uniquely qualified to give the safety briefings Saturday, offered every hour at Shannon for each female seeking a free flight ticket at the event.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything—I keep everyone in the air,” she said, adding that the Navy trained her as an aviation mechanic in 1972. She started flying in 1973, and has competed in several Air Race Classics.
“I love to see events like this,” she said. “More women should be flying. The percentages are too small.”
Boucher is still flying even after surviving an airplane in 2016 when an experimental aircraft she had designed accidentally took off from Shannon Airport during a high-speed taxi check. The engine failed and the plane nosedived into a field between Centreport Parkway and Interstate 95. Though Boucher, 63 at the time, suffered several broken bones and recovery was slow, she continues to love airplanes and aviation.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” she said. “There is nothing more exciting and rewarding, no other career comes even close.”