OSHKOSH – The sea of women and girls in red T-shirts Wednesday at Wittman Regional Airport’s Boeing Plaza meant one thing: camaraderie in aviation.
The roughly 1,000 female aviation professionals gathered for the 11th annual WomenVenture group photo and lunch on Day 3 of the Experimental Aviation Association’s weeklong AirVenture 2018 fly-in convention. They viewed it as an opportunity to meet other women in a field that sees few women.
The group was wide-ranging: grandmothers with their toddler granddaughters, teenage girls in student groups and experienced career women. Pilots, mechanics and engineers made up the audience — plus two Air Force generals.
WomenVenture attendees said it is essential to get young women involved in aerospace science, technology and engineering. They’re the future, participants said, and getting help from mentors is key.
Missouri native Christine Bolz wore her red WomenVenture shirt proudly. She directs a NASA program to award STEM students scholarships, and now in her 50s, she is learning to fly planes too. It’s all part of giving young women inspiring role models.
“I needed to inspire women to know that there was not any obstacle too big for them,” Bolz said.
For Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, who also attended Wednesday’s event, one big barrier seemed insurmountable when she joined the Air Force: The U.S. Department of Defense didn’t allow women in combat.
But Leavitt wanted to fly an F-15E Strike Eagle. She kept training, and when the U.S. changed its policy in 1993, she became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot.
Now as commander of Air Force recruitment, Leavitt wants more young women to become pilots. Women flying combat missions was “unheard of” when she first started, but now she wants to motivate the next generation of female pilots.
“I tell them to just work hard and follow their dreams,” Leavitt said of her advice to young women. “Dream big and set goals, and chase after those dreams.”
High school girls at AirVenture this week for an aviation camp called “Women Soar You Soar” can meet legendary pilots and engineers — people like Leavitt, Lockheed Martin executive Heather Penney and Lt. Gen Stayce Harris, the Air Force’s highest-ranking black woman.
The chance to forge those connections makes this week special, Alabama native Susan Mallett said.
Mallett coordinates STEM programs for Civil Air Patrol’s youth division, and she’s at AirVenture all week, holding workshops about girls in aerospace education.
“Powerful women are here who fought their way upward and onward to achieve their dreams,” Mallett said. “Just these women here who have made it — beyond all odds — are a great inspiration for the young girls here.”