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Celebrating the trail-blazing women of ACS on International Women’s Day - banner

Celebrating the trail-blazing women of ACS on International Women’s Day


A pilot once said: “Flying is more than a sport and more than a job; flying is pure passion and desire, which fill a lifetime”. It is the passion for flying that has drawn women to aviation for millennia. Many have gone on to become some of the greatest aviators in history, while others work behind the scenes to keep the engines purring, planes in the sky, airports running smoothly, and passengers safely departing and arriving their destinations. In celebration of International Women’s Day, we honor the women of ACS, and women in aviation around the world, who live out the belief that “A mile of highway will take you just one mile, but a mile of runway will take you anywhere”.

International Women’s Day 2019 is all about gender balance

Pink Venus symbol on International Women’s Day banner
Pink Venus symbol on International Women’s Day banner

On March 8, men and women will celebrate International Women's Day (IWD) around the world. Since 1909 when the Socialist Party of America arranged a Women's Day in New York, an event has been held every year at many points across the globe to draw attention to women’s rights and the various issues and challenges affecting women and girls. March 8 became the official day of celebration and activism after women achieved suffrage in Soviet Russia in 1917. The day was observed almost exclusively in communist countries until the United Nations (UN) celebrated the day in 1975, which was also International Women’s Year. It was only in 1977 that the UN General Assembly asked member states to make March 8 an official day for women’s rights and world peace.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is #BalanceforBetter. In other words, the better the gender balance across the world, the better the world. So how does the aviation industry shape up when it comes to promoting a gender-balanced world?

There’s still much work to be done in an industry that remains male-dominated. According to Centre for Aviation (CAPA), a 2015 study found that less than 5% of all airline CEOs were women. But it noted that more companies were focusing on gender equality and a balanced workforce. Air Charter Service (ACS) is one of the companies that values the contribution of the women in its workforce. The company has a number of women in executive roles and supports the entry of more women to the industry.

One such example is Georgina Heron, Director – Private Jets London. She began working for ACS in 2008 as a broker after graduating from university and she now manages a team of 25 account managers, all with their own portfolio of clients. Her advice to women thinking about starting a career in aviations is: “To work hard, be committed, proactive and always willing to learn. There are a lot more women in the industry now, and where industry events used to be heavily male and a bit of a boys' club it has become far more balanced."

Standing on the shoulders of aviation’s female pioneering giants

Even in the days when women wore big dresses and frilly bonnets, they were taking to the skies. The first woman ever to fly was 19-year-old Élisabeth Thible from France. The year was 1784 and Thible, dressed as the goddess Minerva, eagerly took the place of Count Jean-Baptiste de Laurencin who was too nervous to take the untethered balloon flight in Lyon. After a successful flight, spectators on the day watched, shocked, as the balloon burst open at the top as they touched ground on descent and the canvas toppled onto the flyers. One of the balloon’s occupants cut his way out with a knife and went to rescue Thible, only to find that she’d managed to get herself out of danger – far from the stereotype of the timid female. Amateur aeronaut M. Fleurant credited Thible with the flight’s success, pointing out that she’d fed the firebox during the entire journey. She also sang two duets from Monsigny’s La Belle Arsene, a famous opera at the time, during the balloon’s ascent.

It’s unlikely that Thible or any of the spectators that day could have imagined a woman would one day pilot a Space Shuttle. In a preflight interview as commander of Space Shuttle STS-114 in 2005, Eileen Collins told NASA: “My heroes were the astronauts that have gone before me and the test pilots and women pilots who flew back in World War II and the women who went through the medical testing for the Mercury program. All of these people that I read about as I grew up through high school and college have influenced me in a positive way.”

During STS-114, Collins became the first astronaut to fly the Space Shuttle through a complete 360-degree pitch maneuver. This was necessary so astronauts aboard the ISS could take photographs of the shuttle's belly, to make sure that there was no threat from debris-related damage to the shuttle upon reentry. Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-63 in 1995 that rendezvoused with the Russian space station Mir. She was also the pilot for STS-84 in 1997 and the first female commander of a U.S. Spacecraft with Shuttle mission STS-93, launched in July 1999, which deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Collins retired as a NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force colonel, having received several medals for her service to aviation and aerospace.

It is women like Collins who inspired following generations to follow their dreams and continue to make a mark on the aviation industry. Fran Bennett, ACS’s Global Flight Service Manager in London, finds that, while many places have accepted the presence of women in the industry, in some places, old prejudices still exist in the industry. “It’s sad to say but, in some parts of the world, because you are a woman people don’t always listen to your point of view straight away in solving a problem, or culturally they think it’s wrong for you to be at check-in lifting 200 bags on to the luggage belts (when actually your help would get the job done quicker and the passengers away earlier).

“The amount of times people have called the office and asked to speak to ‘Mr Fran’ or have looked for me to no avail at an airport because they are looking for a man. I believe that through the relationships I have built over the years, allowing clients and suppliers to trust in me, it has helped to remove this in some areas of my working life. But when it’s new clients or suppliers you sometimes have to work hard again to build the trust.”

Fran initially began with ACS in 2014 as Senior Manager – Flight Service for Commercial Jets in the London Office. After being at ACS for six months, she got involved in helping other offices with the set-up of their more complicated flights and training their Flight Service departments. In January 2018 she was promoted to her current position, which has meant stepping away from the day-to-day set-up for London flights to focus on complex flights, airports, and large project works.

Fran’s advice to women starting out in the aviation industry? “Make sure you know what you are talking about. This gives you more credibility and can help to break down some of the gender barriers that we unfortunately still face in some places. Also, ask lots of questions. This helps you to build upon your knowledge of the industry. Just give it a go. Once you get into the world of aviation it’s very hard to think of working in a different industry. There are always new things to learn and new problems to solve. Even though you may deal with the same airlines and clients, no two days are ever the same.”

The journey from balloon to fighter pilot

Black and white image of Nancy Harkness Love in her plane
Black and white image of Nancy Harkness Love in her plane

Four years after Élisabeth Thible sang opera and fed the firebox as she became the first woman in history to fly, Jeanne Labrosse made the first female balloon solo flight. She was followed in 1804 by Sophie Blanchard who went on to become a professional aeronaut. By 1811, Napoleon had appointed her chief of air service. It took another 92 years for a woman to pilot a motorized aircraft – this was Aida de Acosta, an American on vacation in Paris who persuaded Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer of dirigibles, to allow her to fly.

But it was the two World Wars that established women as pilots and aviation mechanics. The charge was led by women like Helene Dutrieu of France and Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya of Russia, who both flew as reconnaissance pilots. It was Turk, Sabiha Gokcen, who had the honor of being the first military woman to fly combat missions in 1937. By World War II, women were turning up at airfields and stepping into the cockpit in their numbers. The Soviet Union had three mainly female regiments flying combat missions: the 588th Air Regiment night bombers in PO2 biplanes, the 587th Bomber Regiment flying PE2 airplanes, and the 586th Fighter Regiment flying air defense in YAK-1s.

In the U.S. it took until 1942 for women like Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love – with the advocacy of Eleanor Roosevelt – to be allowed to serve as pilots in the military. Cochran was put in charge of the Army Air Forces Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) which merged a year later with the Women Airforce Pilots Service (WASP) which supported the military by flying aircraft from factories to Army Air Force bases. They were also test pilots, air chauffeurs, and hauled targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. Although disbanded in 1944, it wasn’t until 1979 that the WASPs were awarded veteran status.

But women would have to wait until the 1990s to officially take their place as fighter pilots in air forces around the world. Sally Cox and Julie Ann Gibson became the first solo pilots to fly in 1990 for the Royal Air Force. In the U.S., the ban on women flying combat missions was lifted in 1991 and women were quick to step up. Jeannie Marie Leavitt became the first female fighter pilot in 1993, and the first woman to command a USAF combat fighter wing. The year before, Lt. Kelly J. Franke was the first female pilot to achieve the Naval Helicopter Association Pilot of the Year Award and went on to fly 105 support missions, eventually being cited for extraordinary aviation achievements for 664.2 hours of accident-free flight.

Women were achieving similar feats around the world. Nina Tapula was the first female military pilot in Zambia. In India, Harita Kaur Deol became the first female solo military pilot at just 22 years old. Kendra Williams completed Zimbabwe’s Air Force pilot training in 1996, while Caroline Aigle flew the Mirage 2000-5 for the French Air Force. In 2007, Major Mariam Al-Mansouri was the UAE's first female fighter pilot. She said: “Both men and women have the right to work in any field as long as they do it with loyalty, determination and persistence.”

Women like Barbara Barrett have continued to advocate passionately for more opportunities for women in the military that are more inclusive. Barrett’s career as an instrument-rated pilot and the first civilian woman to land in an F/A-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier is distinctive. She is also former Vice Chairman of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board and former Deputy Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As if that weren’t enough, she received astronaut training as a backup spaceflight participant for the Soyuz TMA-16 flight to the International Space Station.

Women of extreme flight – test pilots and astronauts

The first female test pilot on record is Ann Baumgartner Carl – a WASP during World War II. Her flying prowess got her transferred to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, in 1944 where she flew the experimental Bell YP-59A jet. One year later, Rosamund Steenkamp, a South African, flew a Gloster Meteor III still in its test stages for the British Air Transport’s Auxiliary Service.

Other women who flew as test pilots for Grumman Aircraft in World War II include Elizabeth Hooker, Teddy Kenyon, and Barbara Kibbee Jayne. These brave women flew F6F Hellcats right off the assembly line. These aircraft would be instrumental in the naval war against Japan.

In 1959 women took a few wobbly steps forward when Jerrie Cobb, who delivered USAF military fighters and bombers to countries around the world, was chosen as the first woman to undertake the tough astronaut selection tests. Even though she passed all three phases of testing, she was banned from flying into space because she was female.

Another woman who took part in the preliminary astronaut training was Wally Funk. She went on to become the first woman to hold the position of FAA inspector in 1971. Three years later, she moved to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) where she became one of the Board's first female air safety investigators in 1974.

The first woman to fly into space was Russian, Valentina Tereshkova. Before the flight that Tereshkova was chosen to pilot in 1963, she and four other women went through 18 months of training. She spent almost 70 hours in space and orbited Earth 48 times in the capsule, Vostok 6, but the flight did not go as smoothly as was planned. An error in the spacecraft's automatic navigation software meant the ship began to move away from Earth, but Tereshkova noticed this and scientists had to quickly create a new landing algorithm. Tereshkova smiled throughout the ordeal as Soviet and European TV viewers looked on, completely unaware that there was anything amiss. She managed to land safely with nothing more serious than a bruise to her face. She is famously quoted as saying: "If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can't they fly in space?"

Christina Marmara, ACS Director of Commercial Jets West Coast, Los Angeles, hasn’t been to space - but she has chartered for NASA and has first-hand experience in working with some of the world's biggest companies, bands and sports teams. For those women starting out in the industry she says: “You will learn a lot about yourself – how you deal with pressure, how hard you can push yourself and motivate yourself to keep achieving more. You will meet amazing people and make contacts in every part of the world in every industry.”

“The best thing about CommJ is you work with everyone from sports teams, to VIPs, military and people all over the world. You can have an insight into filming and production, Government tenders, VVIP events and travel at the same time so you become a bit of a chameleon and are able to adapt to different environments. You also get a good balance between having a routine in the office but being able to go and be on site and watch everything come together when you want to get away from being behind a desk."

Aviation goes commercial – and so do women

The Wright Brothers became household names after their first machine-powered flight on December 17, 1903. But most have never heard of Katharine Wright. This extraordinary woman was the sister of Orville and Wilbur and credited with keeping the Wright business ticking over as well as drumming up support for their flight ventures, charming the media on their overseas trips, and flying demonstration flights with her brothers in France in 1909. Wilbur said of his sister: "If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister." Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case. But, despite a lack of recognition, women have been instrumental in taking air travel from a novel – and often dangerous – pastime, to being the transport of choice for four billion people a year.

The first woman to pilot a U.S. airmail transport aircraft on a regular schedule was Helen Richey in 1934. Although she did a great job as a copilot for Central Airlines, her male colleagues would not allow her to join their union and she was told that she couldn’t fly in inclement weather. Nothing was going to stop Richey from taking to the skies so she resigned to join Louise Thaden at the Air Marking Department of the Bureau of Air Commerce. It wasn’t until 1973 when Emily Howell Warner took up a position with Frontier Airlines that a woman was allowed to fly permanently for a scheduled U.S. passenger airline.

In the meantime, and particularly through the 1960s, women joined commercial aviation mainly as air stewardesses (today known by the gender-neutral term of ‘flight attendants’). Due to an unhealthy dose of stereotyping, these women were often seen as glamorous and exotic adventurers. What followed was an unfortunate culture of pretty women in short skirts who were not allowed to get married or have children if they wanted to keep their jobs, and who were always retired at the age of 32. Hollywood loved this new age of aviation glam and novels like Bernard Glemser’s Girl on a Wing were followed by the movie Come Fly with Me and Frank Sinatra's hit song of the same name, as well as the bestselling book in 1967, Coffee, Tea or Me? In 1971, a U.S. airline used the slogan: “I am Cheryl. Fly Me.”

At the time, many of these hardworking women had their eyes set on other jobs in commercial aviation. In Australia, Olga Tarling became the first female air traffic controller in 1960, and in Britain, Yvonne Pope Sintes and Frankie O’Kane took the honors. Pope Sintes would go on to become a flight instructor and the first female commercial pilot in the U.K.

A number of women around the world were on a similar career flight path. Ada Brown, spurred on by her experiences as a stewardess with United Airlines in 1940, knew there was a need to recognize and address the widespread discrimination that stewardesses faced on the job. So she, together with a group of her flying partners and almost 300 women, started the world's first stewardess union at United in 1945 – the Air Line Stewardess Association (ALSA). Today, thanks to Brown’s efforts on behalf of her fellow stewardesses, 25 other carriers are represented by the union that grew from ALSA and became The Association of Flight Attendants.

Eva Piesiak, Director of Commercial Jets for ACS Canada, says she often gets asked if she’s a flight attendant when she says she works in aviation, a stereotype she’s enjoying being a part of breaking. She says: “The aviation industry is historically male-dominated. I found it challenging to be taken seriously by clients, pilots, airline executives, customs officers, aircraft mechanics, and aircraft fuelers. I learned early on how to talk to people in person or over the phone to get respect from them to be able to achieve the task at hand. I worked hard to be where I am, and I still find it challenging to process that when I tell someone (male or female) that I work in aviation, they ask if I am a flight attendant as if that is the only thing society thinks women in aviation do. I’m glad to see this finally starting to change.”

Eva, who has a degree in Business with Specialization in Commercial Aviation Management, has this advice for women thinking about a career in aviation: “It is an exciting and interesting industry to work in. You will work with some of the most passionate people and learn something new every day. Multitasking and organizational skills are very important in order to enjoy working in this industry and to be successful. Women who feel they are not being taken seriously at times should not be defeated. Know that it is just the result of what has historically been a male-dominated industry and that you are a part of the change that is happening! Always be smart and speak smart.”

For every woman who has gone down in the annals of aviation history, there are many women who continue to contribute at all levels of commercial aviation. One of these women is Caroline Werf, who has worked at ACS since 2012 as a cargo trainee broker. She began working initially in Germany, then in the UK. In 2014 she took over the German operation and built up a team across all ACS departments including cargo, private jets, and commercial jets. She was promoted to ACS Country Manager for Germany in 2015.

Caroline says of her experiences: “Cargo charter is historically a male-dominated business. In the beginning, being a woman was quite challenging in terms of convincing long-standing customers that I was experienced in the field. Once I’d proven and established myself, I found that my customers were loyal to me as their account manager. ACS is a great company that gives you hands-on experience, which in turn gives you great credibility with your customers. I personally love challenges, so this is exactly the field of business that keeps me excited every day.”

Captains of industry

Blue portrait of Janet Bragg wearing her pilot hat
Blue portrait of Janet Bragg wearing her pilot hat

While women experienced gender prejudice throughout the industry, for ‘women of color’ the situation was far worse. Janet Harmon Bragg decided that if, as a ‘colored woman’, she was not allowed to fly into an airport, then she would build her own.

Bragg became the first black woman to enroll in the Curtiss Wright School of Aeronautics in Chicago in 1928. Five years later, she enrolled at Aeronautical University, a segregated black aviation school, where she was the only woman in a class of 24 men. In 1934 she used $600 of her own money to buy the school's first airplane and helped to build their own airport in Robbins, Illinois, near Chicago. Bragg was the first African-American woman to achieve her commercial pilot's rating. She, along with other black students, started the Challenger Air Pilot's Association. Her passion and dedication were enough to convince President Roosevelt to set up Civilian Pilot Training Programs (CPTP) at black colleges and black-owned airports. It wasn’t until 1985 that her contribution to aviation was recognized with the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award.

At the time Bragg was struggling with obstacles of both sexism and segregation, Olive Ann Beech – with the help of her husband, Walter – co-founded Beech Aircraft Company. Until her husband’s death in 1950, she worked as secretary-treasurer and director, then became the company’s president and CEO. She went on to build the Beech Aircraft Company into a multimillion-dollar, international corporation.

As early as 1913, Katherine Stinson, the first woman to fly the mail and the first woman in the world to own a flying school, opened Stinson Aviation Company along with her mother. They sold and rented out airplanes and, in 1917, Katherine toured Asia and became the first woman to fly in Japan and China. Marjorie Stinson, Katherine's sister, was employed as the chief instructor at her sister's flying school.

Another dynamo, Moya Olsen Lear, is today considered the mother of the business jet industry. She was awarded a bachelor's degree at Ohio State University and the Pace Institute in New York, and in 1942 married aviation pioneer, Bill Lear. Moya is attributed with nurturing the team that developed the Learjet.

Canadian, Elsie MacGill, is on record as the first woman to achieve an aeronautical engineering degree and the first woman in Canada to receive a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1927. Her career included working as an aeronautical engineer in World War II where she became the world’s first female aircraft designer and was affectionately known as ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’. She went on to spend years at the Canadian Car and Foundry (CC&F) in Fort William, Ontario and later, she ran a successful consulting business and served as a commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, between 1967 and 1970.

Lyndee DuToit, CEO of ACS’s Johannesburg office, opened the branch in South Africa in 2009 and has spent the last 10 years building up the team from two departments – passenger and cargo – to three, which includes commercial jets. Lyndee says she does get the occasional request to “speak to the man in charge”, but this has done nothing to detract from a career that she describes as fast, challenging, and rewarding.

"Cargo has always been a male-dominated industry,” Lyndee says. “But this never deterred me and I find cargo people to generally be very nice and lots of fun. I have always worked as hard as possible to excel in this industry, and to make a name for myself in the freight world. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can't. With hard work and determination, you can achieve anything.”

Women setting sport aviation records

As early as 1948, Betty Skelton Frankman was winning the Women's International Aerobatic Championships in her Pitts Special experimental bi-plane, Little Stinker. And women have been growing sport aviation behind the scenes, too. From 1953, Audrey Poberezny helped found and operate the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and took the organization from a local club for amateur aircraft builders to an international organization that encompasses all aspects of sport aviation.

Women like Patty Wagstaff, named the Betty Skelton First Lady of Aerobatics for six consecutive years from 1988 to 1994, and Melanie Astles who became a five-time French Aerobatic Champion and made history by competing in the 2016 Red Bull Challenger Cup, have helped to make aviation sport about bravery, daring, and pilot skills, and not about gender.

This is a far cry from the first National Women's Air Derby in 1929, when women flying the race faced threats of sabotage and headlines that read, “Race Should Be Stopped”.

The aviation industry cannot grow or improve without women’s involvement

Four women in the Air force stood in front of a military plane at the women in aviation conference
Four women in the Air force stood in front of a military plane at the women in aviation conference

The number of women involved in the aviation industry is still low. The promise of the 1930s, when the number of female pilots grew by 700 in just five years, has largely stagnated with the global number of female airline pilots sitting at just 3%, according to the Women of Aviation Worldwide Week. In the U.S. by 2014, about 5% of certified airline and commercial pilots were women while they accounted for 25% of aerospace engineers and less than 6% of senior executive level positions in airline companies.

Countries like India and China are having more success attracting female commercial pilots. In India women make up about 11.6% of pilots and by 2012 China had trained more than 300 female pilots and over 200 auxiliary air personnel. Other countries and regions that are actively recruiting women into the aviation industry are Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, and Africa where, by 2016, seven of the top 10 markets for growth-speed of aviation could be found.

Gender biases in aviation are not yet a thing of the past. As recently as 1991, a passenger would not fly on a SN Brussels Airlines plane piloted by Barbara Collinet, and just three years ago, seven passengers en route from Miami to Buenos Aires disembarked from an American Airlines flight when they found out that they were being flown by an all-woman crew.

Bringing more women into the aviation industry is far more than just the right thing to do as far as gender equality goes. The world is facing a critical pilot shortage. There are now 30% fewer pilots in the U.S. than there were in 1987. Traditionally, about 75% of airline pilots were ex-military but that number has dropped to less than 33%. And the industry faces not just a shortage of pilots but also mechanics, technicians, and airport personnel. According to an International Air Transport Association (IATA), more than 190 airports around the world are what is called slot constrained. This is a lack of capacity by airports to meet air traffic demand at all hours of the day. Now add to this the number of people expected to travel by air transport each year – which is expected to double in the next 20 years to 7.8 billion, according to IATA.

Right now there is an untapped market of women who could be brought into the aviation industry to not only relieve pilot shortages and increase airports’ capacity to process and service an increasing number of air passengers, but to also contribute as they have done through the ages to aviation technology, training, and efficiency.

Anna Goma Oliva is ACS’s Director of Private Jets, Spain. She began with the private jet charter company in 2013, after completing a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering and holding positions in various aeronautical companies. She worked her way up to a director position at ACS through sheer hard work and perseverance.

Anna says: “All my previous jobs were in the aviation industry, but I must say I was pretty ‘green’ when I started at ACS. Even the most efficient brokers face some uncontrollable issues like weather, for instance, but the challenging moments of my career were all about finding best solutions for my clients and retaining their loyalty. It’s important not to give up. It can be really hard at the beginning and pretty frustrating at times, but you have to keep working hard to become a great aviation consultant. Experience makes you a more confident and reliable broker. I always try to foresee any possible issue and advise my clients. Becoming the number one broker in Europe has been really exciting. Aviation is my passion and unlike my previous jobs, I’ve always felt motivated at ACS. Actually, last year I worked until the day before giving birth – you can imagine how much I like my job. I’m quite addicted to it!”

The International Women’s Day theme for 2019 seems tailor-made for the aviation industry – let's build a gender-balanced world which is essential for economies and communities to thrive.

As Amelia Earhart said: “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”

If you have a passion for all things aviation, contact us to talk about the variety of opportunities we offer at Air Charter Service.

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