The Girls in Aviation program was started just one year ago by the Cache Makers group based out of Logan, UT. The program focuses on exposing girls ages nine to 15 to the aviation industry as well as broad STEM, or Science Technology Engineering and Math, opportunities.
“Women are less likely to come into this field and more likely to drop out and that’s for STEM in general,” said Claire Dugger, a second-year student at Utah State University, studying to become a professional pilot.
Dugger is a member of Utah State University’s chapter of Women in Aviation, a group that provides mentorship for the Girls in Aviation program. This is her second year mentoring and notes the noticeable gender disparity in her field.
"Only 6% of pilots are female," she said. "Girls in Aviation program is one-step to getting girls actively participating and excited about a possible career in aviation or other STEM fields."
In addition to classroom exercises that include coding, riveting and a flight simulator, the girls develop confidence and interest in a field they might not otherwise have been exposed to.
“You get to try all these different parts of the aviation industry and it’s a fantastic thing for girls to see,” Dugger said. “We also talk to them not only about maintenance and flying, but different calls that ATC might get to you. You know, if you have to give a weather briefing where you have to call people and ask for weather along your route and what it’s going to be, what that sounds like. We play that for them. Then we teach them what to listen for and what it means and then suddenly they’re listening to it, they’re reading it in code and they understand what it means. That’s probably one of the best feelings in the world to see them understand it and not only get it but to love it."
During one of the classes the girls are given a tour of Utah State University’s Aviation building where they learn about turbines and receive a lesson in riveting.
While the girls work, I notice a mom watching all the action. I ask Amanda Buttars how her daughter Shea got interested in the program.
"She wants to be a heli-tack firefighter when she grows up so aviation is her first step to becoming a helicopter pilot," Buttars said. "She has wanted to fly her whole life so it’s kind of a dream come true to be able to at least take the class now.”
For those wanting to pursue a high-flying career, the Girls in Aviation program is a natural step, but it is equally important for participants who are less certain about their career interests. Dugger reminisces on her own experience in sixth grade.
“I had one teacher," she said. "I only had her for about 10 weeks, but she was a pilot. She said every fourth Saturday of the month the Young Eagles Program would take girls up and if you sat in the co-pilot seat you might be able to fly the aircraft. I’d never flown in a small aircraft, it was a Cessna. I got inside, this was back in Los Angeles county and we fly up, they put me in the co-pilot seat and we were flying over Six Flags Magic Mountain and he said, ‘Do you want to try flying it?’ and I was absolutely terrified but I took a deep breath and said, ‘Yeah, I want to fly it.’ I took the flight controls. We had been climbing so I leveled out the aircraft and in that moment I was like this is something I have to keep doing.”
Six weeks have passed and it’s the day everyone has been waiting for. Flight day. I meet up with the girls and their families at the Logan Airport. Leading the charge is Andreas Weseman, known to all by his military call sign, Baron. He served in the U.S. Air Force for 27 years and is now a professor at Utah State University. With thousands of flight hours logged, he’s more than ready to coach the girls through today’s flight, a first for some.
“Look to your left, slowly to the right, move the controls to the right. OK, now pull backwards, look over your shoulder, now push all the way forward. Now right rudder, left rudder, alright flight controls are good.”
That's Weseman leading Emma Fenstermaker, one of the girls in the Aviation program, through a check-list before we take off in the sky. I’m sitting in the back and have a great view to observe the pilot/co-pilot dynamics. It’s Emma’s first time in a plane, both as a passenger and as a co-pilot.
"You’ve never been in an airplane before, never ever?” Wesemann asked.
“I’ve sat in one, but never flown in one,” Emma said.
“Wiggle your fingers and toes. That’s how you relax,” Wesemann said.
Emma is settling in as friend Katie Latavkoski jokingly suggests doing barrel rolls from the backseat of the small 4-seater aircraft. Baron assures us there will be no barrel rolls, but we will attempt a rollercoaster.
We’re starting down the runway now and as we ascend, Katie and I try to spot her house.
"Oh, wow we’ve gone really far. I think I can see my home. You see that mountain with the big trail on it, right below that trail.”
Moments later, it’s time for the rollercoaster.
As Katie and I sit in the back seat, Emma up-front, Baron takes the plane into a sharp incline and then almost immediately descends. For a few surreal moments we experience weightlessness, thousands of feet above the ground. A binder that was sitting on the back of Emma’s chair begins to move and Katie and I watch as it floats mid-air in the cab. Even after the plane levels out we haven’t come back to earth.
“I never imagined I would be flying over Logan,” Katie said.
And that’s the beauty of the program, isn’t it? Only in its second year, Girls in Aviation is giving opportunities to young girls like Emma, Katie and Shea that they otherwise might not have - a chance to dream bigger and reach new heights. Cache Makers hopes to continue to offer this program along with many other STEM-themed workshops to expose the next generation to an array of opportunities.