PENDLETON — History is full of female pilots who shattered glass ceilings in the wild, blue yonder.
Harriet Quimby flew across the English Channel in 1912. Bessie Coleman, the first black female pilot, went to flight school in France after no American flight schools would admit her. Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. Jacquline Cochran in 1953 became the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound. Jennifer Murray in 2000 was the first female pilot to circumnavigate the world in a helicopter.
Yet, today, women still make up only 6% of American pilots, according to Women in Aviation International. As the world faces a projected shortage of pilots, the aviation industry increasingly looks toward recruiting females and others in historically under-represented demographics as a way to ease the crisis. Last month in a CNBC video, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said an increasing demand for air travel means an estimated worldwide shortage of 800,000 pilots in the next 20 years and called it “one of the biggest challenges we have.”
Natalie Bridgman and Tania Wildbill, of Pendleton, are two women who hope to help close the gap. The pair recently began training and want to eventually fly commercially.
Bridgman, 25, has been around aviation most of her life. She grew up with her aunt and uncle, who both work in the aviation industry, her aunt as a flight attendant and her uncle as a pilot for Alaska Airlines. Learning to fly has always beckoned and now it feels almost imperative.
“The need for pilots is massive,” Bridgman said.
Wildbill, 49, said her passion to fly struck more recently as she chatted about other pilots’ experiences while visiting Times Square in New York City.
“I turned to my brother and said, ‘I’m going to be a pilot,’” Wildbill recalled.
Only a few months later, she took her first flight as a student.
“Every cell in my body felt so alive,” she said. “I knew I was at the beginning of some big life adventure.”
Bridgman and Wildbill started ground school and flying lessons at Bergman Aircraft in Pasco. Recently, the two women and other members of the Mid-Columbia Chapter of the Ninety-Nines converged at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton. The international organization of women pilots provides a forum for networking, outreach and scholarships.
Wildbill and Bridgman, along with former pilot Susan Demarsh, exclaimed as the first plane appeared, a speck on the horizon. The Cessna 172 landed, taxied and pulled up next to the tiny welcoming committee. As pilot and co-pilot Bonnie Molitar and Lynn Harbinson hopped out, hugs ensued. In the next 15 minutes, two other small planes and four more women landed and joined the group.
The women ranged from students to veteran pilots. They spent the day bonding and sharing information as they ate lunch at Sister’s Cafe, toured the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and did yoga at Wildbill’s Wellness Wave fitness studio.
Bridgman and Wildbill tapped into the wealth of experience by asking plenty of questions. They compared notes on phone apps for fliers, flying experiences and training.
Harbinson, a flight instructor and a veterinarian, took up flying nine years ago. She said the catalyst was the death of a friend. The sudden loss made her realize she shouldn’t delay her dreams.
“I asked myself, ‘What am I not doing that I want to be doing?’” Harbinson said.
The answer was flying and she immediately enrolled in flight school.
For those who want to learn to fly, options include the military, private flight schools and university aviation programs.
Matthew Toelke directs the 52-year-old aviation program at Walla Walla University. The school owns seven planes and has 40 aviation students, including three women.
Toelke, who is also a commercial pilot in the firefighting field, reflected on why so few women choose flying. For one thing, he said, the male-dominated field hasn’t always been welcoming to women.
“The captain was kind of the god of the airline,” Toelke said. “Some of that macho male stuff pushed women away, but the industry has changed dramatically. There’s a realization that a macho attitude is not the safest attitude.”
Aviation seems to be embracing the all-out recruiting of women. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University hosts flight exploration camps to introduce middle- and high-school girls to flying. Women in Aviation, the Ninety-Nines and other groups are awarding scholarships to female flying students. Many airlines are raising recruiting quotas for female pilots.
Harbinson figures many women just haven’t seriously considered the idea of becoming a pilot.
“It’s just one of those areas where they don’t think of it as an option,” she said. “It’s not on their radar.”
Wildbill is happy with her decision to start flying. Even after hearing the story of a student having to fly solo on her third lesson after her flight instructor slumped over from cardiac arrest, she refused to worry. Instead, she asked her instructor to teach landings sooner rather than later.
“He had me do seven touch-and-goes that day,” she said.
Most of the time, instead of worry, flying brings calm to Wildbill.
“It’s like yoga in the sky,” Wildbill said. “You have to be so focused and present.”