Earning Her Wings at Middle Georgia State University
Thursday, May 21st, 2020
Four of the approximately 125 women students enrolled in MGA aviation programs as of fall 2019. L-R are Lacey Needham, flight; Linzie Minteer, aircraft structural technology; Savannah Robinson, flight; and Pearl Wright, aircraft structural technology. Photo by Jessica Whitley.
When Lacey Needham decided to study flight at Middle Georgia State University (MGA), she knew she was entering a field many still consider a “boy’s club.”
Even in an era when some barriers to women pursuing traditionally male-dominated careers are crumbling, aviation has been slow to change. In the U.S., women account for about 7 percent of all commercial pilots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Women are even rarer among aircraft mechanics and service technicians. One study concluded that just 3.6 percent of all who do such work in the U.S. are female.
But Needham, who is from Carrollton, was undaunted. She earned a private pilot’s license while still in high school and now, at age 20, she’s an MGA junior working toward her bachelor’s degree in Aviation Science and Management with a concentration in flight.
It helped that she didn’t have to go far to find a role model.
“My dad is a Delta Air Lines pilot,” she said. “He never pushed me toward aviation but when I told him that’s what I wanted to do he was completely supportive.”
Needham is one of about 125 women enrolled at MGA’s School of Aviation, which is based on the Eastman Campus. That’s a healthy increase from just two years ago, when 76 women were enrolled. However, with male enrollment also surging, the percentage of women students is roughly the same as it was a few years ago.
Still, trends are moving in the right direction, said Adon Clark, dean of the School of Aviation.
“Civilians pioneered aviation, but the industry in the U.S. was born out of the military at a time when that was, with a few exceptions, a male, mostly white institution,” he said. “Those stereotypes are going away, and we are excited to have a more diverse group of students, including more women, that will enter the workforce for the next generation of pilots and mechanics.”
In addition to programs in flight (airplane and helicopter), the School of Aviation offers degrees or concentrations in Management, Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Structural Technology, and Aviation Maintenance Technology. Most of MGA’s female aviation students are training to become pilots but a few are pursuing ground staff careers through the technical programs.
Pearl Wright, 42, and Linzie Minteer, 19, were two of only three women enrolled in the Aircraft Structural Technology program (AST) as of last fall. Both graduated in December 2019 with plans to continue on in the Aircraft Maintenance Technology program (AMT), which would allow them to earn FAA certification and broaden the kind of aircraft work they are qualified to do.
Neither could recall their gender ever being an openly discussed issue with MGA male classmates, but away from school was a different matter.
“When people ask me what I’m in school for, they don’t really understand when I try to explain,” Minteer said shortly before she finished the AST program. “They have a hard time imagining a woman doing this kind of work. So I just say I’m doing something in aviation without getting too specific.”
“That’s what I say, too,” Wright said.
Wright, who is from Alamo, worked night shifts at a manufacturing facility and took classes during the day while finishing up the AST program. Her interest in the field dates to her early 20s, when she read about a training program offered by Robins Air Force Base. She ended up doing several other kinds of work over the years but gravitated back to AST once her children were grown.
“I knew the job market for that kind of work is good, and I just like working with my hands,” she said. “I already worked on a warehouse floor where I was the only woman, so I was used to that. I have more confidence now than ever that I can work anywhere as one of a few women or even as the only woman.”
Wright noted that when she considered quitting the program – the stress of working full-time while going to school had begun overwhelm her – it was a male MGA instructor who encouraged her to stay.
Minteer, who is from Conyers, originally planned to study business at a private college. But a scholarship she received fell far short of covering a hefty tuition increase the school approved shortly before she was to enroll. She did not want to take on a large student loan debt.
As she regrouped, Minteer thought about following in the footsteps of her father, who works in a Delta Air Lines machine shop.
“I’ve always been very crafts-y, and I never saw myself in a sit-down job, so it just made sense the more I thought about it,” she said. “My dad works with some people whose children went through the (AST) program at Middle Georgia State, so I thought I would check it out.”
After she enrolled, “It was a little intimidating, at first, being one of the few women. But I had a lot of guy friends in high school so I figured I would get used to it.”
She became good friends with Wright, who said Minteer’s skills in the program were so notable that many of her classmates, male and female, often asked her for help.
Women in the MGA flight program acknowledge the general challenges females in their chosen career face but said they have experienced little gender-related pushback themselves - at least at this stage of their education and training.
“Sure, it’s noticeable that there aren’t that many women around,” said Savannah Robinson, 20, a junior flight student from Warner Robins who rooms with Needham. “It’s possible that as a woman I may be expected to prove myself more as I move forward, but right now it’s not something I think a lot about.”
Like Needham, Robinson grew up around aviation. Her father was in the Air Force.
“I love to travel and I thought aviation would be an awesome career,” said Robinson, who plans to become a pilot for a major airline after working for a regional carrier, the same goal of most of MGA’s airplane flight students. “I didn’t go into it thinking, ‘Oh no, there won’t be many women.’”
It began to sink in when Robinson and Needham moved into the School of Aviation’s residence hall their freshman year. “There were only about 10 girls, total,” Needham said. “It wasn’t uncomfortable but I realized it’s probably going to be like that for the rest of my career.”
The School of Aviation supports and encourages all students in a variety of non-gender-specific ways. Women specifically looking for camaraderie with other females can choose to join MGA’s Women In Aviation club chapter. The club is open to men, too, but the officers are women. For women who feel they need a female mentor, four of the school’s full- or part-time classroom instructors are women. And three of the current flight instructors are women.
Female non-instructional staff members offer support, too. Heather Molewski, chief flight dispatcher at the Eastman Campus, said she’s noticed that female aviation students seem more confident in their career choice than those of just a few years ago.
“I once met some pilots who told me they visited an elementary school in full uniform,” she said. “A female captain was there - the senior officer to the men who were present - and some of the little girls in the class thought she was a flight attendant. It made me sad, but I think we are seeing less and less of that. The women I see coming through here now are comfortable seeking careers in aviation. I am so proud of the examples they are setting for both girls and boys."
Female flight students are also supported through the Captain Greg Coln Women in Aviation Scholarship, which was established by Coln, a retired United Airlines pilot and his wife, Mary LoVerde, who is a professional speaker and author. Through the MGA Foundation, the couple recently awarded $1,000 scholarships to each of five female flight students at MGA and are raising funds to award more. (Interested in donating? Go to https://giving.mga.edu/women-in-aviation/pilot.)
For Clark, a commitment to attracting a more diverse student body is not just the right thing to do, it’s critical to the field’s future vitality. The aviation industry is facing significant workforce shortages, especially among pilots. Demand for air travel is growing at a time when many commercial pilots are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65.
“It is absolutely imperative that the aviation industry become more diverse in order the meet the workforce demand,” Clark said. “Diversity is a key component to any successful organization. For us, it brings many different points of view that expand classroom discussions among our students throughout their training. That translates into better pilots and technicians.”