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Whirly Girls- Changing the status quo


With the Whirly-Girls Scholarship deadline soon approaching, Sarah Chenevix-Trench co-founders of Helipaddy, gives a glance into the current climate of the world of aviation, and how we can change the status quo.


It is a truth much observed that aerodromes are very male orientated places. The rotary world in particular seems skewed towards those with a ‘y’ chromosome. In fact when I first started learning to fly some 6 years ago I was quite pleased to notice another woman in the hanger. However, I did later discover that she had learnt to fly in a previous life when she had been a he. Suffice to say she is an excellent pilot.

In 1910 soon after the first woman pilot got her licence the percentage of women pilots stood at 3%. Then just before the 2nd world war in 1937, Hanna Reitsch took the controls of a Focke-Achgelis 61 helicopter and became the world’s first female helicopter pilot. Presently the number of women pilots stands at around 6% and I suspect the number of women going into helicopters is broadly similar. In the US army roughly one in 10 helicopter pilots is a woman. But, I think if one was to investigate the number of aircraft mechanics then terms like rarer than hen’s teeth might come to mind.

Personally, I have never found the aviation world intimidating as long as you avoid the online forums which can be vicious and descend into bile after only a few posts. Queues for the women’s rest rooms at aviation events are non-existent and occasionally I can get engineering to do the oil when the cap has apparently been tightened by a gorilla. My instructors were all male which I never perceived as a problem. But, I have been greeted with occasional incredulity especially when flying in France or Spain. A French refueller reacted with horror when I got back into the aircraft to reposition after refuelling. My copilot (male) having deserted the area in search of a coffee. I have heard comments that the advantage of teaching women to fly is that it keeps them off the roads!

In 2015 I attended the excellent Robinson safety course in Torrance, Los Angeles and on looking round the classroom there were about 4 women and 40 men, which is probably about average. When we did the factory tour, it was fascinating to note that all the heavy engineering was male, but the electrical wiring was exclusively female. In a conference at Duxford Airfield to garner opinion about General aviation looking through the crowd of maybe 500 there were maybe three other females.

women aviation

So I guess this begs the question, why?

My own experience is limited to general aviation and rotaries, but listening to the RT chatter when I fly round the UK the lack of female voices is stark. Although, this is not the case in air traffic control, where there do seem to be more women (25% in the UK), and I would hazard a guess that this percentage is higher in France. This lack of women is also reflected in the commercial airlines. Estimates from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA) say there are about 4,000 women pilots worldwide, of about 130,000, that’s just over three per cent. Another estimate, by easyJet, puts the balance at five per cent, with six per cent of its own flying staff female. British Airways says about six per cent of its pilots are women – that's 200 out of 3,500. Anecdotally I often hear female easyjet pilots over the airwaves. Statistics from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says that 570 of the British industry’s 9,846 pilots and co-pilots are women, which is just under six per cent. Bearing in mind the world’s gender split is about 50.4 per cent male, the disproportion is dramatic.

According to 2015 British labour survey the least popular female profession is stone mason (0.1%) closely followed by automotive mechanic and heavy engineer and predictably the most female dominated professions were secretary and nurse. Women are also very poorly represented in Tech. If you look at surveys conducted in the US, Australia, Japan and Europe the results are very similar.

I hope that these figures change. In the world of private pilots there do seem to be a few more women learning than there were five years ago. But, learning to fly is undoubtedly an expensive process. In the UK it will cost around £25,000 to train and get your licence on an R22 . You can then do a rating on the R44 to get the benefit of a bit more power and the two back seats. The time taken will be a minimum of 45 hours in the air which is more likely to become about 75 hours. This greater number of hours is normally a result of people learning part time. Achieving a reliable hover can take 10 hours and it is trickier to burn in the muscle memory pathways if you only get in a aircraft for a couple of hours once a week.

My anecdotal evidence of men in the hangar is they tend to be personally successful, often self made. The decision to learn to fly has a multiplicity of reasons but it is a project more usually undertaken by the 40+ age group. There are plenty of successful women with the resources to learn to fly but aviation just doesn’t seem to hold the fascination it does for men which is a pity.

For women wanting to get a commercial licence there are a number of groups that actively promote women in aviation. Getting someone else to pay for your licence is a great way to encourage more people to get into flying. Helicentre Aviation Ltd offer professional training scholarships and sponsorship. There are also scholarships available in the US in Texas. The Whirly-girls which has been established as a forum to encourage female helicopter pilots has its own scholarship programmes which are awarded yearly. Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week is a global outreach initiative that takes place annually during the week of March 8, anniversary date of the world’s first female pilot license since 1910 and International Women’s Day since 1914. Women of Aviation Week takes place every year in March to encourage and publicise women in aviation. There is also Women in Aviation International which has a large membership and awards scholarships. In the UK the British Woman’s Pilots association exists to support women who fly or who are learning to fly, and to encourage participation in aviation by women who have yet to try it. However, apart from the Whirly-girls all these organisations are primarily aimed at fixed wing pilots it seems that the rotary is always going to be in the minority.


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