Inspiring Women in Aviation

By Capt. Wendy Morse, ALPA First Vice President

At ALPA, advancing careers in the aviation industry is one of our core values. As the largest nongovernmental aviation safety organization, we were founded on safety and continue to be the conscience of the industry. We strive to advance the safety of our passengers, crews, and cargo, and our members’ quality of life.

Representing our members has always been at the center of the decisions I’ve made as an ALPA leader, both in my role as first vice president and when I was the first woman to lead the United Master Executive Council years ago. As opportunities arise to promote and advance women in aviation, I’m honored to take on that mentorship role to share insights on building leadership skills and advise those stepping into the profession.

During March, Women’s History Month, ALPA participated in events such as the Women in Aviation International Conference (see page 27) and the first Women in Aviation Leadership Conference for the Air Traffic Control Association. We have a tremendous group of female pilot leaders who’ve shared their experiences with attendees at Girls in Aviation Day events and in leadership roles on panels and conversations.

This platform serves multiple purposes, giving our members an opportunity to inspire the next generation, share valuable experiences, and learn from each other. I’m a 39-year pilot at United Airlines and when I first started, approximately 2 percent of ALPA’s members were women. Today, nearly 7 percent of our 77,000 members are women—yet globally, only 5.2 percent of pilots are women.

One of the first aviation experiences I remember was in sixth or seventh grade. I rode the bus to Boston’s Logan International Airport and toured the facilities and an Eastern airplane. I was dragged there by my brother who was writing a report. He was enamored with the aircraft’s cabin and the flight deck. But a little twin aircraft caught my eye and I said, “This is what I’d like to fly.” But I had no idea that I could. Years later in high school, some of my friends were taking flying lessons and convinced me to.

Like many of my airline peers, I soloed at 16 and earned my private license at 17. I started flying in 1977 and didn’t realize there were barriers for women, so I saw no barriers. Within a few years, driven by the goal of becoming an airline pilot, I advanced through my instrument, commercial, multiengine, and seaplane ratings with about 500 hours, finishing over the summer of my senior year in high school. I earned my certified flight instructor certificate as a college freshman, completed my bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, and accumulated about 1,500 flight hours. I flight instructed through college, flew corporate aircraft, and then got a job with Precision Airlines. I gained hours and experience flying in different types of weather conditions and scenarios and then became a pilot for a major airline.

We heard similar stories from women in varying fields of aviation study at the events we attended. They could all pinpoint their exposure to aviation at an early age. For some, it was weekend flights to visit family. For others, it was grandparents sending boy cousins to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., and girl cousins lobbying to go, too. While they might not have known it would lead to exploring a career in aviation, seeing is believing. And that’s what our pilots exemplify every day.

Whether we realize it, our slightest interaction with people could spark the “aviation bug.” As we travel to these events, ALPA members hope to influence future aviators of all genders and ethnicities and also those interested in other industry careers—from aerospace engineers to controllers to mechanics to the thousands of people who are part of the most complex system that connects the world.

From a mentoring perspective, I always share this piece of advice with women interested in aviation: There’s a perception that there’s only one seat, and this isn’t true. We must propel each other. It doesn’t matter which one of us it is because we’ll pull each other along.

Early in my career, I advocated for quality-of-life changes in our contracts from a unique perspective. What mattered to us as women and mothers was different from what was important to others in the workforce in the 1980s. Today’s workforce, composed of all genders and ethnicities, values what I’ve always valued—quality of life. Work-life challenges remain, and ALPA pilots have placed a priority on addressing these challenges in our contracts. We continue to advocate for our values, quality-of-life improvements, safety advancements, and more pathways into our industry so that those who want to be airline pilots will see our 270-degree view of the world out of flight deck windows.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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