A note regarding passing of Senator John McCain:

Many of us across the country are mourning the death of Senator John McCain. Senator McCain’s heroics in war and his courage and tenacity in public office are much remarked upon, and rightly so. History will remember him as it remembers the likes of Clay and Webster, Vandenburg and Taft, Jackson and Humphrey. Senator McCain was also an important and prominent figure in aviation. Not only as a naval aviator himself, but also as a leader on aviation issues in the Senate, including as Chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee. I got to know him a little bit long ago after serving as executive director of a presidential aviation commission. Senator McCain and my boss, former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles, spent a great deal of time together back then talking about how to promote the commission’s recommendations; in fact Gov. Baliles was the first witness when Senator McCain took over the aviation subcommittee. The two men were of different parties, but that NEVER entered the conversation. As the years passed, we fell out of touch, but my admiration grew as the quality and importance of his work, and of his approach, grew. We can never have enough John McCains and NAA salutes, with great thanks, his service to this great country of ours.

I enjoy reading, especially about history. So when a good book about aviation history comes out, I’m in. David McCullough’s Wright Brothers is the best of the recent books. I also very much enjoyed Julian Guthrie’s How to Make a Spaceship, and Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons. So when I saw a note about a new book by Keith O’Brien called Fly Girls I went out and picked it up. The book is about the effort of many pioneering women pilots to gain acceptance in American aviation in the 1920’s and 30’s. It focuses on five in particular: Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden and Florence Klingensmith. There are a number of others who play important roles including 1980 NAA Wright Trophy recipient Olive Ann Beech. A number of men play important roles, especially air race pioneer and promoter Cliff Henderson, namesake of the NAA Henderson Trophy (which we will present next week to former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta). Also prominently mentioned are the Ninety-Nines, founded in 1929 and still going strong today.

I finished the book last night and a few things strike me. First, the women advocating for a role in air racing (and in other aspects of aviation) were making a simple case: we have the ability and wherewithal to fly airplanes (and to understand how they are built and maintained). Yet, they were taken less than seriously, to be kind. Obviously, the 20’s and 30’s were a different time. But if we are honest with ourselves in aviation, we are still not doing all we can to take advantage of the skills and interests of half the population, and we still make distinctions based on gender. For example, it struck me that many references to Tammie Jo Shults, the Southwest Airlines pilot who landed the plane after the engine explosion that killed a passenger referred to her as a “female pilot” rather than as a pilot, or the pilot. Contemporaneous references to the likes of Earhart, Thaden, Nichols, Elder and Klingensmith always seemed to refer to their gender.

Another passage that struck me was when Olive Ann Beech was hired to work at what became Beechcraft, she was told that with her legs she would do just fine in aviation as a woman. That’s not terribly different from what a generational peer of mine was told early in her aviation career. Fortunately, those kinds of comments are increasingly rare, but we still have a ways to go.

Back in the times covered by the book, the fact that some women were killed racing was often used as an excuse to bar them from competing, even though many men were killed as well. (Some of the stories about how the planes fell apart under the stress of speed and handling will curl your hair). There are still some who believe that women are under-represented in STEM fields today because they are somehow less innately capable (a comment made in the not too distant past by a Harvard president).

I am MUCH nearer the end of my career than its beginning (or even its middle!). I remain hopeful things will change noticeably in the time I remain in the industry, and will change greatly in the remainder of my lifetime. I encourage you to read Fly Girls. You can see how far we have come, you can think about how far we have yet to go, and you can think about what it is you can do to ensure a future in which all of this nation’s talent can be unleashed to build an even better future.