Report From the 25th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference

photo by Andrew Zaback—record attendance to hear Eileen Collins speak at the Luncheon on Friday, March 7 at the 25th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference

On the weekend of March 6th 2014, over 4,500 people attended the 25th annual Women in Aviation International conference held at Walt Disney World in Florida. I was fortunate enough to find myself able to attend for my first time this year. Although I was not sure what to expect, I left the conference with unforgettable memories and a true love for Women in Aviation International.

I was determined to get out of my comfort zone and make the most of this experience, so on my first day I made a beeline for the volunteer booth to sign up to help in whichever area they needed me. I was told by the volunteer coordinator that they had over 300 volunteers signed up for the conference. She said that the success of the conference really had so much to do with volunteers, who help with every aspect from registration to article writing for the Daily newsletter. I shared a resort room with fellow aviation writer Sarina Houston, so I was nudged towards volunteering in the press room and had some great learning experiences with the women working there.

On the first day, after attending a New Member breakfast and meeting tons of great people, I was sent to the exhibitor hall for my first volunteer assignment. In celebration of the 25th anniversary, a large time capsule was filled during the conference and will be reopened in 25 years. I was asked to talk to each of the 133 exhibitors individually and pick up their time capsule items. Many were unsure as to what they should put in the capsule, but I assured them that a pamphlet or business card would work. Simply a way to say "I was here." The capsule will be opened at the 2039 conference.

It was invigorating to hear some true aviation legends speak at the conference. On Thursday night attendees were treated to an inspiring speech by SR-71 Blackbird pilot Brian Shul. After flying 212 combat missions as a USAF fighter pilot, Shul was shot down and so badly burned that he was given a very slim chance of survival, and next to no chance at a normal life. After spending 2 months in intensive care and an additional several months in physical therapy, he made a full recovery and was able to return to flying. He presented a stunning collection of rare photos he took after his recovery, during his time as a Blackbird pilot.

Attendees were invited to a special luncheon on Friday featuring a speech by Eileen Collins. Collins is a retired NASA astronaut and has the distinction of being the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle. It was unreal to hear her causally talk about her training, and describe in detail what it is like to feel a space shuttle takeoff. She chuckled and told about when she looked out the window and it hit her that "wow, the earth IS round!"

Of the thousands in attendance, a large percentage had come for the job opportunities. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United Airlines were all present at the conference, taking resumes and conducting short interviews with applicants. Sharply dressed pilots flocked to their booths and it was fun talking to some of the energetic young job searchers.

I’m in a great spot for attending this conference, because I am graduating high school and beginning the rest of my flight training in a few short months. I tried to make a point of visiting every flight university and hearing about what makes them special, and how they are conducting their training of the next generation of pilots. I lingered at the Bristow Academy and Whirly-Girls booths, envisioning my life as a helicopter pilot. There are so many scholarships and opportunities available for an education in aviation, it is simply a matter of knowing where to look.

After passing by and lusting over an Abingdon watch a few times, I went to some of the education sessions. I learned tips and tricks for publishing my own book, and listened to a panel of female airline pilots. There were dozens of other educational sessions happening, and I only wish there were more of me so I could have attended more of them!

Seeing thousands of people who are passionate about aviation and are enjoying their careers in the field was extremely inspiring. I highly encourage anyone who is serious about aviation to look into attending the next Women in Aviation International conference. I can’t wait to attend next year’s conference myself and reunite with some of the great girls I met last weekend.