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Secretary of Air Force Empowers Women

By Megan Esau

July 26, 2017 - United States Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson made time in her schedule to participate in the WomenVenture mass photo and a Women Soar You Soar Q&A during her visit to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017 on Wednesday.

Wilson, EAA 1179379, is a familiar face to the general aviation community as the proud owner of a Cessna 152 who grew up in an aviation family. Her grandfather flew as a Royal Air Force pilot in World War I before coming to America, where he was a barnstormer and mechanic and helped open a number of airports in New England. She said her father followed the same path, first learning to fly at age 13, and later serving as a crew chief in the Air Force.

“At a time when a lot of women didn’t even drive in the 1950s, he taught my mom how to fly,” Wilson said. “They rebuilt one airplane together, then when us kids were born, my dad was a commercial pilot for what was Northeast Airlines at the time. … My dad built an experimental open-cockpit biplane inside our house like a lot of the guys here. Then, when I was a junior in high school, they opened the Air Force Academy to women.”

Not only was she a graduate of the third Air Force Academy class to admit women, but Wilson is only the third woman to serve as secretary of the Air Force — and the first secretary to have graduated from the academy. Despite these great personal accomplishments, Wilson chose to highlight the expanding diversity in the U.S. armed forces on Wednesday.

“The first graduating class from the Air Force Academy was 1959, and the first graduating class with women was 1980, so we’ve actually had more coeducation classes than not from the service academies now,” she said. “All career fields are open to women, and all positions are open to women in the Air Force. Nineteen percent of the Air Force is women now, which is the highest percentage of any service.”

During her confirmation hearing as secretary earlier this year, Wilson said she plans to address the pilot shortage facing the Air Force. Work is already underway, and she said the Air Force is expanding training to 1,400 pilots this year, while adding bonuses and a greater work-life balance to help retain the current fleet of pilots.

However, Wilson said the pilot shortage goes beyond the Air Force to a national scale, and young women and others interested in aviation should seek out opportunities through programs, such as EAA chapters and the Civil Air Patrol, to start getting involved.

“It’s not just flying,” Wilson said. “It’s operating airports, it’s working on avionics, it’s being an A&P mechanic. Just get out there and try some things. See what you like to do. It’s a good community to be a part of. Half the battle of life is surrounding yourself with people who are craftsmen of their work, who enjoy their work. You learn a lot from those people.”

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