Issue 16.6: Dec. 2013 / Jan. 2014

School for Aviatrixes

Story by Katherine Nichols
Photo by James Anshutz

In Hangar 79 Margaret Lonborg’s stride lengthens to a skip when she sees what she’s waited for all day. “Flight suits!” the 10-year-old squeals. “Yay!” She and several other girls wriggle into fire-retardant jumpsuits and helmets so large that they threaten to topple them over, then scramble into the cockpit of a Seahawk helicopter. After an introduction to magnetic anomaly detectors, the girls respond without hesitation when their instructor, a former Marine pilot, tells them to press the anti-torque pedals and “pull up on the collective.” Lily McDermott, also 10, grins and high-fives her new copilots before heading to the next activity: a squadron photo by the Convair F-102A Delta Dagger.

Now in its seventh iteration since 2012, the Pacific Aviation Museum’s Flight School for Girls teaches aviation—history, weather, technology—to 10- to 13-year-olds. “It’s a cliché to say that middle school is pivotal,” says Shauna Tonkin, the museum’s director of education, who started the program with a grant from the Women’s Fund of Hawaii. “But it’s really a time when girls have trouble accepting who they are. Plus, many don’t grow up with an affinity for machines. This helps them gain confidence around science and technology.” During the three-day intensive, any insecurities the girls might have about a traditionally boys-only domain lasts for maybe an hour. Even the squadron photo sparks a little showmanship. “Is that all you’ve got? Show a little attitude!” Tonkin encourages as the girls stand straighter, salute, cross their arms.

While the girls don’t actually fly during the flight school, some of them will catch the bug. Anna Wood’s participation last year propelled her into glider lessons. Now 12, she can hold altitude and a heading. Up next are solo glider flights, and she plans to obtain her motorized pilot’s license by 16. “I never thought I’d be a pilot,” she says. “In flight school I learned about thermals and clouds, and it made sense when I could feel the lift. It was awesome.”

Not every girl who enrolls in the threeday course will lean in toward real flight instruments, but they’re guaranteed an immersion in science and technology— disguised behind rivet guns, flight simulators, jumpsuits, radio-controlled aircraft and a lot of giggling.