The aviation industry faces a worldwide shortage of qualified pilots. Hawaiʻi has an even greater need, given our heavy dependence on air travel. To help close the gap, a summer flight school is targeting girls who have often been overlooked as future pilots -- and exposing them to a career that could take them anywhere.
A half dozen or so middle school girls with clipboards in hand inspect every aspect of the plane on the tarmac of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Ford Island.
"What aviators do before they get into the air...they go thoroughly over an airplane and theyʻre learning what they need to do,” says Shauna Tonkin, education director at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
She’s been running the week-long summer flight school for girls since 2012.
“I wanted girls to have an opportunity to experience aviation and other STEM activities in a very safe environment,” says Tonkin, “Sometimes in middle school, boys can be rambunctious and exuberant and even though girls are very capable they sometimes take a backseat.”
Not these girls.
Commander Jeanie Blankenship is a career pilot with the U.S. Navy. She enrolled her 11-year-old daughter Journey Lynn Paluseo in the flight school program.
“I came through many many years ago, and we didn’t have quite the support that I’m seeing for young ladies today. I think it’s fantastic,” says Blankenship.
She says Journey Lynn can’t stop talking about flight school.
“I’m like learn something and teach your mama when you get home,” says Blankenship, “And she’s been doing it, and I love it!”
Hawaiʻi pilot Annie Domko heads the local chapter of Women in Aviation International and is a fan of the summer flight school.
“If you canʻt see it, you canʻt believe it,” says Domko, “And that is the point of getting them so young is that they probably go through an airport and they really donʻt see a lot of women represented.”
The Federal Aviation Administration says a little more than 4 percent of the airline pilots in the U.S. are women. At Hawaiʻi's largest carrier Hawaiian Airlines, an estimated 10 percent of the pilots are women.
Domko says there is so much untapped potential among females.
“Industry-wide, it is a pilot shortage,” says Domko. “They cannot fill the amount of spots at the rate at which people are reaching that mandatory retirement age.”
She says if not enough is done, the shortage could be bad for business, resulting in fewer flights and higher airfares.
Back at the flight school, two dozen young girls complete their training and receive their symbolic plastic wings from aviators like Domko. Tonkin says the summer school may not immediately relieve the shortage, but it is a start.