Thursday, March 5, 2009

Women, Women, Everywhere!

Last month I celebrated getting my commercial rating by attending my first Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference in Atlanta. (Since then, I've also gone skiing, taken on a new job at a new company, and begun work on my CFI... so more will be coming!) The conference was amazing-- and the people I met there were even more amazing!

I flew down to Peachtree DeKalb on a Wednesday in my C-172. I had hoped I might find someone to go with me, but unfortunately, the few women who expressed an interest weren’t able to come. So I was very thankful for both the XM Weather and the XM Radio in our plane! I had no idea what to expect, but figured that minimally, I’d build a little time by flying myself (and who can resist air time!). My trip down was relatively uneventful. I picked up a few more minutes actual IMC... and landed just after dark at Peachtree. I definitely have to give a shoutout to Epps Aviation at PDK. They were great-- and because I was attending the conference, they gave me a discount on the fuel, half price on the overnights, a ride to and from the MARTA station, and even a round trip ticket for the train. Oh- and they also gave me a goody bag of snacks (much appreciated during the long days of the conference!).

Unfortunately, I got there much later than anticipated (tough headwind and too much to do at home)-- and too late to go to the Chapter social that I had signed up for. So my first event was on Thursday morning-- a tour of the Delta Technical Operations (Tech Ops) Center at ATL. Walking into the conference registration area at the hotel on Thursday morning, I realized that I had badly underestimated what a big event the conference would be! Though things had not yet kicked off officially, there were already several hundred women (and a few men) milling around.

Delta Tech Ops, located at the Atlanta airport, was huge! I think they said it was almost a mile from one end to the other. About 150 of us listened to the head of Tech Ops tell us about the business. In the last few years, Delta Tech Ops has completely changed their business model, and now does light maintenance and modifications for a wide range of outside customers. We then split into smaller groups for a tour of the facility. We saw a variety of shops—from avionics to tires to engines, and we also walked through the huge maintenance bays where aircraft come in to have the modifications and maintenance performed. What a way to start the conference! We saw all kinds of airplanes, engines in every state of repair, and even an engine test cell -- they had been testing an engine right before we went in, and it was still spinning when they let us in the bay. Crazy stuff.

When I was a kid, Delta was "the" airline. I can remember flying them all over the place-- and I loved the playing cards and wings they'd give out to all the kids on board. I flew what seemed like a fair amount (of course, it was nothing compared to the amount of travel that Husband did when we were first married)-- and made several trips sans parents. Those were the best because they'd introduce you to the pilots and all of the crew and let you come up the cockpit. Hmmm. Maybe this flying thing has been in my blood longer than I thought! In any case, I haven't been that crazy about Delta in recent years (Delta fans out there, forgive me!). We flew USAirways when we lived in Pittsburgh... and recently, I've been flying United (mostly because they have a lot of flights in and out of the Washington area AND you can do Economy Plus-- which makes a huge difference on long haul flights. But-- I was really impressed by the Delta folks I met at the conference. And judging from the amount of sponsorship they gave to the conference, I'm guessing they are doing a little better than a lot of other airlines.

I won’t go through all of the events I attended in detail, but I learned more about FAA and airport operations, listened to the WASP talk about their experiences, and learned about different aviation career options. Between sessions, I explored the exhibit hall which was still pretty lively, even if the airlines aren’t doing much recruiting. I also prowled the silent auction items and came away with two VIP tickets to Oshkosh (my husband is so excited!). The social/networking events were amazing. The first night was a cocktail reception complete with door prizes. The next night was an incredible reception (hosted by Air Tran) at the Georgia Aquarium, and the last was a formal gala where five women were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I met amazing women from all different aviation-related disciplines (I was surprised to learn that not everyone there was a pilot!). A few examples: a group of students looking to find their aviation path, a finance executive from Pratt & Whitney, two military pilots who fly the big refueling tankers for the Air Force, a staff photographer from the EAA, and many, many more. My favorites were probably the military pilots. They were fascinated with learning about my flying—and thought I was “incredibly brave” to fly in so “unstructured” an environment. That made me laugh—to me, they define bravery! But we found common ground in that we all wanted to learn whatever we could about aviation.

All good things must end—but my conference experience lasted a bit longer than I thought it would! With a big snow storm (and accompanying high winds) hitting the East Coast, I ended up spending an extra two nights in Atlanta. This allowed me, however, to volunteer with the group packing up after the conference—and to catch a glimpse into how the event is run. You can bet that I’ll be attending (and volunteering!) the conference in Orlando next year!