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Northern Michigan aviation students navigate male-dominated field

Bronte Cook
Interlochen Public Radio

Across the world, there's been a dramatic airplane pilot shortage. According to Boeing, North America will need over 200,000 pilots in the next two decades.

But as the demand for pilots grows, the number of women in the industry has not — except, locally.

At Northwestern Michigan College, the number of female aviation students is growing — and they are finding new ways to move forward in the industry. 

Female aviator takes flight

On a windy day in mid-June, Northwestern Michigan College aviation student and Flight Instructor Jessi Martin starts the engine on a single-propellor plane.


If the weather cooperates, she'll be lifting off for a night fly across the city in just a few hours.


"The runways and the cities are so beautiful when everything is lit up at night," Martin says. 


Martin grew up in Lelanau County. When she was 14 years old, she shadowed a local pilot and flew in a plane for the first time. 


"He let me sit right up in the front with him," she says. "I fell in love."


But she didn't pursue aviation, instead she studied biology at Western Michigan University and became a zookeeper. It wasn't until she was in her 40s and had moved back to northwest lower Michigan that she really considered a career in aviation. 


National look at the industry


50 years ago in the United States, women made up one percent of commercial pilots. Today, it's six percent. 


"Women, overall, we're definitely an untapped resource," Martin says. "When we're out there flying, or even in the office, it's mostly guys." 


Even so, airlines are experiencing a major pilot shortage across all demographics. Regional Airline Association president Faye Malarkey Black says shortages are happening because many pilots are retiring, it's harder to get a pilot's license and global travel is increasing.


In response to the shortage, many flight schools and airlines have introduced financial and lifestyle benefits to make the industry more appealing to all demographics.


"The regionals and main lines have targeted recruiting that aim to make the flight deck look a lot more like the cabins and the customers we serve," she says. 

Credit Bronte Cook / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
NMC aviation student Jessi Martin goes to start one of the college's single propellor planes.

Women in aviation at NMC


NMC doesn't have targeted recruiting like the airlines and flight schools Malarkey Black mentioned. But, the number of women enrolled in their aviation program is double the national average. 

Alex Bloye, director of the aviation program at NMC, says the change happened organically. 


"The more women we ended up enrolling, the more inspiration we had for the next generation," he says. "People want to see themselves in that population — they want to be inspired." 


Female pilots connect outside the classroom 


Worldwide, opportunities for female pilots to connect are growing. Nonprofits like Women in Aviation International provide scholarships and host conferences.


Sometimes, female pilots turn to closed Facebook groups with more private questions and concerns — like how to dress for the job when most pilot outfits are tailored for men, or childcare options while pursuing a travel oriented career. Some female pilots connect through long-lasting traditions.


Last month, Martin and fellow NMC aviation student Hannah Beard competed in the Air Race Classic — a 2,600 mile, all-female air race in a single-propellor plane.  


Women's air racing began 90 years ago, when 20 female pilots — including Amelia Earhart — raced cross-country. This year, over 100 female pilots competed in the race. 


Martin's team was the first to compete from NMC and came in 15th place. 


This story was featured in Points North, you can find the full episode here. 


Air Race Classic radio transmitter audio courtesy of LiveaTC.net.


Bronte Cook is a rising third year student at Ithaca College pursuing a B.A. in journalism with a minor in women and gender studies. There, she is a recipient of the Park Scholar Award, a competitive scholarship presented to individuals with a passion for media, leadership and community service.