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Where are all the women of Alaska aviation?

Katie Medred
Courtesy of the Alaska 99s, Photo by by Jaimie Patterson-Simes

The Last Frontier is known for the skills, wild tales and accomplished feats of its incredible pilots; for proof, just check out any of the Legends of Alaska Aviation. Among Alaska's hearty and experienced flyers are women, but they're often fewer in number and still a novelty -- even today.

So where are all Alaska's female pilots?

Many of the 49th state's female aviators have banded together to form and uphold various associations, organizations and groups, but one group in particular has historic roots both in Alaska and worldwide: the Chapter of the 99s.

The 99s is an international organization of licensed women pilots from 35 countries. In 1954, a small group of independent women established the first chapter of the 99s in Alaska simply called the Alaska 99s. In 1978, the Cook Inlet chapter was established, followed by the Fairbanks chapter in 1981 and the Mat-Su chapter in 1984.

The chairwoman of the Alaska 99s, Melanie Hancock, says that there are around 55 members. She adds that the 99s "have never been more than 75" and they regularly "struggle and hover between 55 and 65."

"We lose a few, gain a few" every year, but have a difficult time attracting more women, Hancock said.

Jane Dale, executive director of the Alaska Airports Association and member of the 99s, adds that although there are fewer female pilots than men, you do see them out and about. Dale lives in Willow, Alaska, where the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins north of the state's largest city. There are a number of lakes and rivers in that part of the Matanuska Valley, and likely more airstrips than roads.

That suits Dale, who's been traversing the Alaska sky for most of her adult life.

"We're kind of a tight-knit group," she said of the 99s. "(There's) a lot of talent in a lot of women (pilots) around the state."

Although Dale doesn't really pay attention to pilot gender, she notes that there definitely are fewer women than men flying over The Great Land.

Here are some statistics from the FAA's 2012 Fact Book for the entire U.S.:

  • In 2010, the last year that data was available, there were 687,042 pilots in the U.S.
  • Of those, about 6 percent -- or 42,088 pilots -- were female.

"There are a number of women pilots in Alaska ... the hard part is that not all airmen allow their data to be available," Alaska FAA Aviation and Space Education Coordinator Angie Slingluff said in an email. "Determining gender from names can be tricky. When I last tried to compile a list in 2010 there were 11,207 names."

If those numbers are correct, it's possible that about 27 percent of Alaska's General Aviation pilots are women. And while 27 percent is certainly better than the 6 percent of female aviators nationwide, it does leave one wondering: Where are all the gals?

According to a 2010 study investigating the lack of women in aviation, the top reasons that more women aren't involved in flying -- either recreationally or as an occupation -- may be attributed to the cost, "a lack of readily available female mentors," and "certain perceived gaps in experience and skill sets." The study, lead by Penny Hamilton, Ph.D., also addresses how women can push through these barriers to become pilots.

In Alaska, Slingluff and others have been working hard to attract more women, especially young women, to aviation. Hancock says the 99s "have been fairly active" with Alaskan youth, "working with the Girl Scouts and the Young Eagle flights." She adds, "We have a presence at various aviation events around the state and (99) meetings are open to anyone who wants to come to them."

For more information on women in aviation, and especially if you're a woman looking for a flight training scholarship opportunity, visit the 99s' Alaska chapter.

Contact Katie Medred at katie(at)alaskadispatch.com