Saturday, May 29, 2010

AcroCamp Recap

You’re probably wondering why it has taken me so long to publish a blog entry about AcroCamp.  Yeah, me too. AcroCamp, in case you are unfamiliar, was (is?) a documentary about “four pilots from different walks of life and around the country gathering in Michigan to take over a Part 61 flight school for four days and fly aerobatics for the first time” that took place May 13-17, 2010.

I’m not sure why it’s taking me so long to update the blog, other than the days of aerobatics left me physically and mentally exhausted (getting home at 2am after driving home to Cleveland on the last day didn’t help matters much either). Okay, so that explains the first week, maybe… well, then I had a conference - during which I got stuck at a friend’s private airstrip (time to spare? go by air!). As a result, I’ve just been getting caught up with other stuff. Slowing down to type down my memories is getting harder and harder at my age. Which is 29, for anyone who’s asking. Blame the rest on procrastination, I guess.

Obviously I was one of the campers. Remember my blog post about why I wanted to go to AcroCamp? I intend to let you know whether some or all of my goals have been achieved. They were pretty vague  goals, having more to do with "life affirming moments" than "don't puke." For the record, I didn't. However, my brains got a little scrambled during the four days of aerobatics, and relaxing (not journaling) during our down time was almost a necessity (but then again, so was mainlining triscuits and animal crackers to keep energy up and the contents of our stomachs down). I am now going to have to go back to the Facebook posts and tweets of all of those involved and try to recreate the event.  The last few days I've typed out everything I can remember about AcroCamp, which will be posted here in a series of entries. [I'd tell you how many, but I have no idea. It'll stop when I have no more to say.] If I've forgotten anything or don't explain anything well enough, just let me know.

The participants are the four campers, introduced in this AcroCamp blog entry. Shown left to right are Jim, a relatively new pilot, Michele, a CFI, me, and Paul, an airline pilot. Or as they became to be known – Flubber, G, La La and Gump. Our instructors were Don and Barry (in back). Why Don has his finger in his ear is beyond us. I'd like to think he was realigning his turn and slip indicator, but he won't say. Ancient Aerobatic Master's secret, most probably.

Day 0 (Arrival at Camp). We got started a day later than scheduled because of a definite lack of good weather (we need high cloud ceilings and good visibility for aerobatics). Therefore I had no excuse for showing up late, which is not usual for me, because I was trying to get things done before I left. A quick trip to mail some Penelope Pilot books off at the post office turned into a 45 minute ordeal. Then traffic and construction made it so I didn’t arrive until nearly 5pm. I felt horrible because the entire crew was hanging around waiting for me to show up so we could begin. It built up the anticipation for my arrival, at least. (Sorry, guys!)

As soon as I walked in the door, I was made to leave. Walk back out of the door, that is, and come back in with the cameras turned on. Everyone else had some time to get used to having a camera lens in their face, but for me it was kind of awkward still. We had cameramen sticking cameras into our conversations, "confession" cams after every flight, and recorded de-briefs with our instructors. By the end of camp we were totally ignoring the cameras filming everything we did. Ignoring the cameras, Will and Dave, not you guys!

The evening of Day 0 the campers and crew had a brief ground school in an absolutely FREEZING hangar with our instructors, Barry Sutton and Don Weaver. (Quick plug for the instructors, yo. If you EVER need an aerobatics instructor in Michigan, do me, nay you, the favor, and get in touch with these guys.)

This ground school, I must tell you, was a blur, despite the use of a super cool model airplane that the instructor’s son had built. And not just because I was shivering. [Did I mention the camp was in May? In any other state, this would be spring. In Michigan it's still mid winter, apparently.] And boy, did I need a refresher on p-factor, gyroscopic effect, and other aerodynamic principals more commonly seen flying single engine propeller driven airplanes (not to mention I have NEVER flown a taildragger) as opposed to the jets I’ve become used to. And seriously, some of these concepts that I had been studying for my CFI were still a bit of smoke and mirrors.

As soon became apparent during the next few days of flying, you can TELL me something, but you must SHOW me something for me to get it. The Aerobatics book we read prior to camp helped, and the ground school helped, but I had to get into the airplane to get an ah-ha moment. (Despite the picture to the right, just climbing into the Pitts didn't make it become clear automatically. I mean you have to fly the maneuvers too.) For example, Barry and Don actually later had me show them skidding and slipping turns (some of these airplanes don’t have turn coordinators, so you really have to “feel” it) and those other things I mentioned previously, so I could say, "hey, the airplane really can yaw if you don’t lead with a little rudder." Important lessons to remember if I am to become as good as a CFI as they. Plus, remaining coordinated is SO important in aerobatics. You can't be glancing down during a aerobatic sequence to see if you're in trim. Or would that be glancing up? Actually flying aerobatics, now that's the subject of the next few posts. Til next time. Smoke on.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lessons from Penelope Pilot

Hopefully by now I've gotten the message to you (via one of the many social networking methods I try to keep up with) about the new Girls With Wings book, Penelope Pilot and her First Day as Captain, available now at the GWW Pilot Shop.

My plan to create a line of books featuring the entire crew of Girls With Wings dolls (others forthcoming) has been one of the tenets of the GWW program from day one. I want to develop a series of stories featuring aviation and all associated STEM disciplines in a entertaining yet educational format for the girls combining flying with geography, meteorology, science, etc.

Why do I think it will work? My niece, a voracious reader (she takes after her aunt), had purchased from her school a few volumes about weather fairies. What girl under the age of 10 is not fascinated with fairies (and princesses)? But, what the heck, these books, which appeal to her girly girl side, are also teaching her about weather. You could, after all, buy books about fairies and princesses that teach girls nothing about anything, so as long as that's what they're going for,  I say, yeah, buy the books explaining weather using fairies. It's unlikely you're going to get a girl to willingly pick up a more generic book. It'll seem too much like homework. We just won't tell her that the cutesy stuff is also educating her at the same time.

Well, deciding to write a children's book and getting one into print is two totally separate things. Here's the process as it developed.

Step 1: Write story. Easy enough. I just drew on my days as an airline pilot to come up with a plot. Step 2: Illustrate pages. I'm not sure even how I linked up with Rob the Designer on Twitter, but he mentioned he was looking to get into illustrating children's books and frankly I can't draw. Rob submitted a sample drawing of Penelope that we just loved (shown at right), so it was on to Step 3: Combine Steps 1 and 2.

Sounds simple. But alas, Rob, although an awesome illustrator, is not a pilot. My friend Cindy, a major airline pilot and GWW Role Model, agreed to manage the project and exchanged numerous emails with Rob regarding the technicalities of aviation. For example, at first Rob had drawn a windsock right in the middle of the departure end of the runway with a tailwind. There were two problems with that: you can't have an obstacle blocking the runway, especially since you would have been using the other end of the runway due to the winds.  I even paid a pilot in Rob's area to take him and his kids up for a flight to get a "bird's eye" view of an airport and he did a great job researching airport security and ground support vehicles, etc. Minor things, but we figured since our biggest audience for the book would be folks in aviation trying to encourage their girls to develop an interest, we might want to be accurate. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Cindy and Rob for their hard work ...and their ability to work together so well for so long!

While we were going through finalizing the illustrations (which as you can see are amazingly rich with color), I kept going through the text. It seemed like every time I read my script I found misspellings, grammatical errors and  awkward sentences. Did you know that "Jetway" is a registered trademark? Luckily I stumbled on to this fact so I could change the word to "Jetbridge" to avoid paying royalties.

Several times I took the book into a library and asked the librarians what they thought. One woman in particular was very unimpressed. She said the book had no "tension" (tension in this industry is one thing we DON'T want to focus on!). She also informed me that kids as old as 14 years or so would read a picture book if they liked the story. I decided to go back and expand on the story to make it longer and add more detail.. All along we had one word on each page to explain, like "Turbine: A type of airplane engine, but also Penelope's name for her cat," which the older kids enjoyed. Once I took it into a third grade class and read the main text, while the kids got to hold up each picture and read the definition at the bottom of each page. They loved it!

I also tried to think of the lessons parents try to teach their kids. Penelope has to get up early so she gets to the airport on time. She needs to stay healthy so she can keep her medical certificate. And she needs to act as part of a team, the whole crew concept.

Once the illustrations (note Rob's awesome touches with the details on  each page!) and the text were locked in, my dad stepped in to help find a printer. Although it's gotten easier to publish a book yourself, it is still a whole other world to navigate when you want to print a book (using an established publishing house is really difficult). A big thanks to my dad who spent days, no weeks, going back and forth with printers to make sure our (my) high standards were met. He was the one who insisted we do the standup Penelope Pilot doll in the back, too, which I think is a great touch.

All told, this process took a year!

I got some indication of the effect the Penelope Pilot book could have soon after receiving it when I stayed with my friend Keith and his family. Keith is training to become a pilot and he and his young son have a wonderful time sharing their love of aviation. One day, though, Keith asked his younger daughter if she would be interested in becoming a pilot. Her response, "Flying is for boys," sent him on an internet search  which resulted in his finding Girls With Wings. He immediately signed her up for a membership, writing "She is a very bright 4 1/2 year old and very interested in flying.  I'm currently acquiring my Private license and I look forward to taking her flying with me.  Her brother and I have a Dad/Son bond with flying, and she seems to think she can't do it because she is a girl.  I am signing her up to show her that girls can fly and have fun too... that it's not just a boy pastime. This club will be her first chance of something special she can be a part of that her brother cannot, and I hope she will be more active as she gets older."

I featured his daughter in the next newsletter and a couple of Girls With Wings Role Models, Christa and Amy (shown here), even got in touch with Keith to talk to Madeleine. We've been in touch ever since, and met once during a trip I made to D.C. Keith's son had a ton of questions for me, mostly about helicopters, some of which I could even answer. His daughter was  kind of quiet so I was trying really hard not to pressure her into talking about flying, and as a result, scare her away.

I went to D.C. last weekend to do another Girls With Wings presentation and had the pleasure of staying with Keith's family. His son warmed up to me again right away, asking me how much a missile weighs (for the record, I have no idea). His daughter, not so much. For as sassy as she can be with her parents (she's to the far right in the picture), she's reserved around strangers. The night before I left, though, I presented her with one of the Penelope Pilot books, which she immediately perused cover to cover, then in reverse, and then had me sign it. I asked her if she would like me to read it to her and she said yes. It's a rather long book so we only got halfway through when we were called for dinner.

After dinner she got back out the book and sidled up to me so I offered to finish reading it to her. She curled up next to me on the couch and listened attentively through the rest. Yeah, so? Most kids like being read to, right? Well, I happened to be in the kitchen when she got up the next morning and she went straight for the book on the counter and carried it with her all morning. That is, until Mom let her know they had gotten a book to donate to her class. Then she had to look through the other books to choose the second best one (the one that hadn't been signed by the author, of course) for her school.

I, of course, was beaming, hoping that the Penelope Book might be pivotal in her life - the one thing that convinces her, as her shirt says, "Yes, Girls Can Fly!" But I am a little biased, of course. Dad wrote to let me know, though, that “I was excited to see that Lynda Meeks from Girls With Wings published the Penelope Pilot book.  I have one son and two daughters, and all of them are interested in flying.  While it’s pretty easy to find toys, magazines, and books that appeal to my son, the Penelope Pilot book was something special just for my daughter Madeleine that we can share together.  I really enjoyed seeing the look on her face when she realized Penelope was the Captain in the left seat of her plane!”

And from Madeleine herself, the following interview with Dad (remember, she's a girl of few words):
Dad. Madeleine, did you like the Penelope Pilot book?
Madeleine. Yes.
D.What did you think of the book?
M. Good.
D. What did you like best about the book?
M. The cat.
D. Besides the cat, did you like seeing things like the checklists that Penelope used to get her plane ready to fly?
D. Ummmm, did you like the color of the book?  The pink?
M. Nooooo Dad, it had purple, not pink. (D: I rolled my eyes at this point. Madeleine is obsessed with pink.)
D. Madeleine, did you like how Penelope was the captain of the plane and not the boy?
M. Yes. She flew the plane. The man was her helper.
D. Did the book make you feel like you could fly a plane just like Penelope?
M. Yes. Jets are fast.
D. Did the book make you think that you could fly a plane better than your brother or Dad?
M. Yes. I can fly better than you guys.
D. Does that mean you could outfly your brother?
M. Yes.
D. How about your Dad?
M. Yes. I’d be a better pilot.
I said she's quiet, not lacking in self confidence.

Ok, so it's going to take some time to see the lasting effects of the book. It's one tool that Girls With Wings can use to get girls interested in aviation. All I know is that we can't stop trying. And we can't count on one approach to solve the lopsided numbers of men to women in aviation. The book may work for some, a girly girl airplane hair bow for another. Some of you may be fortunate enough to take the girl in question up for an actual flight, like Av8rdan blogs about in his post, It is Rare Moments Like These in a Pilot's Life That Need to be Cherished Forever,  about taking his granddaughter on her first flight.

And though you might think that older girls would be uninterested in what this old pilot has to say, I was flattered when middle and high school aged girls asked me for my autograph after my presentation in D.C. Sometimes all it takes is talking about what it is we do. Maybe these girls will become pilots, maybe not. I may never know. But I give out little postcard reminders of the Girls With Wings presentation hoping that they will throw it in a drawer and rediscover it when they're packing for college. If the Girls With Wings message (you can do whatever you strive for as long as you're willing to work at it) has stayed with them I hope they will drop me a line. And, Keith, Madeleine can let me know sooner than that.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Is this Girl With Wings sending a hurtful message?

Apparently two men, electing themselves to speak on behalf of  women in aviation everywhere, do. They have sent me emails (attached below) to let me know how wrong I am for the way in which I'm encouraging girls to have an interest in aviation, especially with this "shrinking violet in her soft pink cuddly airplane." Note: it's purple.

For the six plus years I've been working on Girls With Wings I have gotten so many emails (some that have moved me to tears) with statements of support, so I think it's only fair that I hear from my critics. I know I cannot please everyone, so a ratio of 2 to several thousand or so is pretty darn good.

I'm not going to say any more about the emails, but I hope you do. I'd like to hear YOUR honest feedback on how you would respond to these emails before I frame a response to the second. You can let me know how I'm missing the mark (though I may not agree with you OR be able to comply due to time, resources and financial issues), but at least you can be heard.  Thank you.

Email #1:

I have a commercial pilots license myself (not flying professionally at this time) and know three other women who fly for the majors (Continental, Alaska and UPS).

Your website is so highly OFFENSIVE that I'm nearly speechless.

Is there a reason you portray female pilots right down there with Holly Hobby and My pretty pony???

The MANY pilots (female and male) that I know are Professional, Serious, and (in the case of the females) ALL WOMAN without having to resort to cutesy stereotypical crap that you're trying to hock here.

If you TRULY are trying to encourage girls to find an interest in and love of flying, you're undermining your own efforts and offending PROFESSIONAL Pilots along the way (both male and female).

ARG!!! I can't believe how pissed off this site makes me!

My response to him:

Thank you for your email. It's unfortunate that you find Girls With Wings offensive, but I assure you that the Girls With Wings program has been enormously  successful with those professional women for whom you believe you are speaking and the girls to whom the outreach effort targets. The women - and men - of all ages, professions and interests, that support our extensive volunteer organization are able to see the value in the website,, and the items we provide, with such inoffensive phrases as "Yes, Girls Can Fly!" - after years of only being able to buy aviation themed items too boyish to interest girls. Your email does let me know that there is one person who so strongly opposes our mission, in contrast to the many who feel so strongly in support of it.

Ok, so now there's two, since I got another email last night. I find it interesting that these emails only came after I started advertising the Girls With Wings Pilot Shop on Facebook. I think people have always gone to the website first and the store second, if at all. The store helps us to raise funds for the educational programs of GWW, though most comes from donations, memberships, etc. The ads are hitting a whole new segment of the aviation field, it appears.

Coincidentally it came just after I received an email from a dad who has ordered a couple of times for things for his kids, saying, "You are a wonderful person and do a great job for our young ladies, and may God always bless you. Please let me know if you are ever in the _____ area. And you can call [me] if there is any problems with the order or donating to GWW. Thanks again for all you do for the kids."

You can see why I'd get such a distorted perception of the appeal of GWW, right?

So here's Email #2, entitled "where is the pilot stuff in the pilot store:"

I am a 41 year old male who is an aviation enthusiast and have made my living as an aviation mechanic for the last 19 years. I stumbled across and thought "awesome, a group actually working to reach an entire segment of the population that the aviation hobby and profession have tried to ignore."

I so badly wanted to support what you say is your mission... but when I went to your "Pilot Store" hoping I'd see some actual aviation gear I could purchase to support your organization, all I found was girly trinkets, jewelry, hair-bows, and nicnacs. Don't you realize by only selling these types of items that you are reinforcing the very attitude you claim to want to improve?

I'm so disappointed that your store telegraphs the hurtful message that girls are only interested in pretty little things and clothes. It saddened me to see the profile photo of your facebook page was a Precious Moments style figurine of a little shrinking violet in her soft pink cuddly airplane. You are only subtly hinting that airplanes would be fine for girls if they were more girly.

It would be so sad to think a young girl that actually might be interested in flying (but not interested in princess items) would be discouraged by your message that she can only be a pilot if finds a way to do it as a girly girl in an airplane toe ring and a pink "girl with wings" cap.

When women fly the planes I work on, they wear the same flight suit as their male counterparts. When I work alongside female technicians they wear the same coveralls I wear. And of these two groups of women, they range from the ultra-feminine to the severely masculine. That's because they are a cross section of society, just like any profession. There is no "mold" for them to be forced into... but a store like yours tries very hard to create one.

If you want to get young girls excited about aviation, how about offering books about successful women who fly? Why not use the very things that attract young boys to aviation (toy planes, video games, DVD's featuring cool aviation movies and documentaries, etc.)

What's really sad is that the photos I saw of of the women who donating their personal time away from flying to interact with groups of young girls are not represented in your store AT ALL!

In light of my blog entry from yesterday, this seems doubly ironic because I was just discussing how the methods we're using now to encourage more women (who, not surprisingly, start out as girls) to get into aviation aren't quite working as well as we would like, or else there would be more women pilots and aviation mechanics, and etc.

Ok. I have to stop typing now. First of all because I still haven't packed for my trip to DC and second because I promised myself I'd let YOU form the answer for me. Still here I am almost  physically restraining myself from developing counterpoints that seems so obvious to me since I've been immersed in this for so long. I need to hear from you to know how other people feel about the mission of Girls With Wings - even if it's just a fraction of how strongly I do - so I can continue to develop the organization.

So, please comment below or send an email to let your voice be heard!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Girls, yes, GIRLS With Wings

Yesterday yet another guy signed up for a GWW membership and stated his support in this way, "I try and get as many people as I can to notice this site and this program (Girls With Wings). It is the best thing going for bringing aviation into the lives of girls, and it should be a national program." I love to hear about all of the different ways people connect with the mission of Girls With Wings (I post most of them on our Facebook page!). I especially love when men can understand and get behind our efforts without feeling threatened or that women are asking for special favors.As my twitter friend JefftheCFI said, "I would have done it sooner but I thought it was a "Gurlz Only" club. ;-) Let me know if I can ever do anything to help out." He immediately joined after I let him know that it definitely wasn't.

If I seem obsessed on these topics it is because my mission in life is to increase the number of women in (and enjoying) aviation. I have been criticized more than once because of my female-centric Girls With Wings organization. I hear several times at Oshkosh every year from some guy surveying the pink themed booth, "Girls With Wings? Why isn't there a booth called Boys With Wings?" To which I reply, "The whole airshow is Boys With Wings. Girls have just one booth." [That booth, btw, is 1058 in Hangar A - come by and see us this year!] We just want to let girls know that aviation is for them, too.

There are many great organizations out there to encourage people to be pilots, but since the 6 women out of 100 licensed pilots ratio hasn't increased since the FAA started keeping records, we must be missing something. I have started writing articles on how to keep women, once they start taking lessons, to stay in them and follow through to their private pilot rating (at least). I just read that 70% of people drop out of flight training once they start (FAA Statistics). Wow.

Though It could be because of the price. Yesterday I took my first lesson in a Cessna 172 and it cost several hundred dollars!

I am bound to get criticism for my gender generalizations, like "Women feel the need to understand something completely before they feel comfortable." The resulting self doubt can discourage women from continuing their training. I know I'll get more comments because "we shouldn't make special concessions for women" and from women who don't appreciate being lumped together in such a manner, but we've got to try. What we're doing now clearly isn't working to get the ratio of pilots to be more equitable.

That is why I am so happy to have heard about a study being conducted on researching why only 6% of almost 700,000 active pilots in the United States are female, Teaching Women to Fly. Dr. Penny Hamilton is an award-winning aviation educator and writer and 20+ year private pilot with earned academic degrees from the University of Nebraska, Columbia College and Temple University. How can you get involved in this research study and help other students? If you are a female former flight student who started private flight training at a Fixed Based Operation (FBO) flight school, community college or University setting, but did not earn a private pilot certificate/license, please share your experience with her. Your responses will remain confidential. If you are a female private pilot, how could that experience be improved? Please help her to compile concrete ideas to help flight instructors and flight training programs. Please contact her to complete a very short survey/interview before May 15, 2010.

The Executive Summary/research findings are expected to be posted in early June 2010 after submission to the Alfred L.and Constance C. Wolf Aviation Fund, which partially funded this important research.  They have also made grants to Girls With Wings, btw.

I called to talk to Penny soon after I heard about her website, and I am so looking forward to getting documentation to those things that I feel instinctively are true based on my experiences. I also want women to feel more comfortable in saying exactly how they feel because they know they're not alone. Privately (or anonymously) so many comments I get from women are just like what I hear from their fellow pilots, like "I couldn't keep the airplane exactly on the centerline" or some such perfectionist tendency that they were beating themselves up about, to the detriment of the other skills learned that day!

Well, as soon as I identified myself Penny said immediately that she had heard of Girls With Wings and said I was doing everything right. That we have to make aviation appeal to girls before they will be attracted to it, and it's not enough just to stick a pilot uniform on a Barbie doll. One way I'm doing that, and this is such a coincidence, is with the book, Penelope Pilot and her First Day as Captain. Penelope is no relation to Dr. Penny, but it seems like a sign, doesn't it? We're working on a whole line of books and dolls to entertain and EDUCATE girls about their opportunities!

And for those who are bothered  with the "Girls" part of Girls With Wings, we are still girls. And girls is NOT a derogatory label in and of itself. We  cannot and should not deny our femininity, but embrace it, since it shouldn't hinder us from getting our licenses and from staying true to ourselves!

So with this post I am wrapping up my three part series on attitude, altitude and aviation. My next post is sure to be on aerobatics, since next week [No, seriously, NEXT WEEK], is AcroCamp. That's where I'll be flying upside down, sideways, backwards, etc. Yup, me.