WINTER HAVEN — Think about the prototypical voice of an airline pilot: calm, deep, resonant, a touch folksy.
And above all, thoroughly masculine.
Eirlys Willis says she has never seen or heard a female pilot while flying on a commercial jet. That’s one reason Willis, 17, had never considered a career in aviation.
That changed after the Winter Haven High School senior took her first ride in a small airplane last fall during an event at Winter Haven Municipal Airport. Willis and her stepfather went up in a seaplane, touching down on two local lakes before returning to Brown’s Seaplane Base.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Willis said. “When I got back to the terminal and walked inside, a lady asked me if I was interested in flying as a career.”
At this point, Willis’ answer is a resounding, “Yes.”
She is one of two girls in the Central Florida Flying Club now pursuing their pilot certifications. Both have benefited from the James A. Ray Scholarship, available to Polk County high school students to cover the cost of flight training. The club also includes a woman who is a flight instructor.
Nearly a century after Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean, women remain a decided minority in the realm of aviation. Only about 5 percent of the nation’s 600,000 pilots are female, according to statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration, and women comprise about 12.5 percent of commercial pilots.
The Central Florida Flying Club, which holds weekly meetings at the Winter Haven airport, doesn’t specifically recruit females, said Jamie Beckett, a flight instructor and a club member. But the club, formed last year, creates an environment that welcomes anyone interested in flying, Beckett says.
Willis sat with other members Tuesday at a club meeting as Beckett, a pilot for 26 years, conducted a lesson on navigation and air traffic control guidelines. She says the ground school sessions are helping her prepare for a written exam required for her pilot’s license.
Another member, Tiffany Carr, 16, missed most of the meeting while taking part in a two-hour flight lesson with instructor Trae LeSan. Against the backdrop of a luminous orange sunset, Carr taxied a Cessna C 150 — nicknamed "The Disco" for its cobalt blue interior — to a stop outside Hangar 125, where the club was gathered.
Carr, a junior at Polk State College Collegiate High School, was preparing for her first solo flight, a feat Willis achieved two months earlier.
“Isn’t that an amazing thing, when you find young people who have found a path to a career and are getting the support they need to be successful?” said Beckett, a former Winter Haven city commissioner. “We all take a lot of pride in knowing that we can play a small, peripheral role in helping them succeed.”
Carr says airplanes have fascinated her since she first flew on a commercial jet as a young girl.
“When I was little and we’d go somewhere, I remember on takeoff it was like a bubbly feeling inside,” she said after her training session.
Early this year, Carr called the Winter Haven Municipal Airport and was directed to Beckett, the Florida ambassador for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a nonprofit that promotes aviation. Beckett took her up in his AOPA Cessna 152, allowing her to take the controls soon after takeoff.
“I remember being behind the yoke of a plane was like magic, and I just knew that was what I wanted to do,” Carr said. “It was like my happy place.”
Beckett encouraged Carr to apply for the James A. Ray Scholarship, named for a World War II veteran, and she learned in June she had been awarded one of the $12,000 grants. The award pays for the training she began in August, when she was just 15.
Carr’s training session Tuesday gave her about 14 hours of total flight time. She spent the two-hour session doing “pattern work” — flying in loops near the airport — and practicing takeoffs and landings.
LeSan, her instructor, has an Air Force background, and Carr said she would like to enlist when she turns 18, though her parents are not enthusiastic about that plan. If she doesn’t enter the military, Carr said she might pursue a career as a commercial pilot.
Willis said she had never really considered a career in aviation before her seaplane ride last fall.
“I didn’t think it was an option,” she said. “I thought that was something only rich, brilliant people can do. I didn’t even think that would be an opportunity for someone like me.”
Willis learned about the Ray Scholarship but hesitated to apply, assuming she would have little chance of success. She soon met Beckett, who took her for a ride in his Cessna 152, and that experience convinced her to apply.
Willis began her instruction July 1 and often flew three or four days a week until school resumed. Her first solo flight occurred a month later under surprising circumstances.
Taxiing toward the terminal after a training session, Willis noticed her family members gathered beside the taxiway. Her instructor, Jim Porterfield, said it was time for her first solo flight and stepped out of the Cessna 150.
“I remembering taxiing back to the runway and I was praying like, ‘God, be with me,’ ” Willis said. “I was confident, but it was just very scary because I didn’t know I was going to be soloing that day.”
The flight included two touch-and-go maneuvers. Willis said her first was a bit rough, her second was better and her final landing was “beautiful.”
Willis said she has long been determined to avoid a career that involves sitting in an office cubicle. She also aspires to travel. The discovery of potential aviation jobs perfectly fits those preferences.
She plans to attend Polk State College and enter the aerospace program and then seek a bachelor’s degree in aerospace administration. She hasn’t decided on a particular career path but knows it will be in aviation.
“I have all these different opportunities coming right at me, and it just feels like this is something I need to do,” Willis said. “It’s crazy how everything has been here the whole time and I had no idea.”
'Kind of a rush'
Another club member, Genesah Duffy of Auburndale, is further along on her aviation path. Duffy, 28, has an aerospace degree from Polk State and has been a certified flight instructor for about two years.
Duffy became interested in flying while she was in the Navy, but pilot slots were open only to those with college degrees. Shortly after leaving the Navy in 2012, Duffy took a discovery flight at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, allowing her to take the controls of a Cessna 172.
It was her first flight in a small plane.
“It was just kind of a rush, surprisingly enough — I’m super-scared of heights,” Duffy said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to take it, but it’s a totally different feeling once you’re up in the air. It just sparks a light in you.”
Duffy earned her pilot’s license and began flying nearly every day to secure her flight instructor certification in just a year. That training requires at least 250 hours of flight time.
Duffy is now certified to instruct in single-engine planes and also qualified to fly in multi-engine planes. The largest plane she has flown so far is a Beech King Air 350, a dual-propeller plane with a wingspan of nearly 58 feet.
With LeSan set to begin a job with an airline, Duffy plans to take over his instruction of Carr.
As she considers her ultimate career path, Duffy is completing training for an airframe and powerplant mechanic license. She said many companies seeking corporate or charter pilots want candidates who can either handle the maintenance of a small jet or at least oversee it.
Duffy said she has never encountered hostility from male pilots. In fact, she said some instructors have told her women make better pilots because they tend to be more analytical than men and more precise in following safety checklists.
She said the continuing gender gap in aviation seems to exist largely because fewer females consider entering the field.
“I think general aviation and airline pilots and corporate aviation, everyone wants female pilots, everyone wants to have that diversity in their own corporation or club,” Duffy said. “But I think a lot of women are intimidated by it, so they don’t want to get involved in it. … I think a lot of women just don’t know the opportunities of getting into aviation, so they don’t perceive themselves doing it.”
Willis seconded that idea.
“I feel like woman are discouraged because it’s just men (in aviation),” she said, “and they feel intimidated because they feel there’s not another female to talk to.”
Carr said her schoolmates seem intrigued by her devotion to flying – not because she’s a girl but simply because she has found her passion at such a young age.
Carr doesn’t seem to consider herself a pioneer.
“I guess it’s kind of a bonus,” she said. “I mean, I’m excited to be one of the few in the field, but I’m also doing this because it’s what I love to do. I’m not doing it just because I want to be a female in the aviation industry. I’m doing it because I’m happy doing it.”
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