Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Erika Armstrong: Changing the course of aviation

Editor's note: This story is part of a special section published in the Courier on March 1. The section highlights ten women working in traditionally male-dominated fields across Jefferson and Clear Creek counties.

Erika Armstrong, resident of Conifer, is a pilot. She now works as an aviation professor at Metropolitan State University and does high-level training for corporate pilots.

Despite years in the aviation industry, Erika Armstrong still feels a thrill the moment a plane she is piloting breaks through the clouds and levels off.

“It’s indescribable, right? … You get that feeling of speed going over the top of the clouds,” she said.

Armstrong, 49, of Conifer, spent years piloting corporate planes and worked with Northwest Airlines, which ultimately became Delta Airlines. Now, she works as an aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and for a company called Advanced Air Crew Academy, which provides high-level training for corporate pilots.

In an industry that remains highly male-dominated — just under 7 percent of all pilots in the United States are female, according to the Federal Aviation Administration — Armstrong hopes to shape perspective and set an example for women interested in aviation.

“What I’m trying to do is change perception,” she said. “Last semester, I had 65 students. Only three of them were women. … And of those three women, none of them wanted to be pilots.

“When you stop seeing women being interviewed for it, then we know that we made it. It’s no big deal. That’s what I’m striving for.”

Likely because she had never seen a female pilot, Armstrong never considered the aviation industry when pondering future careers. But after she got a college job working the front desk at the Flying Cloud Airport in Minnesota, she began to see it as a possibility.

Aviation is competitive, and entering the industry requires logging a lot of hours in the air. Armstrong worked with a charter company and then began flying single-engine planes for the American Red Cross before working her way up to the corporate and airline world.

Piloting an airplane is physically demanding in a variety of ways.

“People don’t realize what a toll it takes,” Armstrong said. “The industry is getting better, but they don’t do a lot of consideration with bodies (and the) circadian rhythm.”

Armstrong, for example, often would commute to Detroit from Colorado and then fly three day trips followed by two overnight flights.

“Just the pure exhaustion,” she said. “ … You’re in a crash pad, sleeping on the floor. … It’s just that constant input of noise, commotion. It can be exhausting.”

Plus, for women interested in motherhood, a job that requires weeks away from home can be difficult.

“A lot of women want a family,” said Kathy McCullough, communications chair for the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. “If you can’t have a job that’s going to give you the seniority or the time off … I don’t think they’re going to consider it as a serious career.

“(The airlines) have made steps to change it, but I think that is has to be more female friendly in terms of if you have a … child. That’s a big step in getting more women.”

For Armstrong, who has two children, it was all about balance, and it was a tremendous help to have a strong partner at home to hold down the fort.

Overall, Armstrong said any discrimination she faced from male counterparts would likely have happened anywhere.

“Of the people I flew with … 90 percent of them were awesome. They were respectful. They knew I was there just like anybody else,” she said. “That 10 percent that existed were going to exist no matter where you worked or who you are. … You just have to put it in perspective.

“I just reminded myself that I really had the power when I walked in because I was used to the ratio. … These guys had never flown with a woman, so I actually put them … off balance.”

From her experiences as a pilot, Armstrong wrote a memoir called “A Chick in the Cockpit: My Life Up In the Air.”

Through her writing, she hopes to catapult readers into the cockpit with her and show how much fun it is to be a pilot. In her eyes, sharing stories and providing visibility ultimately can help make the industry less male-dominated.

“It just takes a couple generations of seeing women up there,” she said.

Original article ➤

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