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The Power of Women in Aviation

A headline about a mother daughter duo caught my eye, and I knew I had to find out more about this family and share what I found. Hope you enjoy.

There are more than 40,000 flights per day in the U.S., but the chances of seeing a female pilot are less than 1 in 10. Only 7% of U.S. carrier pilots are women, according to 2017 data from the Federal Aviation Administration. The first woman to fly a commercial airliner in 1934 was Helen Richey, but she quit that job after ten months because the all-male pilot's union would not admit her and she rarely got to fly, and it is still, pretty much, a male dominated field. But that is slowly changing.

Unreasonably but also unsurprisingly, there are some radical passengers who absolutely won’t fly an airplane piloted by a woman. In 1991, a passenger on SN Brussels Airlines refused to fly on a plane piloted by Barbara Collinet. Even as recently as 2016, seven passengers from an American Airlines flight en route from Miami to Buenos Aires disembarked when they learned that their crew was an all-woman crew. It seems that some still want women stay in “their place” and serve drinks, blankets and peanuts. So strong this desire, they’d be willing to leave a flight to prove their point.

However, on a recent Delta flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, the passengers were delighted to discover that both of the individuals in their cockpit were women. The flights Captain, Wendy Rexon, was joined by her daughter, first officer, Kelly Rexon Jacobsen. They were the first mother daughter crew with Delta and I have seen it reported the first mother daughter duo in history.

Dr. John R. Watret, chancellor of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, was on this flight on Saturday, March 16th, when he learned that his flight's pilots were actually a mother-daughter team. He tweeted this information and overnight, it went viral, garnering over 42,000 likes and 16,000 retweets. “Just flew from LAX to ATL on Delta piloted by this mother daughter flight crew. Great Flight. Inspiring for young women.”

Every time they’re scheduled to fly, Wendy and her daughter Kelly inspect nearly every external inch of their 200,000-pound Boeing 757 before heading out for their Delta flights. Kate Rexon, Wendy’s other daughter, who is also a pilot, inspects her aircraft, the Airbus A320. Aviation, it seems, is their "family business.”

Some have said that they are aviation-centric family. Wendy’s husband, the girls dad Michael, is a pilot with American Airlines and although now retired Wendy’s dad, Bill Brown, used to fly with Northwest Airlines. Kate and Kelly are third generation pilots.

Wendy and Kate recall that on their first flight together back in February out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, they had a mechanical emergency. The trip didn't go exactly as planned -- there was "an extra twist.” The flight was taking off for Los Angeles when smoke and fumes materialized in the cockpit, not an exceedingly rare occurrence, but an event that requires the plane to divert before conditions worsen. Wendy and Kelly decided they were going to return to JFK. They landed safely, and the airline eventually got the passengers to Los Angeles, but it was Wendy's first time seeing her daughter pilot an emergency landing."She was fantastic," Wendy said. "It was it was a difficult situation that was made easier because of that because of the training and because of her competence.” Wendy's pride in her daughters and their pride in each other is evident. "My husband and I, sometimes we just look at each other and say, 'It's so great,'" Wendy said. "They were so motivated, so talented, and we just kick back and say, 'Wow, they achieved it.' And we're so happy."

When interviewed first officer Kelly Rexon Jacobsen says when she and her younger sister, Kate were little they used to run around with their parent’s Captain hats on pretending. They are no longer pretending. Kelly began flying when she was sixteen and had the pleasure, as she puts it, of being her sister Kate’s instructor. Kate was Kelly’s first student. In an interview with Good Morning America, Kate shared, "Kelly was my instructor...I didn't treat her like a sister because at that point, you know, she wasn’t. She was my teacher and that I think it made us both grow…Kelly is one of the hardest working people that I know and she's a leader," Kate said. Kate said she "dabbled" in other career aspirations, but she too ultimately fell in love with aviation.”

When they were in their teens, their family vacations were unlike most American family vacations. The girls were at an age when most parents would not allow teens to drive during a long road trip, but Kate and Kelly donned the proverbial captain’s hat at an altitude of several thousand feet. "When Kate and I were building time in little airplanes we go on vacations and mom and dad are in the back seat.Mom would sit actually in the back of the airplane. It was a little four-seater and she'd say, 'no, no,” Kelly reminisced with her mom and sister.

In an interview Kelly was asked why she though there were so few women flying the big jets. She replied that she believed it was lack of visibility. She said that with Delta and other airlines around the country promoting women pilots with programs like “Women Inspiring the Next Generation,” she hopes that women will be inspired to look at aviation as a career. "We're honored to be advocates for young women to join the field, and just the industry in general," said Kelly.

Embry-Riddle, has said it makes a "commitment to creating more opportunities for women in all areas of the aviation industry.” Over the next 20 years, the aviation industry will require 790,000 new pilots and 754,000 new maintenance technicians, according to Boeing. Hopefully, many of these positions will be filled by women. "There has to be more diversification in the industry,” Watret (that man who tweeted) of Embry-Riddle said. “It’s crucial and one of the key factors we focus on. When there are more opportunities, everyone wins."

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