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Soaring to new heights: Why airlines are courting women pilots

Aviation industry has historically had few women pilots, but that could be changing
Aviation industry has historically had few women pilots, but that could be changing 03:09

Just above the rolling vineyards of Northern California, Sarah Ward's dream was taking flight.  

"When it's calm and nice out, that's when you can't believe that this is what you get to do every day," she said, navigating a Cessna 172-S 3,000 feet above ground.  

After earning her private license in October 2022, these days she's one step closer to becoming a commercial pilot. It wasn't always the plan. In fact, you could say becoming a pilot wasn't even on her radar. 

"I didn't grow up in an aviation family. So, I was never exposed to it," she said. 

But then, she got a job as a flight attendant, and that was her ticket to whole new world.  

"It's like I got an all-access pass to what it is to be a pilot," Ward told KPIX. "And that was the first time where it entered my brain where it's like, 'Hmm. I can do this." 

When it comes to the aviation industry, women have remained largely grounded. But as airlines face unprecedented staffing shortages, there's been a push to recruit more female pilots.  

Sue Royce is a pilot and the chair of the local chapter of the 99s, an organization founded by aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. She said less than 6% of pilots these days are female. Her organization has been helping women break into the industry with mentoring and grants.  

"If a woman wants to fly, why shouldn't she be able to?" she said.  

The good news: Things seem to be moving in the right direction. Mike Smith, the owner of Mike Smith Aviation in Napa, said more and more female students are now taking lessons. And not only are they as good as men, in many cases, they're better.  

 "Many men typically think they already know how to do it and they're not so open to learning as many of our female students are," he explained.  

For Ward it's about inspiring other women to follow her lead — that and sticking the landing. And now that she can do that, the sky is no longer the limit.  

"Now, it's a pinch me moment," she said after her wheels touched ground. "You feel good after a good landing." 

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