A Franklin County Nonprofit Is Drawing Young Women Into Aviation Careers | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Franklin County Nonprofit Is Drawing Young Women Into Aviation Careers

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Published February 21, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Emma Cornett - COURTESY OF ZOË BRODSKY
  • Courtesy Of Zoë Brodsky
  • Emma Cornett

Only two of the 35 hangars at the Franklin County State Airport in Swanton have bright pink doors. One belongs to Beth White, an educator, breast cancer survivor and pilot. The other is home to Habitat for Aviation, the nonprofit that White launched in 2022 to train the next generation of airplane mechanics and pilots, with a focus on getting young women into the male-dominated field.

During a visit to the otherwise beige airport on Super Bowl Sunday, it was clear that White's program is taking off. In her personal hangar, half a dozen young women — some wearing hand-dyed overalls in the same bubblegum hue as the doors — clustered around workbenches. One group assembled a tail piece of a RANS S-21 Outbound, a two-seat aircraft that they have been building for the past three months. Other students bent sheet metal that would ultimately wrap around the plane's elevator, a small component that controls the plane's pitch, or up-and-down movement.

White, in her own pair of pink overalls and a Rosie the Riveter-style headband, surveyed the scene with pride.

Giving girls hands-on experience building a real, functional plane, with professional, mostly female mechanics as guides, might just be "the secret sauce" in drawing them into the growing field of aviation, White said. And it's the type of technical training that prepares young people for well-paying careers in the trades, something that state officials have championed in recent years.

Currently, only 2.6 percent of American airplane mechanics and 4.6 percent of pilots are women, according to a 2022 report from the Women in Aviation Advisory Board, which Congress established in 2018 to address the underrepresentation. Barriers, the report notes, include gender stereotypes, few female role models in aviation and a lack of awareness about career paths.

White, 46, of Milton, didn't get interested in aviation until later in life. She grew up in Chittenden County in a family that embraced the trades. Her father worked as a tool and die maker at the Blodgett Oven factory, then started his own construction company. White has been an educator for 20 years and now serves as director of New England Initiatives at Big Picture Learning, a network of alternative high schools, including one in South Burlington, where students learn through independent projects and internships.

Beth White (left) and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman - COURTESY OF ZOË BRODSKY
  • Courtesy Of Zoë Brodsky
  • Beth White (left) and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman

In 2018, White decided to become a pilot after reading an autobiography by Beryl Markham, an English aviator who made the first solo flight from Europe to North America. That was in 1936, long before GPS and air-traffic control.

Six months later, serendipity struck. White had stayed in touch with her former middle school math teacher, Charlie Wilson. When he died, his widow offered White his Cessna 150 and hangar at Franklin County State Airport in exchange for helping put a roof on her barn. White named the two-seater Charlie in her teacher's honor.

"I got this hangar, and it totally changed my life," White said.

Another life-altering occurrence came in 2021, when White was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy, she emerged from treatment with a renewed sense of purpose. With her parents, she purchased a 9,600-square-foot warehouse at the Franklin County airport. In October 2022, she established Habitat for Aviation as a nonprofit.

White is excited for the organization's future. In addition to the all-women build on Sundays, she plans to start a new, gender-inclusive airplane build on Saturdays. She's also aiming to strengthen partnerships with local career and technical centers and to introduce programs in elementary and middle schools. She hopes that the Habitat for Aviation model can be replicated far beyond Vermont.

To help pay for operating costs, the fledgling organization has received about 90 private donations, plus grants from foundations and businesses, including the Vermont Community Foundation and Green Mountain Power. Habitat also relies on a committed group of volunteers and is looking for more.

White has launched an ambitious $10 million capital campaign to transform the warehouse into a state-of-the-art hangar and education space and add a taxi lane that connects it to the airport's runway. She hopes to eventually build another hangar where young people can work on and learn about Beta Technologies' electric aircraft.

Beta has partnered with White to offer events such as Young Eagles Days, which offer youths a chance to fly in small planes, and also hosted a Girls in Aviation celebration at the company's new maintenance hangar in South Burlington. Katie Clark, wife of Beta founder Kyle Clark, is on the nonprofit's board.

"The work that Habitat for Aviation is doing to empower young people, particularly young women who are interested in aviation, is so important for the future of this industry," Katie Clark wrote in a statement to Seven Days. "Beth White has been a mentor and an inspiration to me and my three daughters (and my son!) and we're incredibly lucky that she and Habitat for Aviation exist here in Vermont."

For now, the airplane build is under way in White's smaller, cozier hangar, which is decorated with White's own bold multimedia artwork that depicts female trailblazers in aviation. They include Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman in the U.S. to hold a pilot's license, and U.S. Air Force service pilots of World War II, who transported planes from manufacturers to air bases — and taught men how to fly.

When the plane is complete, likely later this year, the group plans to fly it to national air shows to raise awareness about the gender gap and encourage more women to pursue careers in aviation.

Emma Cornett, 16, one of the young women bending sheet metal that Sunday, doesn't need any convincing. She already knows she wants to be an airplane mechanic and an aerobatic pilot, doing stunts such as flying upside down. A sophomore at Champlain Valley Union High School, Cornett comes to the airport several days a week to work with Habitat for Aviation and intern for 80-year-old George Coy, a former state legislator who used to oversee operations at the airport. Now Coy rents out and maintains a small fleet of planes.

Cornett's dad was a fighter pilot who flew with the Vermont Air National Guard's Green Mountain Boys. Many of the men on her mom's side are auto mechanics, Cornett said, but she was hesitant to go into the field because of how male-dominated it is.

Learning alongside other young women is "really empowering," Cornett said. Another bonus: Her school is giving her academic credit for the work. She and the other young women are also earning scholarship money from the Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative, a national program that supports apprenticeships for youths who want to work in the trades.

At 22, Zoë Brosky is one of the older members of the program. She also has aviation in her blood: Her grandfather flew for Delta, and her dad was a pilot who would often rent planes at the Franklin County airport for fun. After graduating from college last year with an accounting degree, Brosky realized it wasn't her true calling.

Now Brosky is working several part-time jobs while learning how to build and fly planes. She hopes to have a career as a commercial or cargo pilot.

Like Cornett, Brosky once felt as though aviation "didn't seem like a place for me," she said. But "being in this environment is not intimidating ... Everyone is willing to help."

Airplane mechanic Jane Thomson working with young women - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Airplane mechanic Jane Thomson working with young women

One challenge is finding professional female mechanics to serve as mentors. Just 10 women hold airplane mechanic licenses in Vermont, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Two of them, Bianca Marrier and Jane Thomson, volunteer with Habitat for Aviation.

Marrier has worked for Beta for the past four years. But it wasn't easy landing at the high-profile local startup. She felt isolated as the only woman in Burlington Technical Center's aviation program, from which she graduated in 2007. Even today, only one of its 19 students is female.

Marrier got pregnant soon after graduation and put her career aspirations on hold, then went back to school and earned her airplane mechanic license in 2011. Still, she said it was hard to find work in the field, which she chalked up to being a woman. She almost gave up — selling her tools and studying to become a property manager — before she got a job at Beta.

Marrier's daughter, Laila, is in ninth grade at Milton High School. She helps build the plane every Sunday alongside her mom — who she calls "an icon" — and hopes to become an airplane mechanic herself one day.

Marrier said bringing women together to learn technical skills in a judgment-free environment is a solid approach. Her daughter has watched her struggle, Marrier said, but "I'm hoping with something like this, we can turn it around."

There are plenty of young women who are interested in the industry. High school junior Miranda Gallagher, was 11 when she took her first flight at the Franklin County State Airport — and was instantly hooked.

Now a core member of the Sunday builds, Gallagher started flight training before she learned to drive and meticulously records her training hours in a logbook. Last school year, she completed an internship with Beta. She plans to attend Vermont State University to earn an associate's degree in aviation maintenance technology. She's also considering additional training at Purdue University's School of Aviation and Transportation Technology.

When her schooling is done, Gallagher said, she'd like to return to Vermont — as long as there's a job for her and she can afford to live here.

The state's population is aging, she noted, and Vermont will need lots of skilled young people to fill jobs in the coming years. She's hoping to be part of the next generation of Vermont's aviation workforce.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fly Girls | A Franklin County nonprofit is drawing young women into aviation careers"

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