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Colorado women in command of the cockpit

//First Officer Donna Miller, MSU Denver student Julia Ssessanga, and flight instructor and president of Women in Aviation’s Mile High chapter Trimbi Austin Szabo. Photos by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

Empty seats in commercial cockpits and other aircraft present an opportunity and a challenge to women who want to fly.

Dozens of airports, 74 being public, dot Colorado’s square state map; they’re for commercial use, emergency and medical operations, flight training and more. Metropolitan State University of Denver recently developed a career path program with United Airlines, the first like it in the country. The company, like many other passenger carriers, expects mass retirements from their pilot workforce—about 40% by 2025, according to United’s former Managing Director of Flight Training Mike McCasky. Half these positions are promised to go to women and people of color.

Representation is and has long been uneven in aviation. The FAA’s Aeronautical Center 2019 data shows that 7.9% of all certified pilots are women, and in each license category women make up less than 10%. Slightly better are the numbers of women who are students in aviation, at 13.8%.

MSU Denver senior and aspiring pilot Julia Ssessanga was inspired by her uncle, a former United pilot, and great-grandmother, a former United secretary. She hopes to join the handful of Black women in the industry, who make up less than 1% of all pilots in the U.S. Ultimately though, she takes to the skies for herself. Ssessanga’s discovery flight at age 18 launched her on a journey to receiving an airline transport pilot license. She’s been working to slowly put away money for expensive flight hours since. Though MSU Denver has simulators, students still invest in their own personal flight training to accomplish certifications.

American Airlines pilot Donna Miller, who has flown for 30 years, sympathizes. Writing big checks after bad training flights was especially painful, Miller noted. But the money, the setbacks and persevering to prove herself in a male-dominated field were all worth it. In the end, she’s found peace in exercising her procedural prowess in a powerful machine, while coasting above the clouds.

As a young girl, Trimbi Austin Szabo watched teary-eyed as crop dusters made their way across her rural hometown. Though piloting was assumed to be a man’s job, Szabo wouldn’t be relegated to the airline attendant role. She’s now a flight instructor and president of Women in Aviation’s Mile High chapter.

 

In our video by Polina Saran, these three women discuss how they entered the field, their love for aircraft and how they pass knowledge on to other flight-aspiring women.

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