(Photo by Billy Delfs)
There should be nothing unusual about Lynda Meeks, Army veteran and licensed pilot, sitting in an airplane. But this time, her view was a bit different. The back of a passenger seat replaced the vast expanse of sky in her field of vision, and the closest thing to a control feature was the light panel above her head. She might have to get used to this -- after all, she was thinking of trying a career outside of aviation. Meanwhile, as the voice of the male pilot of her flight blared facts about their destination from the speakers, a little girl sitting near Meeks turned to her mother and said, "Mommy, why aren't there any girl pilots?"
That was enough of a “sign from above” for Meeks to not only continue her career as a pilot, but to work to inspire young girls to pursue aviation — or any challenging goal they set their mind to — through her organization Girls With Wings. Founded in 2005 by Meeks, the Girls With Wings mission, or “flight plan,” focuses on motivating girls through educational presentations as well as scholarships for older aviation students to aid in funding the cost of a pilot’s license. More recently, Meeks organized the hands-on “Aviation Inspiration Day,” where girls learn about what it means to be a pilot firsthand as groups are shuttled into a plane and take to the sky.
Meeks, who was “deathly” afraid of heights (“a lot of pilots are, believe it or not,” she explains) decided to be a pilot simply because it was the most difficult way she could challenge herself within the U.S. Army.
“It wasn’t until I was getting ready to graduate from college that we had to pick a branch, and someone leaned down to see what I was putting on my wish list and said: ‘You know aviation is the toughest branch to get into, if you don’t put it first, you’ll never get it.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? You think I can’t get it? Okay.’ So I erased it and I put it first,” she said conspiratorially.
Meeks favors this anecdote when she gives her presentation to groups of girls.
“You have to really make it clear that you can be what you want in life,” she says. “It’s like they don’t ever hear it.”
Meeks attended flight school in 1993 and was trained by the U.S. Army. She dabbled in military intelligence, was an army flight officer shuttling weapons-laden aircrafts for the purpose of South American counter drug operations, and was an officer in the National Guard. Meeks left the military after six years of service and continued her career in aviation as a commercial airline pilot for a regional airline in 2000. After about three years, Meeks started flying for a fractional airline, which is like a timeshare for business jets, and upon being laid off in 2010, is now a flight instructor and flies a jet for a private owner.
GIRLS WITH WINGS
The little girl who wondered aloud about the lack of female pilots made a pretty astute observation. Though the first woman received her pilot’s license in 1910, only about six percent of pilots are women in the U.S. today. Meeks is incensed by what she views as a disparaging inequality — sure, there is nothing stopping a woman from becoming a pilot, but she says there is not enough encouragement, either. For her part, Meeks began selling aviation-themed merchandise geared for girls — pink airplane t-shirts and even bejeweled airplane toe rings are on sale at the GWW online store.
“I’ve been a pilot for 20 years,” she says. “It’s always strange to talk to somebody and have them say, ‘Oh, you’re a pilot? You mean like a real pilot?’ As if there were any other kind,” she huffs, recalling with some disdain all the cups of coffee she’s been asked to fetch when mistaken for a flight attendant.
Her presentations to groups of girls, in classrooms or at Girl Scout troop meetings, are usually the first time any girl has seen a woman pilot. Meeks walks them through the basics of navigation, of flying and controlling an aircraft.
“I show them if something seems overwhelming and you’ll never be able to figure it out, what you do is to break it down into little pieces,” Meeks says. “That’s the lesson for everything you want to do in life.”
Meeks has been asked if she is “a boy hater” by critics and has been told that her program seems unfair.
“I’ve tried to give it to both and what ends up happening is the boys, once they find out I [was] in the army, want to know if I shot anybody and what kind of weapons I had on my helicopter. That dominates the conversation,” she says. “The boys are so assertive that the girls just really get lost. It’s better to have the room full of girls so they just feel really free to express themselves.”
SET FOR TAKE-OFF
Meeks says she hopes she is doing some good for women in aviation with her organization.
“I really do think that women completely have the capacity to become pilots, and very good pilots,” she says. “Look at being a doctor. It used to be, ‘Oh my God, look a woman doctor, how insane!’”
Meeks hopes to expand Aviation Inspiration Day to other airports around the country. She has also published a children’s book called Penelope Pilot, and looks to expand with a series about women in other aviation-related jobs, such as mechanics or air-traffic controllers.
And after 20 years of being a pilot, Meeks’ passion for her career has not waned.
“I love it. I just love it,” she says, a smile in her voice. “To take off when it’s dark and to climb up above the clouds and see the sunrise. I mean, it’s a religious experience.”
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store