The Sky's the Limit

Originally published in the Alexandria Echo Press.

Rebecca and Alaina Walsh, along with Amber and Faith Johannes, make up just some of the women in the Alexandria Civil Air Patrol Squadron that are helping to break down social barriers and stereotypes about women in aviation.

Women have been involved in aviation since it began. According to the 99’s home page (an international organization of licensed women pilots from 44 countries), Blanche Scott became the first women pilot in 1910. After a plane she taxied became airborne just seven years after the Wright brothers performed their first flight.

Then in 1911, Harriett Quimby became the first woman to receive her pilot’s license officially. And a year later, she became the first to fly over the English Channel.

Many women and organizations have paved the way for others in aviation. Like Betty Greene and the WASPs, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who tested and transferred aircraft while also training other pilots during WWII while the men were fighting. They did just about every mission type a male pilot did except combat.

Unfortunately, except for Amelia Earhart, these women and organizations had their legacy buried between the blurred lines of history.

While women pilots are not uncommon, according to the Federal Aviation Administration data, the FAA, women make up just 8.4% of pilots in the U.S. as of Dec. 31, 2020. An almost 3% increase since the year 2000.

However, within the Alexandria Civil Air Patrol, women are about even with the men. There are nine women and 11 men that make up the CAP squadron in Alexandria. And currently, four of the five squadron leaders are women.

First Lieutenant Rebecca Walsh, 45, is the squadron commander; her daughter Cadet Captain Alaina Walsh, 17, is the squadron cadet commander; Amber Johannes, is the cadet leader; and her daughter, Faith Johannes, 17, is the deputy commander.

These women are just a few that have risen through the ranks and developed confidence and leadership skills through testing, training, and real-world experiences through various camps and exercises put on by the CAP.

Faith said that with aviation dominated by males, it could be intimidating, but groups like the 99s and the presence of women in her squadron help break down those social barriers.

“Our squadron has a huge female presence,” said Alaina.

Leeann Jorgensen, 74, a public affairs official with the Alexandria Civil Air Patrol, says she gets goosebumps seeing opportunities open up for women in aviation and the CAP.

Jorgensen had dealt firsthand with prejudice within the aviation community, from slanderous comments and off-color “jokes” to a situation when she and her husband were taking a cross country flight to Idaho. They had to stop midway to refuel when an airport worker brushed past her to speak with her husband about what the plane needed, assuming he was the pilot and not her.

“My husband just points to me and says talk to her; she’s the pilot,” said Jorgensen with a slight chuckle. “You could tell they were really confused.”

Jorgensen didn’t face such adversity within the Alexandria CAP, though. She described the men involved as “really nice and open.”

Jorgensen believes it’s the lack of representation of women in aviation, not lack of interest, for the lower percentage of women pilots. When she first started flying, she said it was hard to find other women to go flying with her. But, she finds the current generation of women in leadership positions inspiring.

“The Civil Air Patrol is very welcoming to women,” says Jorgensen,” There are plenty of women involved in the CAP, and it’s very encouraging to see the women in their leadership roles.”

Alaina and Faith rose through the ranks by undergoing testing, physical training, and completing interviews and essays.

They now help with planning meetings and work directly with the other cadets, helping them succeed. Alaina has even led a few camps where she runs activities and physical training exercises.

“It is an amazing experience,” said Rebecca Walsh. “Cadets teach the cadets, which is so powerful when it comes to leadership training, and the younger cadets really look up to the older ones.”

Faith wishes more people were exposed to aviation and the CAP. She says when you are flying, you’re forced to be confident in yourself.

“The Civil Air Patrol has helped me grow my leadership skills and become more confident,” said Faith. “I am a completely different person since joining.”

Faith first became interested in flying in middle school after witnessing a mock car crash drill where a LifeLink helicopter did an emergency landing. “That’s what started it all,” she said.

The experience Faith earned from the CAP has introduced her to many people, and she has made a lot of friends in the process. Faith completed her first solo flight in July and expects to get her license next month. She plans on attending the University of North Dakota in the Fall of 2022, where she will study commercial aviation and hopes to land a job with a bigger airline like Delta or even work for NASA.

Alaina echoed similar sentiments with the goals of applying for the Airforce Academy and becoming a career pilot in the Airforce. She will have an advantage too. Through her reception of the Billy Mitchell award— which Faith also received— when joining the Airforce, she will be eligible to enter at an E-3 ranking level. Senior CAP members are eligible to enter as 2d Lt. The Billy Mitchell award is given to those who: Be a current CAP cadet, possess a CAP uniform and wear it properly, and recite the Cadet Oath from memory while participating in unit meetings. They also have to pass comprehensive tests on leadership and aerospace dimensions with an 80% or higher and pass a cadet physical fitness test. And that is only half the battle. They must not only pass the leadership test but be able to fulfill leadership expectations and skills in attitude, core values, communication, responsibility, critical thinking and delegation.

“Ever since I was younger, I have always wanted to learn to fly airplanes,” said Alaina.

Both Alaina and her mom are student pilots working toward getting their pilot licenses. Alaina plans on getting her license before she graduates next spring.

The Civil Air Patrol is an Auxiliary of the Airforce that provides experience, educates the youth on aviation, and assists the community in search-and-rescue missions. Cadets who join get five free orientation flights.

“It is like the Boy Scouts, but for aviation,” said Jorgensen. "Anyone and everyone are welcome to join. You don’t even have to be interested in flying.”

The Civil Air Patrol offers training camps called encampments. Each encampment offers the cadets to learn something new, from how to fly a plane, gliders and drones to cyber-security, search and rescue and civil engineering. Alaina even went to one in Washington D.C. and met senators and representatives.

“There are so many things to do — so many,” said Rebecca Walsh.

The Alexandria Civil Air Patrol Squadron has been established for five years and meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Chandler Field.

“Come by and see if the Civil Air Patrol is a fit for you,” said Jorgensen. “There is more to do than just flying.”

In honor of aviation week, there will be a “CAP pilot informational gathering/open house” at the airport and feature events and activities for all ages. It is free to the public and runs from 7 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.,

"Being able to fly has meant so much to these girls," said Amber Johannes.

2 views0 comments