Why fly?

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Aviate, navigate, communicate. These three words are drilled into the minds of Coast Guard pilots from day one. First, you have to focus on flying the plane. Next, you have to figure out where the plane is headed. Lastly, you have to talk to those in or outside the plane.

This week 3,000 aviators descend upon Dallas for International Women in Aviation. But, as these aviators are ashore and not in the skies, they still find themselves reflecting on the three words that mean the most to them: aviate, navigate, communicate. This story is the first of three from International Women in Aviation and focuses on “aviate” as Compass asks Coast Guard aviators why they chose a career in flight.

A Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter prepares for an early morning take off. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Eric J. Chandler.
A Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter prepares for an early morning take off. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler.

With contributions from Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

From the birth of aviation in the early 1900s, daring aviators have taken to the skies exhibiting courage and determination. Though a heavily male-dominated endeavor in its early years, pioneering women broke into the world of flying.

But despite trailblazers fighting a hard battle to take flight, aviation still remains a male-dominated industry. Of the nearly 600,000 pilots in the U.S., approximately 6 percent are women. Women also account for less than 4 percent of the more than 500,000 non-pilot, aviation related jobs. Reflecting the industry, of the approximately 4,500 Coast Guard members at air stations, less than 5 percent are women.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Sara Faulkner, a rescue swimmer, with four rescued Bahamian fishermen. The fishermen were stranded at sea for five days after their boats became disabled. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Sara Faulkner, a rescue swimmer, with four rescued Bahamian fishermen. The fishermen were stranded at sea for five days after their boats became disabled. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Despite the male-dominated field, there are still women who yearn for a career in the complex world of flying. Each woman who chose Coast Guard aviation was inspired in different ways as they set out for a tough, but incredibly rewarding career.

For many it was the eternal call of adventure.

“I think initially is just sounded like something fun to do. I had joined the flying club at the Coast Guard Academy and I got a little taste of getting up in a Cessna and thought that was pretty cool and wanted to give it a try,” recalled Lt. Maria Richardson, a pilot at Air Station San Francisco.

“I originally thought I wanted to fly because it was something that was exciting. It was exhilarating. It was interesting and it provided a lot of different opportunities,” added Lt. j.g. Rachel Kuffel, a flight student at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.

Kuffel is aiming to get her wings in February 2013 but dreams of the day she will be able to fly missions for the Coast Guard.

“The fact that you could literally go from pulling somebody out of the water in the middle of a hurricane – being responsible for saving their life – that definitely affects me; just the human factor in it. That fact that you really can save lives,” said Kuffel.

Coast Guard aviators share their experiences in the Coast Guard during the 23rd Annual International Women in Aviation Conference. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.
Coast Guard aviators share their experiences in the Coast Guard during the 23rd Annual International Women in Aviation Conference. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

While adventure is alluring, the desire to fly can also be sparked by a single defining moment. Such was the case for Petty Officer 3rd Class Heather Valentino, an aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Cape Cod, Mass. Valentino was waiting to go to school to be a machinery technician when fate altered her course.

“I was down in Rhode Island working at a small boat station one day and I saw a helicopter fly over the station. I asked to go up to the air station for a tour to see what was out there and I took a ride on a helicopter. We went around the Statue of Liberty. We had the door open and after that I was completely sold,” said Valentino.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashlee Leppert, an avionics electrical technician at Air Station Detroit, initially joined the Coast Guard to serve her country. She was still deciding on what path her career would when there was a similar “fateful fly-by.”

Lt. Shelley Decker, center, works with field engineer Brad LaRose to gather coordinates for a tower that required repairs after it sustained hurricane damage. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Lt. Shelley Decker, center, works with field engineer Brad LaRose to gather coordinates for a tower that required repairs after it sustained hurricane damage. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“I just remember being a non-rate and seeing a helicopter fly over,” said Leppert. That was kind of the day where I looked up and said, ‘Yep, I’ll do that one day.’”

Just as each service member is unique so too are their stories for how they found a career in aviation. But whether it was a call from adventure or fate in the form of a passing helicopter, aviators remain committed to their profession. A profession that for many is a dream.

“Once I got to flight school and was able to solo, that was just a chorus of angels,” recalls Richardson. I fell in love with flying. I’ve been living a dream since then.”

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