Could Girls Help Solve Hawaiʻi's Pilot Shortage?

Jul 9, 2019

The aviation industry faces a worldwide shortage of qualified pilots. Hawaiʻi has an even greater need, given our heavy dependence on air travel. To help close the gap, a summer flight school is targeting girls who have often been overlooked as future pilots -- and exposing them to a career that could take them anywhere.

A half dozen or so middle school girls with clipboards in hand inspect every aspect of the plane on the tarmac of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Ford Island.

Middle school-aged girls complete a pre-flight safety inspection of this World War II-era Seabee during the week-long Flight School for Girls at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

"What aviators do before they get into the air...they go thoroughly over an airplane and theyʻre learning what they need to do,” says Shauna Tonkin, education director at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

She’s been running the week-long summer flight school for girls since 2012.

“I wanted girls to have an opportunity to experience aviation and other STEM activities in a very safe environment,” says Tonkin, “Sometimes in middle school, boys can be rambunctious and exuberant and even though girls are very capable they sometimes take a backseat.”

Getting young girls in the cockpit is the goal. Here they take turns simulating different scenarios while sitting in the hot seat.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Not these girls.

Commander Jeanie Blankenship is a career pilot with the U.S. Navy. She enrolled her 11-year-old daughter Journey Lynn Paluseo in the flight school program.

“I came through many many years ago, and we didn’t have quite the support that I’m seeing for young ladies today. I think it’s fantastic,” says Blankenship.

Commander Jeanie Blankenship and her daughter Journey Lynn climb into a state-of-the-art flight pilot simulator at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
Credit Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

She says Journey Lynn can’t stop talking about flight school.

“I’m like learn something and teach your mama when you get home,” says Blankenship, “And she’s been doing it, and I love it!”

Hawaiʻi pilot Annie Domko heads the local chapter of Women in Aviation International and is a fan of the summer flight school.

Wahine aviators drop in for the winging ceremony at the Flight School for Girls. Annie Domko (second from the left) is president of the Hawai'i Chapter of Women in Aviation International.
Credit Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

“If you canʻt see it, you canʻt believe it,” says Domko, “And that is the point of getting them so young is that they probably go through an airport and they really donʻt see a lot of women represented.”

The Federal Aviation Administration says a little more than 4 percent of the airline pilots in the U.S. are women. At Hawaiʻi's largest carrier Hawaiian Airlines, an estimated 10 percent of the pilots are women. 

Young girls on their final day of training.
Credit Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

Domko says there is so much untapped potential among females.

“Industry-wide, it is a pilot shortage,” says Domko. “They cannot fill the amount of spots at the rate at which people are reaching that mandatory retirement age.”

Credit Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

She says if not enough is done, the shortage could be bad for business, resulting in fewer flights and higher airfares.

Back at the flight school, two dozen young girls complete their training and receive their symbolic plastic wings from aviators like Domko. Tonkin says the summer school may not immediately relieve the shortage, but it is a start.