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Ladies Only, Please

It’s about finding space for the rest of us

Liz Dengler

The author enjoys a quiet glass-off over Green Mountain Reservoir.

In the U.S., women make up less than 11% of total pilots. Read another way, that’s fewer than 1 out of every 11 pilots is a woman. Though numbers vary by location, generally speaking, there are fewer women than men at any given free flight location. When I started flying at my local hill in Colorado, I was one of only about 10 active female pilots in the whole state.

As the only woman pilot on launch almost every day, I often face certain assumptions about my skills or competency. I found it difficult to be included in plans or find mentors willing to work with me. It was heartbreaking to ask for help from more advanced pilots and be met with a kind word but then get sidelined as those same advanced pilots eagerly took newer men under their wing as mentees. In those early years, I always felt alone in my endeavors. Comradiere felt elusive, and the cliques were exclusive to men.

It was isolating to be the lone woman on launch, day after day, when I so dearly wanted to be part of the community. Still, it was challenging to feel relatable when the conversation was routinely dominated by ego or objectionable comments. As time passed, I grew weary of shrugging off these ingrained habits of this casual sexism that occurred more than I’d like to admit. Though I generally accept that casual sexism is a part of life in society and shrug it off, on launch, in a space that feels almost sacred, I no longer wanted to have to.

Julia Knowles kiting at Ottos.

As the only woman on launch basically every day in those early years, I longed for a bit of female camaraderie, and I decided to try and find some. I started by creating a single Telegram chat group for just the lady pilots in my local community. Realize that, due to numbers, almost every other chat group and forum is already essentially “man-only.” This wasn't about excluding those who identify as men or that we don’t want men around; it’s that women need to have a space to find support and camaraderie too.

Given our low numbers, when I started the ladies-only Telegram group for Colorado, I didn’t expect it to be quite as successful as it has become. My initial intent for the group was to create a way for women pilots to connect without fear of judgment. A place to ask the hard questions, to find community, and, maybe, even make plans to meet up and fly together!

In the beginning, it was silent. There wasn’t much chatter on this new group, with only five or ten of us leading busy lives. It seemed like a bust. But then, slowly, out of the clouds came the voices of a few new pilots, and from that, it has only grown. Over the last couple of years, the flying population on the Front Range of Colorado has exploded, including the number of female pilots taking to the skies. At the time of writing, we now have a whopping 72 members on the ladies-only group chat for Colorado!

In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 reared its head and shut us all down, I lost my job and spent a few months in Draper, Utah, home of the legendary Point of the Mountain and where I had learned to fly. On any given day, I was in awe of the number of women I saw out at the hill. Yes, we were still outnumbered ten to one, but where there are numbers, ten to one means more women at the hill!

I connected with the community and found myself hooked in with a few amazing women pilots. I believe we were all looking for that same missing piece. During a ladies-night that we spent watching Pal Takats videos (who needs pubs when there is Acro?), with what can only be described as the euphoria of lady birds finally finding an iota of camaraderie, another ladies-only Telegram chat group was born.

Julia Knowles is all smiles kiting her wing at the North Side POM.

A way for us to connect quickly grew into a place where ladies in Utah and Jackson could reach out and find the support or friendship they were looking for. Trip ideas, wing questions, diaper choice, weather advice—no topic was off limits! Now at 49 members, we can collectively share a chuckle at mansplaining memes and not have to fear the dreaded penis jokes that tend to pop up sporadically and without warning on other chats.

I reached out to the ladies on these free flight chats to discuss their thoughts on the ladies-only groups. As always, I was met with warmth, excitement, and support. Their stories were their own, but I found that their sentiments mirrored mine.

We found that the chats offered us a place to find community and mentorship. Of course, we are all part of the larger community, but being able to reach out and ask questions or find a mentor who knows the specific struggles you deal with is a huge boon! Sometimes our communities can feel a bit overwhelming. Having a place where women can come together to talk about an excellent flight or have some heart-to-hearts is an incredible opportunity. As one woman on the chat put it, “The ladies’ chats are nothing but supportive, and if someone disagrees, they do so gently and offer their viewpoint as another option, not authoritative gospel.” Another mentioned how it reaffirms her place in the sky. “For me, it’s about a supportive community and an affirmation of women’s presence in free flight. Since we are often a minority on the hill or in the air, it’s a nice reminder that we’re everywhere and we belong!”

Another key component that has come out of the ladies-only chat groups is a focus on the head game of flying. Women tend to be more open about the mental aspect of flying than men. On the women-only chat, not once have I gotten the dreaded response, “...I don’t know. I don’t get scared. You just have to get over it.” As one lady bird said, “I find that women tend to be more willing and able to talk about emotions and the mental game than men (generalization, yes, of course). For me, the emotional and psychological stuff is such a huge part of flying, so having a community to hash that out with is great!” In a women-only chat, it’s more common to see discussions and not be judged for asking questions. Yes, fear is a common topic, but so is general stress, the mentality of holding your own, gear options, and how not to get brushed aside on launch.

At some point in their flying career, almost all women will experience some form of sexism even at the kindest and most accepting flying sites. As a rule, this is casual and unintentional—the kind that we already experience in everyday life. The type that is based on cultural biases and stereotypes that are ingrained and difficult to recognize. As one pilot said, “My boyfriend doesn't fly at all and has very little interest in HG or PG. So it's both hilarious and, to be honest, a little insulting, to show up to a new site, and everyone is asking him what and where he flies while ignoring me even though I’ve been flying 10 years, regularly fly XC, and am a successful comp pilot.” Though it is an uncommon topic, having a ladies-only group gives a place to chat with others women about those difficult moments and work through them. We can talk about best practices for addressing it in the future and what has worked for us in the past. It also helps us connect and know that we are not alone in these experiences. “My experience with men in this community is that the majority of them are really trying not to be sexist, but there are so many ingrained behaviors that they don’t realize can be offensive,”

The wonderful part of this growth on the chats is that we have already begun to see changes in our communities. Giving women a place to connect and feel supported translates into actions at the hill.“I’m working on finding grace in educating men on how some behaviors could be impactful. I admire how many of the women use their voice to do just that.” Whether it's that the launch culture is actually changing or if it's that we finally have a space where we can connect to others, it is beginning to feel better.

Consider for a moment that those who make up a minority or marginalized group have constantly been called out. They are, and have always been, expected to change themselves to fit the mold rather than culture casting a new mold to include them. These women-only chats are allowing us the space to grow and build confidence that we then bring into the larger community.

As one pilot I spoke with said, “I used to try and make myself feel small and go unnoticed as a woman because I was often the lone female and didn't want to draw attention to myself and become a target for judgment or critique when I felt responsible for representing my entire gender. After being a part of these chats, I try to make myself a bigger presence. It's often intimidating, but it feels worth speaking up to normalize the idea that women have plenty to contribute.”

Nothing like kiting in a dress!

More women supporting each other and learning how other women are successful is a substantial educational component. We can connect and know that we aren’t alone in the community, even if we happen to be alone on launch. We can fight for each other, support each other, and offer advice, or even critical feedback without fear of retribution or being rebuked. Whether it’s that they feel more comfortable calling out offensive behavior, more confident in mentoring or connecting with other pilots, or simply knowing that there is a group available for them to ask questions, women are feeling more supported in the community.

If you're community doesn't already have a ladies-only chat group, consider creating one! You don’t have to be the raddest woman pilot in the area to do it (I’m certainly not)—you just have to be stoked about bringing women together to fly, chat, and learn. Invite one or two ladies, and let everyone start sharing the invite link with other ladies in your community!


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