Air Force inspires attendees at Women in Aviation International’s 31st conference

  • Published
  • By Christa D’Andrea
  • Air Education and Training Command

The Air Force Recruiting Service’s Detachment 1 teamed up with multiple Air Force agencies to create an extensive Total Force recruiting display at the Women in Aviation International conference at Lake Buena Vista, March 5-7.

The Air Force was a main attraction in the exhibit hall with active duty, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Air Force Civilian Service, U.S. Air Force Academy and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps present with displays to showcase their integrated recruiting strategies known as Total Force recruiting. They also partnered with U.S. Space Force, the Air Force Reserve Command’s Office of History and Heritage and Civil Air Patrol who were also engaging with the crowd at WAI.

“WAI is one of AFRS (Air Force Recruiting Service) Det 1’s strategic partners,” said Lt. Col. Cathyrine Armandie, AFRS Det. 1 commander. “As the tactical execution arm of the Air Force chief of staff’s Rated Diversity Improvement, having a presence at events such as WAI is integral to the recruitment and development future and current female aviators for the Air Force.”

The RDI initiative is a holistic approach to inspire, grow and retain rated Airmen to increase the diversity of the service’s pilots, air battle mangers and combat systems officers. Det. 1 executes outreach events initiative and was stood up at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, in 2018. Their mission is to inform, influence and inspire tomorrow’s leaders.

More than 4,500 attendees and 180 exhibitors participated in the 31st annual event at Disney’s Coronado Springs. The conference held educational seminars and professional development sessions, and featured speakers including Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett and Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, AFRS commander. Barrett and Leavitt were both keynote speakers and Leavitt was inducted into WAI’s International Pioneer Hall of Fame, March 7.

“This event was an incredible success,” Armandie said. “Large-scale events tied with these macro-level engagements have lasting and profound impact on those interested in joining the Air Force now and for future generations.”

Leavitt, retired Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris and another pioneer, retired Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, represented many “firsts” for the Air Force at the event. Leavitt is the first female Air Force fighter pilot, Harris is the first African-American female to make lieutenant general and Custodio is the first Hispanic female pilot for the Air Force.

Comments of excitement from attendees, young and old, could be heard in the crowd when all three generals were present when the AFRC History and Heritage office unveiled a painting honoring Harris at the Air Force exhibit, March 6.

“The Civil Air Patrol cadets were in awe of the amazing mentors and their unique perspectives about their personal journeys toward their aviation careers,” said Susan Mallett, National Headquarters Civil Air Patrol Education Outreach coordinator. “Being able to interact one-on-one and ask specific questions of the mentors was quite empowering to the cadets.”

At WAI Det. 1’s Aviation Recruiting team hosted more than 20 AFROTC and CAP cadets from around the country. Cadets had the opportunity to participate in a speed-mentoring session with Leavitt, Harris and other active, guard and reserve female aviators from across the Total Force.

Attendees also had an opportunity to reserve time to sit with a panel of aviators and recruiters to discuss what their future options to become an aviator could be. Known as “Pathways to Pilots,” these sessions allowed individuals a personally-tailored mentoring opportunity. Det. 1 completed 18 sessions with women and men attendees.

“I thoroughly enjoyed hearing each individual’s unique story and their motivation behind wanting their wings,” said Lt. Col. Vanessa “Siren” Mahan, F-15E Weapons System officer and EA-6B Electronic Warfare officer, who was one of the female aviators conducting the Pathways to Pilots sessions.

Mahan said there are many different ways to become a pilot in the Air Force, depending on the stage of life an individual is in.

“Pathways to Pilots is an opportunity for a person to find out which path might be the best fit for them by being able to ask questions and get information from several aviators and different recruiters in a non-formal setting,” she added.

The WAI event wrapped up with a Girls in Aviation Day, or GIAD, where 250 young, aspiring aviators participated in aviation-related activities.

Armandie said that GIAD events hosted by WAI throughout the year help empower young girls and expose them to aviation careers. Det. 1 supported 17 GIAD events globally in 2019.

Det. 1’s force behind these outreach events is the ART, a team of Air Force pilots, combat systems officers, and air battle managers who volunteer from any component of the service’s Total Force.

“We have an opportunity to get these young ladies excited about flying, and also learn about USAFA and ROTC opportunities,” said Maj. Cynthia Johnston, Aviation Recruiting team member. “People who may have never had the opportunity to interact with an Air Force rated officer, or one they could relate to, now have the ability to directly interface with them and have their questions answered.”

There are currently 300 rated officers from various backgrounds serving as ART ambassadors. Det. 1 is on track to support 100 events in 2020 with strategic partners such as Oshkosh, FIRST Robotics, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.