In March 2022, Atlas Captain Aileen Watkins watched from the ground as her 14-year-old daughter, Katalin, completed her first solo flight in a Schweizer SGS2-33 glider at Treasure Coast Soaring Club in Vero Beach, Florida.
“It was exhilarating for me to see Katalin accomplish her first solo flight,” said Aileen. “Just because aviation was my passion, doesn’t mean it has to be my children’s as well, but Katalin has found her path on her own and wants to fly.”
While Aileen was careful not to “push” her own children into aviation, she leads by example, and is committed to supporting the aviation dreams of as many young girls as possible through her volunteer service with a number of organizations. The 99s, GirlVenture, The International Society of Women Airline Pilots, and Women In Aviation International are all focused on encouraging females to pursue careers in aviation.
“There are so many people who are really enthusiastic about aviation,” said Aileen. “They want to do this so badly and they just need one person to tell them they can do it and to show them how to get started.”
Aileen leverages her successful career in aviation to shine a spotlight on the opportunity for others, attending many events to network with, and encourage, the next generation of aviators. In 2018, she was the keynote speaker at a Girls in Aviation event hosted by the Houston Chapter of Women in Aviation, where she talked about her path to become a 747 Captain. She has also been a panelist on aviation careers and balancing career and family at multiple Women in Aviation Conferences.
Aileen’s own journey into aviation began when her father took her to JFK Airport in 1971 and she saw her first 747 up close.
“At that time, there were no women flying for airlines in the U.S.,” said Aileen. “I knew I wanted to pursue aviation, but most people immediately thought of men when they thought of airline pilots. There were so few women in the industry, I really didn’t have female role models to look to for inspiration.”
That changed in the late 1980’s when Aileen was watching a documentary, “Reaching for the Skies,” which featured Captain Lynn Rippelmeyer, the first woman to fly the Boeing 747.
“Seeing a woman in a pilot’s uniform confirmed my dreams were possible. I knew I could do it too,” said Aileen.
Today, Aileen is an inspiration to so many young women who are looking to launch their own careers in aviation. As a member of The 99’s Professional Pilot Leadership Initiative, Aileen participates in a formal mentoring program for women who want to progress to become professional pilots. The program aims to accelerate the advancement of women in all pilot professions, facilitate dynamic support, and enhance women’s leadership roles in the aviation community.
“When we created the program, we saw a need for a formal means of mentoring the professional pilot. It’s not enough to lead them to the positions. We want to perpetuate their trajectory by teaching them to lead in their career path and in turn mentor those who will follow.” said Aileen. “We have mentored many women who are now flying for major airlines as well as guiding professionals in other aviation disciplines.”
Another program Aileen is passionate about is GirlVenture. The program, sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association at AirVenture Oshkosh, is a four-day camp for young women, grades 9-12, introducing them to the world of aviation and aerospace.
“Mentors from many walks of aviation life immerse the girls in the many career opportunities available to them, while providing the catalyst to make new friends and share ideas in an inclusive environment,” said Aileen. “Next year (2023) will be GirlVenture’s 20th year, and is one of my favorite programs to participate in. I first went in 2012, and this year, Katalin was accepted into the program!”
Aileen’s younger daughter, eleven-year-old Alianne, is interested in engineering and aviation maintenance herself, a pursuit Aileen is thrilled to support.
She and her family have recently joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) to further get involved in promoting aviation in their community. Through leadership, mentoring, and educational activities, Aileen and her husband, Bob, will be working with CAP cadets to enhance learning objectives in high performance team-building in community service, technology, and search-and-rescue training.
“Mentoring is all about paying it forward,” Aileen says. “I have a passion for flying and aviation and want to share it with others to help them reach their goals. If you love flying and it moves you, there is no limit to what you can achieve.”