Captain Aileen Watkins’ Mission to Help the Next Generation of Female Aviators

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 99sGirlVentureThe 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.”

First Officer Chris Higgins understands the importance of building the pipeline for future pilots with people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and he has made it a personal mission to bring more women to the field.

Chris, who is from Australia, lends his voice and talent to encourage more young women to pursue their dreams in aviation and to advocate for them once they enter the field.

Aviation has been a lifelong passion for Chris. In 1988, at the age of 21, he became the youngest pilot to fly from New Zealand to Australia. An accomplished aerobatic pilot, Chris moved to the U.S. in 1990, flying an air ambulance until 1995, when he joined Trans States Airlines to fly Jetstream 41 and ATR 42/72 turboprop airliners. He went on to serve as Flight Crew Training Instructor at US Airways for Boeing 757/767s and began piloting corporate jets in 2000. Since December 2021, he has been flying 747s for Atlas, a move he wishes he’d made 10 years sooner.

In his down time, Chris shares his passion for flight with young hopeful pilots as a private flight instructor. He said he recognizes the need to go further in providing opportunities for young women, who historically do not see themselves well represented among the pilot ranks. To help remove some of the financial barriers to entering the field, he has been known to offer flight lessons to beginners free of charge.

“I feel very passionately about teaching the next generation of pilots to fly. It’s almost a civic duty – or patriotic duty,” said Chris, who is married with three adult sons. “We need inclusion. We need more pilots, and we need pilots who can bring different perspectives.”

Growing up in Australia as the son of a single mother trying to hold on to their family farm, Chris saw the injustices she faced simply because she was a woman. Throughout his career, he has worked to right those injustices through efforts grand and small – whether it be financing his female flight students’ trips to attend Women in Aviation conferences or amplifying a social media post that celebrates the accomplishments of the first Emirati female captain.

“Please believe in humanity,” he wrote, sharing a LinkedIn post about Captain Aisha Al Mansoori by Aviation Business Middle East. “If we all work together, we can make things better for many generations to come. #womeninaviation #equalrights #pilotshortage #courage #leadership #tolerance.”

Chris said advocating for women in aviation takes many forms – from outreach to encourage young women to envision themselves in a cockpit to ensuring they are empowered to lead when they get there.

“Everyone has a lot of hopes and a lot of dreams, and I really want people to succeed,” he said.

“When you help them develop their confidence, their communication style improves, they have the courage.”

Chris’ success as an instructor has been well-document in his local media outlets. One of his stand-out students, a then-17-year-old pilot-in-training from the Pittsburgh area, was featured on the city’s local news broadcast for her aerobatic flying – skills she learned from Chris – and her ambition to pursue a career as an airline pilot. She is now working toward that goal on a full-ride scholarship at the Ohio State University. Another of his former female students is training to be a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force.

Chris said he only takes on students who aspire to pursue a career as a professional pilot or in the military, and he incorporates aerobatic training instruction with all of them.

“Aerobatic training brings a lot of flying fundamentals that may be lacking in modern training,” said Chris, who test pilots’ airplanes and experimental aircraft. He is known by his neighbors as the pilot occasionally seen flying aerobatic maneuvers in the sky above their hometown of Ligonier, Pa. “It builds confidence and builds a skill I call mechanical aptitude. When automation fails, and all that is left is a good pilot, they are not left wanting.”

Alynn Copely, one of Chris’ current students, is only a few solo flights away from her check ride to earn her private pilot license. The 17-year-old said she feels ready to make that leap – and to follow the path to become an airline pilot – because of the strength and skill she’s gained through training with Chris.

“Chris helped me build confidence in myself,” Alynn said. “He has taught me valuable lessons, not just about flying but about reaching inside myself and finding dedication to flying. He is an advocate for female pilots. He gives females the same respect and opportunities as any male student. I can’t say that about all instructors. He is very encouraging. He has given me a lot of advice about the corporate world, about what you may face being a female aviator.”

Chris said he is counting on well-trained, self-assured young women like Alynn to be role models for future generations of female pilots.

“We need more female pilots who are seen and widely known,” he said. “The Air Force is doing a good job with that; they have a lot of women who fly now. It is improving, but I think it will take some time. We aren’t there yet.”

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, observed every year from September 15 – October 15, InsideAtlas will highlight our Hispanic colleagues who share how their culture has shaped them. Today we introduce you to Federico ‘Freddy’ Mendoza.  

What is your current title and how long have you been at Atlas?

I am a Captain and Line Check pilot on the 747. I celebrated 11 years with the Company in April.

What are your primary responsibilities in your role at Atlas and what is your favorite part about the job?

A line check in aviation is a pilot’s final exam, or skill test.

As a check pilot, I am entrusted to carry out SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) amongst the pilot workforce by conducting Annual Line Checks for Captains and train new hires through OE (Operating Experience) so they can be line qualified pilots and begin assisting the Company with future flight requirements for our customers. Atlas Air entrusts me to be an ambassador for their brand wherever I go, and I take that seriously.

My favorite part about this role is when a new hire figures out how to safely operate and land this jumbo plane and can be officially released from training.

How did you find Atlas?

I flew heavies (bomber, cargo and tanker aircraft with a takeoff weight of at least 300,000 pounds) in the United States Air Force. I became quite familiar with the brand as I often saw Atlas planes on the airfields I was on. I had a friend at the Company who helped me get my resume in front of the right people and fast forward to today, Atlas is the only airline I’ve been with, outside of the military.

What do you like best about working at here?

The extensive variety of flying Atlas does is fantastic. That’s been so interesting. Also, given my background, I have found the military charters to be very rewarding. I’ve done a wide range of military movements, including our first B747 charter into Bosnia, several CRAF missions and most recently, I flew relief supplies to provide assistance to Ukraine. Having the privilege to fly several of my military colleagues has been a bit surreal to take on while wearing a new and different uniform.

How did you find your way into aviation? What prompted you to consider aviation as a career?

Growing up, I was a military brat. My father was in the United States Army, and we went to air shows a lot. It was quite easy to become infatuated with airplanes and the idea of flying them. My dad put me in touch with some pilots to learn more about aviation and I eventually received an ROTC scholarship, which enabled me to compete for a Pilot slot in the Air Force. I was awarded a slot in 1997 and flew with them until my retirement in 2020 as a Lt Colonel.

What is the best part about working in aviation?

Having a unique job that takes extreme focus and technical skills.  I am proud to be a role model for children who might think a particular career is unattainable because it looks “hard.” I want to give children, including my own, hope and direction that they too can do hard jobs, like flying aircraft.

Please tell us about your Hispanic heritage and how your culture inspires you?

I am Mexican American and one of approximately 50 first cousins with over 30 Tios and Tias. This translates into a huge melting pot of experience, values and morals. Being surrounded by all of these family members as a child provided me with so much to draw upon and be inspired by.

If I were to describe my culture or my family in one or two words, I would say’ hard working.’ We don’t look for excuses – we recognize that it takes work to get something accomplished. My family includes farmers, teachers, law enforcement officers and members of the military. Everyone rose through the ranks from the bottom up. And it took a lot of hard work.

I am the first pilot in my family. I drew inspiration from my family and their achievements – it helped me keep my dream alive. This has been my focus with my daughters to reach for the stars. They see all the dedication involved with my career and how hard it has been to attain. I only hope it will inspire them to be even bolder in their aspirations for life.

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and the values instilled in you.

Family is everything. As I mentioned I’m part of a very large, extended family. It was the village model that raised me and kept me on the right path. Today, although we’re a bit more spread out, family gatherings remain very important, and we try to get together as much as possible. My daughters are always amazed by how large our family is. They love their cousins, like I do mine.

There’s a lot of love, support and pride from my family that continues to motivate me to be better than I was the day before and not to give up. Following this support, I try and give back to others as much as possible.

What would your colleagues be most surprised to learn about you?

I consider myself an open book, so I’m not sure if there are too many surprises left. I am a big comic book nerd – Batman is my favorite – and I’m an extreme fan of the 80s. Those were simpler times. When it comes to music, TV, movies, or cartoons, I tend to gravitate towards those from the 80s. It puts a big smile on my face – cue “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey and I dare you not to smile! Just ask my daughters who are forced to relive all my ‘80s nostalgic memories.

Atlas Air Scholarship Fund’s inaugural employee dependent scholarship program drew an impressive group of candidates. The 10 recipients of $3,000 scholarships are students from diverse backgrounds, pursuing lofty goals ranging from entertainment and politics to aviation and medicine. The program was administered through Scholarship America, which selected the recipients from the pool of eligible applicants, all dependents of Atlas’ U.S.-based employees. We congratulate the recipients and their proud parents.

After he lost his grandfather to pancreatic cancer, Robert knew he wanted to devote his life to medicine. This fall, he will begin his freshman year studying biology on a pre-medicine track at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I am extremely honored to be chosen as a recipient of this scholarship and thankful to Atlas Air for their generosity,” said Robert, 17, who hopes to become an anesthesiologist or a pediatric dermatologist. “After seeing my grandfather go through such pain with pancreatic cancer, I am determined to help those who are suffering and find ways to heal. This scholarship will help to alleviate the large financial burden of college and get me one step closer to my goal.”

Connie Conti, Director IT Business Services Tech Ops and Safety, is Robert’s very proud mother.

“Robbie has worked extremely hard, and he has developed an incredible work ethic that will take him far,” Connie said. “We are so proud of all his accomplishments and, more importantly, the kind young man he has become. We are grateful to Atlas for providing this opportunity and their generous support to our family during this exciting time in our son’s life.”

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Growing up, Madeline was inspired by her father Check Captain Chris Goussios and his work flying 747s for Atlas Air. Now, as a junior in Kent State University’s aeronautics program, she aims to follow in his footsteps.

“My dad and his career at Atlas have played a big role in my decision to pursue aviation,” said Madeline, 20, who lives Howland, Ohio. “I remember as a small child when my dad was going through training at Atlas. When he would tell me about his trips, how great the people he works with are and how much he appreciated the aviation community – and when I started flying myself right out of high school – I knew I was sold.”

Chris is proud of his daughter’s accomplishments and her drive to pursue her dream of a career in aviation.

“Madeline is so dedicated to her education and her goal of becoming a professional pilot. She works tirelessly to achieve her goals,” he said. “We are very grateful for this scholarship and proud to be part of the Atlas Air family.”

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A passion for art drives Captain Jwalant Bakshi’s son Vinay as he pursues his education in graphic design at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. He hopes to build a freelance art and design business and, eventually, use his talent in the film industry.

“We greatly appreciate that Vinay’s hard work is being recognized,” Jwalant said. “This scholarship is a very real benefit for us to save some money, and in turn it helps Vinay pursue his goals.”

Vinay said the scholarship has special meaning for him.

“I am honored to have been chosen for this scholarship, as it helps me recognize my own skills in certain areas and helps raise my level of confidence,” he said. “Along with this, it feels good to have been recognized by the company that has employed my father for decades.”

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Training Center Administration Manager Yovankha Untracht’s daughter Emily is studying psychology on a pre-medicine track as a sophomore at Florida International University.

She hopes to complete medical school and meet all the requirements to become a Board-Certified Psychiatrist. She is grateful for the scholarship, which will help her achieve those goals.

“The Atlas Scholarship will not only help me financially this upcoming fall semester, but it has also provided me with a sense of confidence to know that I am able to achieve anything I set my mind to,” said Emily, 18.

Yovankha said Emily has been a source of pride for her family from the earliest age.

“Emily is an amazing young lady, who from a very early age has been very independent, intelligent, determined yet very loving and caring,” Yovankha said. “She has grown up surrounded by our Atlas family, and I am extremely proud to see that her academic accomplishments and hard work are being recognized as one of the recipients of the Atlas Worldwide Scholarship.”

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Captain Brian King’s daughter Caroline hopes to bring her passion for athletics to a career in sports statistics, and she plans to work toward a Ph.D. in pursuit of that goal.

“In 10 years, I hope to be working for ESPN and analyzing sports data,” said Caroline, a freshman at the University of Florida studying mathematics. “It means so much to have been chosen as a recipient because it represents the founder of Atlas Air’s belief in the power of education. It is a huge honor to represent that.”

Brian said Caroline works to achieve success in and out of the classroom, but her top priority has always been caring for other people.

“My wife Tonya and I are incredibly proud of Caroline,” Brian said. “We are very thankful and honored for Caroline to be recognized for her hard work and dedication… It is so great that Atlas Air is investing in the children of its employees in such a generous way!”

Tony Carter, Atlas’ Production Control Analyst, founded The CMSgt Joleen Dunavin Foundation, in response to the tremendous legacy his sister Joleen left behind.

Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt) Joleen Dunavin, a 26-year distinguished veteran of the United States Air Force recently passed away after a valiant fight with breast cancer.

The mission of the charity is to “pay it forward” and support charities important to Joleen. The charity’s first event was the First Annual CMSgt Joleen Dunavin Memorial Golf Tournament on behalf of the Foundation to raise money for The Healing Warriors Program, a nonprofit clinic that provides non-narcotic care services to Veterans and their families. The inaugural event took place on August 19 at PrairieView Golf Club in Bryon, Illinois.

CMSgt Joleen Dunavin

“The Foundation and the Golf Tournament both serve as a way for me to create something that I can attach Joleen’s name to, and have her legacy live on,” said Tony. “I always looked up to her; I can’t put into words how extraordinary she was.”

Growing up, leadership and excellence was in Joleen’s DNA.

“In school, she excelled in both academics and athletics,” said Tony. “Joleen received a full scholarship to DePaul University in Chicago to run track but decided to pursue a different calling and enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF).”

Joleen’s exemplary military career was marked by a myriad of service awards, meritorious medals and commendations. In addition to her many accomplishments, she completed her career as a Chief Master Sergeant, a rank that a mere 1% of service members attain.

“Tony has worked so hard to get a lot of people involved,” said Michael Carter, Joleen and Tony’s father and Director of Line Maintenance for Asia, Australia, Alaska and Hawaii. “It’s been amazing to watch him honor his sister.”

Atlas employees hit the links to support Tony and his family.

Tony added, “Joleen’s compassionate and selfless nature will continue to serve as an inspiration to all those who knew her and loved her. All we can do is cherish the memories and live more like she did. The world was a better place with her in it and given all the lives she’s touched; it will continue to be.”

“I’m very proud the Atlas family was there to be a part of the event,” said Lillian Dukes, Senior Vice President, Technical Operations. “It was very clear that Joleen was quite a special person and has left a lasting impact on those who knew her.”

Click here to donate to The CMSgt Joleen Dunavin Foundation.