“I’m afraid of heights and hate carnival rides because I’m not in control,” attests Debby Rihn-Harvey, America’s most honored aerobatic pilot. Debby spoke to Skythrall from a hangar in Oshkosh on Saturday, July 23 as she prepared for a whirlwind week at EAA AirVenture 2016.
As the longest-standing member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team, male or female, Debby has participated in 15 world championships and racked up more than 34,000 hours of flight time. She was the U.S. National Aerobatic Champion in 2006, 2008 and 2009 and the top-ranked U.S. women’s aerobatic competitor for the years 1985, 1998-2004, 2006, and 2008-2013. Her aerobatic performance at Oshkosh last month–in Hurricane II, her CAP 232–featured no fewer than six types of tumbles.
But she didn’t want to talk about herself … not her 27-year career as a pilot for Southwest Airlines, from which she retired as captain in May. Not her unequaled aerobatic record, nor her numerous awards and honors–the most recent of which was her induction in January into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, with legions of family and friends (including Harrison Ford) in attendance. Not her aerobatics flight school—Harvey & Rihn Aviation—which attracts pilots from around the world.
No. She wanted to talk about the future. The future of aviation, specifically, and what she sees as the ticket to take the industry to new heights: women. She wanted to talk about getting young women interested in careers in aviation … in the air, in space, on the ground … in development & design, in management & marketing, in government oversight and safety.
As is happening in many industries, the baby boom generation’s move to retirement is causing a brain drain. “The aviation industry is in the doldrums,” she said, “and we need young women to look at all the possibilities that exist for careers. That’s what will get it going again.”
Which is what motivated her, 13 years ago, to work with other women to launch Women Soar You Soar, a program of EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) to introduce young women to aviation. WSYS sponsors a 4-day-long aviation camp for girls age 14-18 that takes place every July during EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the world’s biggest festival of flight.
“The goal of Women Soar You Soar is to educate girls on the diversity of aviation and empower them to achieve their dreams of an aviation career,” she said.
Women in aviation–including civilian and military pilots, mechanics, avionics experts, aerospace engineers, government regulators—as well as doctors, lawyers and business executives who don’t fly or fix aircraft, converge on the camp to mentor about 100 young women age 14-18 as they participate in camp events and activities.
Even after camp concludes, the mentors stay connected to their mentees, guiding them as they apply for and secure scholarships to college aviation programs, and they remain in contact through college and beginning careers. They advise, they coach, they instill confidence and a “can do” attitude.
And it works.
“When young women come to camp, we see a total change in personalities. They leave with a newfound confidence and a knowledge of what they want to do with their lives,” Debby said.
Since its inception in 2003, WSYS has influenced more than 1,000 “campers,” many of whom are currently studying for or working in aviation careers.
Says the aerobatic champion with a fear of heights: “Once you’ve looked skyward, once you’ve experienced flight, you see that maybe your problems aren’t so big after all. When I’m in the cockpit, I have a sense of freedom and relaxation. It’s given me a lifetime of joy and a sense of accomplishment. I just want other women to know what that’s like.”
Skythrall thanks EAA and Women Soar You Soar for the photos from EAA AirVenture 2016 in this post.