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Would Amelia Earhart Have Been an Aviator Today?

Probably. But she'd still be one of the few who isn't a white man.
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Amelia Earhart and a Lockheed Electra 10E NR 16020, c. 1937. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Amelia Earhart and a Lockheed Electra 10E NR 16020, c. 1937. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Today is pilot Amelia Earhart's birthday. With Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers, the enduring figure of American aviation's golden age was born in Kansas on this date in 1897, and lived only 40 years (or did she...) before mysteriously disappearing over the the Pacific with co-pilot Fred Noonan. The duo's presumed fatal crash brought a tragic end to their then-daring attempt to circumnavigate the globe, followed by the public of the time the way the moon shot would be decades later, or a middling Jay-Z album is now.

Earhart's large role in the early history of American aviation might suggest that, as an industry, flying offered a more open-minded professional culture than other businesses. Women had only won the right to vote in the U.S. just over a decade before Earhart was helming her era's space shuttle. Studies of the aviation industry, however, show that a century after Earhart, flying remains an overwhelmingly narrow labor force, with barely five percent of commercial pilots being women, and numbers even lower for most ethnic minorities.

Flying remains an overwhelmingly narrow labor force, with barely five percent of commercial pilots being women, and numbers even lower for most ethnic minorities.

In the late 1990s, the Air Force commissioned a study, "Difficulties in Accessing a Representative Pilot Force," looking for the reasons behind its inability to place anyone but a white man in the pilot's chair. The military, whose trained flyers often work in commercial aviation after leaving the service, found that black officers made up only two percent of its pilot corps, and Hispanics between one and two percent. Despite recruitment efforts, that hadn't changed by the start of the Iraq War, and the numbers remain low.

The study claimed that the problem in part was that flying is one of the military’s top jobs, requiring the top recruits. But the country’s top minority students showed little interest in becoming military pilots.

…Focus group members indicated that minority students from more affluent backgrounds and those with exceptional educational records – those most eligible for military scholarship programs – are least interested in military opportunities. Unfortunately, when the competition for selection to pilot training slots is greatest, it is these top students that are most likely to compete successfully for those slots. Not surprisingly, there seems to be more interest among competitive students from career military families or in locations near military bases. But among those with less direct ties, a military career is described as the “last choice” for college-eligible minority students.

Women currently make up between three and six percent of commercial airline pilots, according to Women in Aviation, a pilot's organization. The U.S. has about 50,000 commercial fliers, of which about 450 are women.

The reasons appear in part to be structural. CNN looked at aviation's lack of diversity in 2011, and noted that it costs about $100,000 to train for a commercial aviation rating. To avoid that cost many would-be pilots enlist in the military, where they can exchange a few years of service for tax-funded flight school. But then the old trap returns. The military is improving its gender and ethnic balance since its first studies in the 1990s, but slowly. Women were first allowed to receive Air Force basic flight training in 1976 and as navigators the following year, but could qualify for fighter jet training starting only 20 years ago, in 1993. The Air Force Personnel Center reports that, as of June 30 of this year, of the nearly 330,000 people in the Air Force, 725 were women assigned as pilots, and 265 were navigators. Even if every one of those people retired and went into commercial aviation, they would represent less than two percent of the country's professional pilot corps.

Among the more aggressive companies hiring outside flying's usual mode appears to be parcel company FedEx. In March, FedEx pilot Gerry Dupree, a former Navy flier, claimed in an interview he'd given to a curious business school student that the military training issue remains central to the problem.

What are the statistics like regarding African-American pilots?

Dupree: African-Americans make up just over 2 percent of the commercial airline pilots in the United States. The number in the military is approximately the same, and most airline pilots traditionally come from the military, though those demographics are changing. The number of African-American female pilots is abysmal, with less than 1 percent, but they are in great demand. FedEx is among the leaders in employing female pilots with over 300, but only one African-American female. FedEx has approximately 150 African-American pilots, which sounds like a lot until you consider that it employs almost 5,000 pilots.

Why do you think these numbers are so low?

Dupree: It is a combination of factors that make these numbers so low. The military has been the primary feeder for the airlines, and the 2 percent overall number has been stagnant for decades.

The statistics for flight attendants are moving much faster toward balance than the ones for the flight crews. A study cited by the Population Reference Bureau, which tracks demographic trends, found that the ratio of male flight attendants to female rose from just over 19 men for every 100 women in the job in 1980, to over 26 men per 100 women in 2007. The profession is still overwhelmingly female, but the trend showed an increase toward parity, where similar measures in the pilots' positions remained flat. Ethnic and racial representation has also moved drastically for cabin crew jobs, while still far short of representative.

The racial and ethnic composition of flight attendants has become less white (82.6 percent were white in 1980 compared with 70 percent in 2007), and more black (8.5 percent in 1980; 14 percent in 2007) and Latino (4.9 percent in 1980; 9.1 percent in 2007). Still, Latinos are relatively underrepresented in this occupation.