Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Four local high school students attended the 33rd Annual International Women in Aviation Conference in Nashville
this year is
thanks to scholarship opportunities offered by the Northern California Aerospace Initiative (NCAI).
Two of the students, Taylor Nelson and Simrandeep Kandola, are from River Valley High School in Yuba City.
The other two, Claire Giles and Destiny Johnston attend AeroSTEM Academy Charter School in Yuba City.
Tiffany Chao, 19, also attended the conference as a chaperone. Chao is a former NCAI scholarship recipient
and graduated from AeroSTEM Academy as one of its first students.
“Back then I had no interest in aviation,” Chao said with a smile. “So the first time I took a fight through Young Eagles, I was hooked. Seeing my city from above gave me a whole new perspective.”
Chao is the only female student to complete the NCAI Teen Airplane Build Program and thanks to her influence, there are now multiple female students participating in the 2021/22 program including Giles and Johnston. Chao just recently received her private pilot’s license and is now the youngest NCAI board member.
“It’s been exciting,” Chao said. “That’s been my first big adult thing. NCAI funded me to go to the conference in 2019, they helped with the airplane build, and so I wanted to give back. One of my biggest mentors, who recently passed, founded NCAI, so it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I’m really excited.”
Rikki Shaffer, NCAI’s current president, spoke highly of Chao and said that having her come onto the board has been one of the best experiences.
“We’re trying to reach students to provide assistance to them for career pathways,” Shaffer said. “Who better to teach us old schoolers on how to reach the students who would benefit by this and to bring so many fresh ideas. We’re learning from her all the time.”
NCAI was founded in 2014 to explore avenues for addressing an impending U.S. pilot shortage and the accompanying regional labor shortage of qualified flight instructors at Northern California flight schools. While NCAI had its start in Yuba-Sutter, its service area is the entire Northern California region.
One of the programs offered through NCAI is the Women In Aviation International Conference Scholarship. This competitive award is available to female students, grades 9-12, in the Northern California region who are pursuing a career in the aviation or aerospace Industry. Women in Aviation International, or WAI, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of women in all aviation career fields and interests. This year’s event was held in Nashville and approximately 3,500 women from all over the world were in attendance.
“I loved seeing how many women were in the same field as me,” Chao said. “Because it had all been men, all my mentors are men. This time I loved watching the students experience the same thing that I got to, learning about the different pathways and coming back with all the exciting things that they had been learning.”
Kandola, a River Valley senior, became interested in aerospace after taking some engineering classes and watching a movie on space that she said profoundly impacted her. Her goal is to work for NASA and help the community discover life beyond our planet. Kandola also expressed her appreciation for being able to take part in a women-led conference.
“It was mainly women there and they were talking about how some of the careers have men there that would put you down,” Kandola said. “So they taught us how to deal with that and how to stay positive. I didn’t know that that many women were involved in aviation. So when I went there, it really empowered me to take a part in it.”
Giles, an AeroSTEM Academy sophomore, was inspired to have a career in aviation in fourth grade after learning about Amelia Earhart. She wants to become a pilot and feels that the conference has helped her better understand the requirements of this field and which colleges she may want to pursue. She also thinks the conference helped to build her confidence and assertiveness.
“It’s a lot harder being a woman because it’s mostly men in most of the jobs,” Giles said. “So you have to stand up for yourself and that’s sometimes pretty hard.”
Nelson, a Junior at River Valley, has spent her entire life in and around planes with her mother who works as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.
“I really enjoyed going to the pilot panel and hearing all about their journey and their lives now and meeting an engineer from Boeing who has my dream career,” Nelson said. “It was really inspirational. I didn’t realize that there was such a supportive community and if you get into it, there’s gonna be tons of people there rooting for you and helping you out.”
Shaffer said one of the highlights of the whole trip was meeting Wally Funk, the oldest person to go into space and one of two surviving members of the Mercury 13 group. Ironically, on their way to the conference, the group also got to chat with their flight captain, a female pilot for Southwest. The students and chaperones both expressed their appreciation to NCAI and WAI for helping them explore career choices and empowering them in a male-dominated field.
Next on the agenda for NCAI is the Les Sanders Memorial Fund. This new program will launch in May and is available to high school students grades 11-12 and young adults up to age 22 who are pursuing their private pilot’s license. Sanders was a founding member of NCAI, AeroSTEM Academy, and the Light Sport Aircraft Teen Build.
For more on Women in Aviation International, visit wai.org.