Female students thrive in the aeronautics program at Kent State

Lisa Robertson

Women in aviation aren’t uncommon by any means, but some people still seem surprised by their involvement. For these four women, aeronautics is their passion.

The Air Traffic Controller

When Khristyne Kirk was a little girl, she used to play school in her basement, using grade books her mother would give her.

“I wanted to be a teacher just like my mom was,” she said.

Instead of following in the footsteps of her mother, Kirk, a sophomore in the aeronautics program, enrolled at Kent State to become an air traffic controller.

Her grandfather is a retired air traffic controller, and hearing about his experiences on the job made her start to think about her own career path.

She visited Kent State her senior year of high school, knowing she wanted to pursue air traffic control and receive a four-year degree. Until her visit, Kirk did not think people went to school for air traffic control.

?“I just thought you took the government test for it, then get shipped off somewhere (to be a controller),” she said.

Kirk entered Kent State with a year of post-secondary under her belt, which for her major meant not having to take a single math class in a math-heavy field.

Completed math classes aside, the workload for aeronautic students in all concentrations is intense.

Entering the aeronautics program, Kirk had a total of three non-major related electives to choose from, all of which she completed her freshman year. Beginning her second semester as an aeronautics student, the rest of her college career is strictly planned out, she said.

But there is fun. The College of Technology recently put in a $2 million simulation lab that allows students to simulate controlling airplanes.

“You’re doing what a controller would do, talking to the aircraft and telling them where to go, because that’s what controlling is,” Kirk said.

Along with her classes, Kirk is active in several campus aviation societies, including Alpha Eta Rho, an aeronautical fraternity, Women in Aviation and the student chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). She would also like to get her pilot’s license one day.

As for being a woman in the program, Kirk has never experienced any harassment or felt treated any differently because of her gender. If anything, she said, there is only playful teasing from the male students in the program, with the ladies giving as good as they get. And besides, she said, it’s the women who are usually getting the better grades.

“My favorite part about it, definitely, is just the fact that it’s such a small major. So every class it’s the same people, and we’ve connected so well, and we’ve created such a big bond,” she said.

After graduation she will have to take a government test for air traffic control, which determines which facility will hire her on. Her goal is to be working in the tower of a large airport, either in South Carolina or Florida. Specific, yes, but she really wants some warm weather in her future.

The Aeronautical Engineer

Danielle Cefaratti, a junior aeronautics major with a concentration in Aeronautical Systems Engineering, was the only female student in her freshman class.

“My first class, I remember coming in and it was just all guys, and I’m like, am I in the right place? You know, it was just really overwhelming,” she said.

But an early childhood anecdote, told with some good-humored laughter, makes her seem like the type of person not easily concerned about being the only woman in her class.

As a kid, “I used to try and fly with my friend in the neighborhood, and that was kind of embarrassing because we’d, you know, go in a wagon and go off a ramp with cardboard wings; I don’t know, I’m sure everyone laughed at us,” she said.

Cefaratti always loved planes growing up, but she also knew she didn’t want to be a pilot. When she was in high school she began researching aeronautics programs to try and find one where she could work in the field without being a professional pilot.

“When I came upon Kent’s aeronautics program I knew that was what I wanted to do immediately. It just felt right,” she said.

Like Kirk, Cefaratti is a member of Women in Aviation and enjoys the strong network of support the organization has fostered among her fellow female aeronautics students and their professors. Outside of aviation, she is an officer for Kent State’s branch of Habitat for Humanity.

Her dream job is working for NASA or a company like Boeing. Because of her aeronautics studies, she was able to visit the Icing Branch at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, whose head engineer was a woman she interviewed. Cefaratti asked her if she had encountered any discrimination on the job.

“She said no. ‘Everyone, they don’t look at me as a woman. They think of me as, you know, a co-worker,’” Cefaratti said.

Though she did not want to major in flight technology, she does want to get her pilot’s license soon, knowing it would help her studies in aeronautical engineering.

Graduate school is in her future, with definite plans for a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, and maybe one day a Ph.D.

The Pilot

Cristen Futcher knows that on first glance, a person would not assume she is a pilot. At 5’1” she laughingly admits she has to sit on three pillows while flying. But the sophomore flight technology major uses this misperception to her advantage.

“I am a person that kind of likes to challenge myself. So, I looked at it as kind of a challenge,” she said, referring to her decision to become a pilot.

She has loved aviation since childhood.

“When I was younger, I loved flying. My mom would take us to Disney World every other year, and my favorite part of the trip wasn’t Cinderella or anything like that, it was the plane ride there and the plane ride back,” she said.

At first she wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but in high school she had a boss who was an international airline pilot. Hearing his stories made her consider the airline direction instead.

Like every other aeronautics concentration, there is no easy first two years of general electives or beginner’s courses. Most of Futcher’s classes have both a classroom component and a flight component.

“You kind of need to know, also, the work that needs to be put into it. It’s not a regular education,” Futcher said, adding, “anytime that it’s nice out and you can fly, you need to be flying.”

Because she must balance her course load with flying, Futcher only takes around 13 or 14 credit hours each semester and takes classes in the summer. She already has her private pilot license, which takes between 35 to 40 hours to get.

Though she loves flying, there is one very stressful aspect for her: weather.

“Weather rules your life if you’re a flight student. You can spend five hours planning a flight, and you’ll wake up and it will be too foggy or icy to go,” she said.

Futcher is also a member of Women in Aviation, and is a member of Delta Zeta sorority. She relaxes by running, her “me time,” as she refers to it.

“This major kind of consumes your life, so it is important to get involved in other things, so you do meet people outside of the program.”

She is brutally realistic about the state of the industry she wishes to join. There is the lingering fear of flying after 9/11, several high-profile plane crashes and the poor state of the airline industry in general.

As a new pilot, she knows her lot in life will include red-eye flights, lots of night flying and crappy schedules. On top of that, airlines will not even look at an applicant unless they have built up between 1,500 and 3,000 hours, at a minimum, Futcher said.

“Generally, when we graduate, we’ll have anywhere from 250 to 300 hours,” she said. “There are a lot of starving pilots out there. A lot of people graduate and have nowhere to go, so it’s a fight.”

For her own career, Futcher wants to go the airline route. Her plan is to bank flight hours as flight instructor her senior year, either here at Kent State or another local flight school.

She hopes to be flying for an airline six years out of school, and a captain in 10 years, possibly with Delta, the company with the most opportunities to fly internationally.

One day down the road, she also wouldn’t mind being certified in and having her very own C-plane, an aircraft that can land on water and land.

The Manager

Brittney Serenari, a senior concentrating in aviation management, graduates in May 2011. Her path to aviation came through an uncle, who after retiring from the Navy opened an avionics shop out of the Lorain County Regional Airport in Elyria.

Serenari worked at the shop a couple days a week in high school, and met several local pilots.

“All of his customers, they would offer to take me flying, you know, just around the area. So that’s where it all started really,” she said.

She started flying in high school, receiving her pilot’s license with an instrument rating.

At one time, she considered following in her uncle’s footsteps and joining the Navy, or even the Air Force. However, her parents did not want her to, fearing the danger she would face in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As part of her major, she takes courses in weather and flight dynamics, along with general technology courses.

Because her major is so small, she appreciates being able to know everyone in the program.

Serenari views being a woman in the field very positively, and a way to gain more notice.

“I think it’s kind of an advantage in a way, because companies look at that and say wow, she must be really strong or independent.”

She plans to do an internship after she graduates in the spring, to help her narrow down what aspect of aviation management she is really interested in pursuing.

As of right now, she said she’s “really interested in getting into operations, like dispatching and scheduling aircraft. Making sure they’re in touch with maintenance and rotations and stuff like that.”

She is also open and interested in coming back to Kent State and doing a second bachelor’s degree in air traffic control, which would take about one to two years.

“My grandpa has a T-shirt that says, like, ‘my granddaughter’s a pilot.’ They all love it. They tell everyone, ‘oh yea, she’s a pilot. It’s a huge deal,’” she said, in reference to her family’s reaction to her career choice.

Her dream job is working in the corporate sector, for either a small or large company, and managing all of its flights.

In the spring, she will take her exit exam, a requirement for all aeronautics majors and a test they must pass to graduate.

Contact Lisa Robertson at [email protected].