Expansion in Kent’s Aeronautics department creates more space for women


One of Kent State’s aircrafts sits on the tarmac at the Kent State University airport. Kent has the largest university fleet of aircraft in Ohio, according to Kent State’s website. October 2019.

With new expansions in Kent State’s College of Aeronautics, including a new building, added programs and a partnership with Delta airlines, there is now more room than ever for women within the aviation industry. 

“As the industry expands, our programs are also expanding,” Erika Perko, a senior aeronautics major, said.

The aviation industry has grown exponentially as travel and flying becomes more accessible and affordable. According to Boeing, an estimated 800,000 new pilots are needed to fill the demand. A report from the Center for Aviation states women only make up seven percent of both private and commercial pilots and it’s a slow-growing statistic. 

“The common stereotype is that, ‘oh, you have to be a man to do it,’ Chloe Howdershelt, a freshman aeronautics major, said. “But it is possible for women.” 

Howdershelt, who is one of the 114 women within the College of Aeronautics and Engineering, started flying at age 16 and hopes to fly regional and eventually become a captain for Southwest. 

“My first solo flight is when I really began to feel like a pilot,” she said. “The feeling of it is indescribable.” 

Howdershelt is a member of Kent State’s Women in Aviation group. The group is a collegiate chapter of an international organization aimed at supporting women within the aviation field.

Perko, who is in her third year as president of the group, became involved in Women in Aviation after attending the Nikki Kukwa Memorial Aeronautics Camp while in high school. The camp, now in its tenth year, was formed in memory of Nikki Kukwa, a Kent State aeronautics student who died from leukemia during her senior year in 2006. Kukwa was also the student who founded the Kent State Women in Aviation chapter. 

“There are so many women that have done great things within aviation,” Perko said. “It’s important that young people see aviation as an option for them.”

Kent State’s Women in Aviation chapter hosts several events throughout the year, including Kent’s Aeronautics and Engineering Expo, and they also participate in Women in Aviation’s International Conference and Girls in Aviation Day.

Pilots are not the only position in which women are underrepresented. According to the FAA’s aeronautical center data, women only make up 29 percent of non-pilot careers in aviation, including two percent in mechanics and five percent in repairs.

“There are so many options within aviation that are not limited to the people you are seeing when you’re flying,” Perko, who plans on attending the FAA Air Traffic Academy in Oklahoma, said. “There are thousands of behind-the-scenes opportunities that are incredible places for women to be in. Maintenance professionals, operations, dispatchers; all are incredible careers for women to find success.”  

Perko is on the track for air traffic control, a field with a 16 percent female representation, according to Professional Women Controllers, Inc. 

“A lot of people in aviation start because they have family members or friends who are in it and that’s how they get introduced to the idea,” Perko said. “That wasn’t quite the case for me.”

Perko said she was interested in pursuing a math or science career and became curious in aviation as she witnessed the John Hopkins traffic tower being built.

“I found the job description of what air traffic controllers do and from that point on I was hooked,” Perko said. “I knew that was the right career choice for me. It was everything I always wanted to do culminated in one career.”

Perko was attracted to the environment of air traffic control, working closely within a team and the intellectual challenge.

“I want to walk into something that is new everyday, but also had the same rules,” she said. “Working within the FAA, there are so many rules associated with everything we do, which is a good thing. It’s for safety.”

Perko is also working on three minors, two of which are in aircraft dispatch and unmanned aircraft systems. 

Aviation careers, specifically pilots, are consistently listed as one of the most stressful jobs. However, a 2013 study from the University at Buffalo 

suggests women may cope with chronic stress better than men. The study found that estrogen may protect brain receptors from the continuous exposure of stress. 

“The stress takes on an adrenaline rush, for the people within the job they wouldn’t want to do anything else,” Perko said. “It’s the kind of stress that keeps them going; there’s very much a desire to be in aviation.”

Historically, women entered the aviation industry more increasingly during World War II, becoming instructors for male pilots to read navigation instruments. Engineering is another field in which aviation is lacking female professionals — only four percent make up flight engineers. 

“There is no aspect of aviation that wouldn’t benefit from having a higher percentage of females,” Kelsen LaBerge, an associate professor within the aeronautics and engineering department, said.

LaBerge, who worked with the military in research on helicopter diagnostics, was at times a minority within her job.

“It never really bothered me being the only woman in the room, which has happened many times in my career,” LaBerge said. “Have I had situations where I felt like I was being treated differently? Absolutely.” 

LaBerge said having confidence within herself has helped her in uncomfortable situations in the field.

“It comes down to confidence and what you are willing to put up with,” she said. “A lot of it comes down to confidence in your background. If you start to begin second-guessing yourself, it starts to become more of an issue.”

LaBerge said that often she is inclined to control her emotions within the field and remain neutral while in the work setting.

“As a female engineer, I never want to be someone that shows the emotion that as a human is going to be there,” she said. 

LaBerge tries to use her emotions as an advantage while not seeming irrational among coworkers.

“Emotions aren’t logical and navigating that minefield is a struggle sometimes,” she said. “It’s about knowing how you use them to your advantage.”

LaBerge, who began teaching in 2018, said the diversity within the field can strengthen the industry.

“We need to look at it as we need diverse teams to tackle the world’s problems here; whether in engineering or whatever,” she said. “Diverse teams involve both men and women of diverse backgrounds. It enhances the team rather than pull away from it.”

Contact Colleen Carroll at [email protected].