On a brisk February night last year, I met my doppelgänger. The brown-haired woman with dark eyes looked identical to me, except 30 years older and several inches taller. Her name also happened to be Katie.

Aside from our physical appearances, Captain Katie Overdiek and I shared one other striking similarity: We’re both female pilots in a male-dominated field.

Captain Katie Overdiek prepares to take flight. (Courtesy Of Katie Overdiek)

Since the age of two, I’ve dreamt of being an airline pilot. I began flying lessons at 14 and earned my pilot’s license in 2020 at 17 years old. According to national estimates, women make up only 8.4% of pilots worldwide, making it harder for aspiring female aviators like me to find a community in the industry.

I’ve found my main support system in Northwestern’s Aviation Club, where I use my passion for flying to form new connections. Evanston’s proximity to numerous small airfields within the greater Chicago area makes aviation training relatively accessible, but a welcoming community of women helps immeasurably with navigating the field.

Cleared for takeoff

I remember spending countless evenings at the platform of my local train station as a kid, watching the planes glitter in the night sky.

While many pilots typically join the aviation industry with help from family connections, women often don’t have this privilege due to historical barriers to entry. Instead, many women like myself tend to join out of sheer curiosity about aviation.

Although my introduction to the field occurred on the ground, other women’s first experiences happened through exposure. Weinberg fourth-year Tyler Greene began flying through a partnership between her local high school in Aspen, Colorado and a flight institution at the nearby airfield.

“I just fell in love with it immediately,” Greene says. “I thought it was such a special experience to be behind the controls and have something that you do physically change the course of a plane.”

The process of earning a pilot’s license can be expensive, with costs ranging from $6,000 to more than $20,000 depending on the specific plane flown and flight time. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations stipulate that individuals must have at least 40 hours of flying experience.

Some schools, like Purdue University, offer aviation-related majors that allow students to build flight hours while earning their bachelor’s degrees. Flight instructor Kate Thurmond, whom I frequently flew with this past summer, graduated from Purdue’s program in 2022. She emphasized its impact on her professional development.

“I feel like it gave me more of a good background when it comes to what to stand on in aviation,” Thurmond says. “It gave me a lot deeper understanding of the aviation industry as a whole.”

Northwestern offers over 100 majors and minors but no programs to study aviation, so interested students must independently seek out opportunities.

Landing at Northwestern

As I approached the Aviation Club table at Northwestern’s Fall Quarter club fair, Weinberg third-year Elie Clark jumped up and welcomed me enthusiastically, exclaiming “We’ve been waiting for you to come by!” At that moment, I had found my aviation community at Northwestern.

Northwestern’s Aviation Club combines social and professional aspects of aviation, with activities including airline pilot presentations, discussions on student flight training and occasional one-on-one flights with the club’s president. Clark says many of these events helped her form bonds with other students interested in aviation.

“I really wanted to have some kind of a community, and the club gave me that,” Clark says. “It gave me space to be passionate about [aviation].”

Greene shares a similar experience, citing her interest in exploring a field she wasn’t studying academically.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be doing as much [with aviation] as I was at home,” Greene says. “I wanted to have some affiliation to aviation and aeronautics.”

Northwestern’s Aviation Club welcomes individuals from all training backgrounds. As the treasurer, Clark is intent on reducing financial barriers for those who may be interested in pursuing aviation but lack the resources to do so.

She is currently working on developing a scholarship program in memory of Daniel Perelman, a Weinberg first-year who passed away last year in an aviation accident. Additionally, the club is organizing a yearly Safety Seminar in Perelman’s memory to promote awareness toward accident prevention.

“We’re all pilots, so we can honor him through aviation,” Clark says. “There’s still that connection.”

"In 15 years of commercial aviation, I’ve only flown with 10 female pilots."

-Captain Katie Overdiek

The male-dominated runway

One of the many problems women who aspire to join the aviation industry face is a lack of representation. Overdiek, the pilot I encountered last February, has rarely worked alongside other women while flying for a major U.S. commercial airline.

“In 15 years of commercial aviation, I’ve only flown with 10 female pilots,” she says. At her airline, 6% of pilots are women.

As the first female instructor at her flight school in New York, Thurmond has noticed a recent uptick in interest from female-identifying students. Still, the vast majority of those enrolled are male.

“It’s definitely one of those things where it’s still skewed male-dominated, but there’s definitely an influx of women who are interested in it,” Thurmond says.

According to the FAA, 14.2% of student pilots in 2020 were women. To support these female pilots, non-profit organizations such as Women in Aviation International (WAI) provide annual scholarships to increase access to training and other resources. This February, WAI provided $889,140 in awards during the 34th Annual Women in Aviation International Conference.

Both Thurmond and Overdiek have reflected on how their experiences as female pilots have evolved over the years as they’ve taken on leadership roles. Whether it’s becoming an instructor or an airline captain, women take on greater positions — which allow them to expand their platforms and advocate for more representation.

According to Overdiek, gender doesn’t, and shouldn’t, play a role in piloting ability. “I wouldn’t say being a female is any different,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a difference between male and female in terms of getting the job done.”

Opening the gate

Since arriving at Northwestern as a first-year this past fall, I’ve found it difficult to continue flight training given the lack of a formal program. Yet, my ultimate goal of becoming an airline pilot is supported by a community of like-minded women. While Greene admits being a woman in aviation is intimidating at times, she acknowledges the benefit of a tight-knit community.

“When you have more of a small environment and personal time with your instructor, I think that changes the whole game,” Greene says.

Northwestern’s Aviation Club provides the intimate network many aviation enthusiasts, especially those pursuing careers in the industry, seek out. The club continues to incorporate a broad range of aviation-related activities, from airport tours to aviation safety presentations.

As Clark prepares to take on the club presidency this year, she hopes to turn Northwestern’s Aviation Club into an educational space, both for students who are already interested in aviation and for those who have little background in the field.

“It’s such a mystified industry,” Clark says. “People lose their minds when I tell them I have my pilot’s license. I’d like to make it a little less abstract.”



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