Laura McColm, FAA Chief Flight Instructor at Bristow Academy, recently stepped down from her position as President of Whirly-Girls International, but her commitment to the organization’s objective of advancing women in helicopter aviation is as strong as ever.
“Whirly-Girls is the reason I am where I am,” says Laura, who still serves on the group’s board of directors. “I received a Whirly-Girls scholarship when I was starting out and it was extremely helpful, not just financially but as validation of my career choice.”
Whirly-Girls got its start in 1955, when there probably weren’t enough female helicopter pilots in the world to play a game of softball. From its 13 original members, there are now more than 1,800 Whirly Girls in 44 countries.
They participate in trade shows, educational and social networking events to advance their main goals:
• Promoting women in the helicopter industry through scholarship awards, mentoring, public appearances, media and displays in aviation museums.
• Exchanging information among women in helicopter aviation.
• Promoting community acceptance of rotorcraft through increasing public awareness of rotorcraft utility and versatility.
Scholarships and membership
The Whirly-Girls Scholarship Fund is the organization’s main focus, growing from a single $500 award in 1974 to more than $80,000 today. This year the group set a record by awarding scholarships to 13 women at their annual awards banquet at HELI-EXPO.
“The Whirly-Girls organization funds two main scholarships, one for pilots who want to add on a helicopter rating, and another to provide current pilots with additional training to enhance their careers,” Laura says. “Thanks to our generous sponsors, we are able to offer a multitude of additional scholarships to our members to increase their experience and help make them safer pilots.”
Whirly-Girls membership is open to certificated women helicopter pilots, and there is a membership sponsor program that covers the fees of students who may not be able to afford to join. Auxiliary membership is also available to aspiring pilots as well as anyone who wants to be part of the organization.
“A colleague at Bristow Academy, Stine Fredheim, is also a Whirly-Girl and several of our current students are members,” Laura says. “We are open to anyone who believes in our mission.”
While the community of women helicopter pilots remains small, Laura says there is plenty of opportunity for those who have an interest in aviation. “I was a computer programmer before deciding to go to flight school,” she says. “Pilots can come from a variety of backgrounds and there are more of us all the time.”
Laura recommends checking local airfields or flight schools to see if they offer opportunities to get a first ride in an aircraft to determine the desire to go further. From there, flight school training or military service can start the path to a commercial career.
“Make sure you’re comfortable with a flight school before starting your training there. Talk to the management, the instructors and the students. Check out the maintenance department. And see if they have women instructors, students or managers who may be able to share their experiences,” she says.
The Whirly-Girls will celebrate their 60th anniversary at HELI-EXPO next year. To learn more about the organization and the opportunities available, visit www.whirlygirls.org.
The Whirly-Girls have also been chosen as finalists for the Pilot’s Choice Lightspeed Aviation Foundation grant competition. You can vote for them by visiting the website: http://www.lightspeedaviationfoundation.org
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