Photo:Jackie Alvarez readies Trish Crompton for her first flight in a small aircraft at the Region of Waterloo International Airport, as part of Women Fly K-W.

Safety briefing – check. Sign my life away – check. Buckled in, headset on – check.

The engines roared to life on the Cessna 172. The pilot checked the gauges, calculated adjustments and flipped some switches.

We taxied to the runway, and moments later we were 2,000 feet in the air, cruising at 122 knots, or 140 miles per hour.

The view was absolutely breathtaking. The sun was shining and snow-covered Waterloo Region dazzled in a way that can only come from an aerial view. The pilot turned to me and smiled.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” she said.

Jackie Alvarez is a flight instructor and volunteer at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre. After her son was born, she decided to change careers, from quality assurance analyst to pilot.

“I thought, ‘I have to do what my heart says I have to do,’ then I changed my career,” Alvarez said.

Everyone experiences obstacles and challenges when choosing a career, or changing one. This is especially true for women who, despite what the media and popular culture suggest is appropriate, venture into male-dominated fields in areas like science and technology. Among these are careers in aviation and engineering.

“It’s not that women can’t do the work. We can fly, we have the ambition, we have the organizational skills required for any of this stuff, we have the brains for the engineering, but we need more weekends like this,” Alvarez said. “Which is why this exists.”

She was referring to Women of Aviation Worldwide Week, a celebration that leads into International Women’s Day this Saturday, March 8 – a day to recognize women in all careers, to understand obstacles they face and appreciate the strides they have made professionally.

Women of Aviation Worldwide Week includes events that focus on careers women can pursue in aviation. It also marks the anniversary of the first woman to receive a pilot’s license, Raymonde de Laroche, in 1910 in France.

The Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, together with Breslau Flyers COPA- Flight 26, hosted Women in Flight K-W events this week. They are a great example of women thinking globally but acting locally—an ideology that International Women’s Day represents.

They encourage girls and women to explore something new by showcasing the many reasons women are enthused by various careers in aviation—from commercial and aerobatic pilots, to air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers. They strive to introduce women of all ages to options they may not have been aware of, and to reinforce the idea that they can have successful and fulfilling careers in aviation.

Women have come a long way since 1910, but there’s still a significant disparity in the number of women versus men in aviation. This is similar to the trend in the number of women working in technology.

Many cite the lack of real-world examples available to females. Young girls are simply not exposed to the options and the role models they need.

For Natalie Panek, a mission systems engineer at MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., her lifelong goal has been to travel to space. She has always loved a challenge, so she pursued a career in engineering, followed that up with a master’s degree and earned her pilot’s license. She loves talking about the importance of mentors for young girls.

“We don’t talk about them enough, especially for women in technology, science and engineering. We really need to start putting mentors more in the forefront of the media, and really just making them more accessible to the next generation of women,” Panek said in an interview Tuesday at the flight centre, after the Women in Aviation Talk Show.

About 50 people gathered to hear a panel of women and girls discuss avenues for women to become involved in aviation.

“Once we start doing that, it will be easier for young women to identify with careers that they can see themselves in. There’s slogans that people say, that you can’t be what you don’t see, so to get the visuals out there of women working with technology and loving what they do is really going to do wonders for the next generation,” she added.

Nanette Jozwiak, a retired Boeing 777 Air Canada pilot, reflected on the challenges and bold decisions she made in her career.

“I followed my passion. It’s really good to see more women getting involved in aviation – all aspects of it, not just flying – there’s a whole realm that wasn’t really available to us. I was a trailblazer. We were pioneers,” Jozwiak said.

Andrea Cole, an aircraft systems analyst in the performance engineering department at Waterloo’s Navtech, sees the parallels between aviation and technology.  As a woman, she often finds men are taken aback when she answers the phone and they hear her voice.

“I think it’s general in aviation, and also engineering, that people expect it to be men,” she said.

Last year, the Region of Waterloo International Airport ranked second when it went after the title of “most female-friendly airport in the world” and currently holds first place for “most female-friendly flight training center” because they have more than the average number of women working and training in aviation.

In an age when women are encouraged to be more courageous in leadership and innovation, the fields of aviation and technology are quickly becoming platforms to spread their wings and set the examples that are so important to younger generations, revolutionizing industries and the way women think about careers.

“Technology is going to revolutionize the world; it’s the future and we need to embrace it,” Panek said.

“We’d be wise to have a more diverse population working with technology and working on innovative problems that can do positive things on earth.”

On earth or up in the air, the women can revel in their accomplishments and continue to change the norm for generations to come.