Jill Meyers is the founder of Meyers AeroConsulting, which provides management consulting to aviation and aerospace companies, non-profit organisations and projects around the globe. Jill is also an active STEM advocate, having volunteered for the non-profit Dreams Soar, as well as a professional speaker represented by Changemaker Talent. She has more than 30 years of experience in aviation and aerospace, including eight years of active duty in the United States Air Force supporting ground communications and radar systems worldwide.
“Only 6% of all licensed pilots in the world are women. Just 13% of aerospace engineers are women, and only 2% of aircraft mechanics. I think if more female pioneers in aviation were in our history books and featured in movies and TV shows, young girls would have more role models and bigger ideas about what’s possible for them.”
From member of the military to civilian
I started college at Arizona State University right after high school, but decided to change direction and join the United States Air Force (USAF) when I was 19 years old. I spent eight years in the USAF, supporting ground communication and radar systems worldwide.
While I was in the military, I was accepted into a special programme to finish college full time while still being on active duty. I went to the University of Texas at Austin and earned my bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.
I spent one more year in the military and then transitioned to the civilian world. In the following 25 years, I worked as an aerospace systems engineer, programme manager and business leader for several companies including Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, on programs including the U.S., U.K. and NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Global Hawk, the U.K.’s Watchkeeper UAV, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt ship, and the F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter jet.
I left the corporate world in 2017 and volunteered full time for Dreams Soar, a non-profit organisation to inspire young girls and boys in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and aviation careers. Dreams Soar founder Shaesta Waiz flew solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft on a Global Flight for STEM, for the sole purpose of inspiring youth, especially girls. I managed the logistics for the 145-day mission and also led the planning of 32 outreach events in 14 countries.
The following year I started my own consulting business, Meyers AeroConsulting, providing my expertise to aviation and aerospace organisations around the world. One of my most rewarding roles was as a consultant to Indie Atlantic Films for the production of their award-winning 2019 documentary film Fly Like A Girl.
I am also a professional speaker represented by Changemaker Talent, with an inspirational show called Shifting the Balance: Women in Aviation, which inspires audiences of all types to connect with and follow their dreams.
Flying is the most wonderful feeling
I knew that I wanted to learn to fly since the age of 12, when I went for a ride in my dad’s friend’s Cessna 140 taildragger!
I started flight training when I was 17 years old, the youngest age you can be in the US to obtain a private pilot certificate. I started flying in the summer, and once my senior year of school started, had to fly really early in the mornings, like at 5:00 am, to get lessons in before school. It took me about six months in total, and I earned my private rating in the middle of my senior year.
Flying an airplane is a feeling that’s hard to describe to those who’ve never done it. I flew two or four-seater Cessna airplanes, which feels nothing like being a passenger on an airliner. Piloting an airplane provides an incredible sense of freedom and serenity. It also made me feel very confident every time I completed a successful flight. And my favourite time to fly is at night, when the air is still and the view below is just a sea of lights. It’s the most wonderful feeling.
Consultancy = freedom
What I do each day depends on which contracts I am working on, and how much time I need to spend finding new clients versus supporting existing clients. With active contracts, my day-to-day role changes with each project. I spend a great deal of time on the phone, on video conferences, and on email, especially since several of my contracts have been with clients in other states or countries.
In the past few years, I have done work ranging from helping an aircraft development company redefine their engineering processes, to managing media and public relations for the launch of an aviation education program at a public high school. When I am seeking new work, my time is spent networking and researching for new opportunities.
Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 has greatly impacted both my consulting business and my professional speaking and outreach efforts.
I had been working on a new project for two years to start a commuter airline for business travellers, and I had already been named CEO and president of the start-up company. We had a great concept, a fabulous team, launch customers identified, and were ready to start operations. We were actively seeking investors when COVID-19 hit, but the impact on the aviation industry and on our economy resulted in our founder shutting everything down last summer due to lack of investment.
In addition, much of the networking and collaborating done in aviation and aerospace is through attendance at conferences and air shows around the world, all of which have been cancelled for the past year.
My biggest disappointment in 2020 was the cancellation of the European Business Aviation Association Convention and Exhibition in Geneva, Switzerland, which I was scheduled to attend and for which I had corporate sponsorship. That was the beginning of a long string of event cancellations.
I also had several keynote speeches cancelled in the spring of 2020. By the summer, some events were planned in a virtual setting, so I have done a few keynotes via Zoom. But it’s just not the same without that live interaction with the audience.
Saluting the incredible Betty Haas Pfister
I have been supporting efforts for about five years to share the story of the World War II Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). These amazing women are missing from our history books, despite them being the first women military pilots in our country.
The WASP corps was made up of over 1,000 women who flew every military aircraft we had between 1942 and 1944. Once the WASP program was disbanded by our government, many of them left aviation and never flew again. But there is one WASP that I am totally enamoured with named Betty Haas Pfister.
I learned about Betty a few years ago when I met her daughter, Suzanne Pfister, in Aspen, Colorado. Suzanne and I became instant friends, and I was later invited to join the Advisory Board of her non-profit called The BettyFlies Foundation.
Their mission is to fund aviation-related programmes for young people that encourage personal development and create STEM education opportunities, all while honouring Betty’s legacy.
What I love most about Betty, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 90, is the long list of her accomplishments after the war ended. Betty was also a helicopter pilot and led the effort to build the first hospital heliport in Colorado; She was a member of the US Helicopter team for many years, competing in World Championship events around the globe; Betty founded the first aerial search and rescue organisation in her state and was also responsible for Aspen’s airport getting an air traffic control tower in 1968; She was also a hot air balloon pilot and founded the annual Snowmass Balloon Race.
For all of her efforts in Colorado, Betty was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984. But the most important honour Betty received, along with the other members of the WASP corps, was being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour by President Barack Obama in 2010.
In my eyes, Betty Haas Pfister is the epitome of a hero and role model for young girls and women everywhere who have an interest in aviation and in giving back to their community. If you are interested in supporting The BettyFlies Foundation, please visit us at bettyflies.org.
The importance of Women’s History Month
Having spent my entire life in male-dominated careers and environments, Women’s History Month is very important to me, as it is a time to raise awareness of the amazing women in our history. Especially in aviation, where women are still such a tiny percentage of the workforce.
Only 6% of all licensed pilots in the world are women. Just 13% of aerospace engineers are women and only 2% of aircraft mechanics. I think if more female pioneers in aviation were in our history books and featured in movies and TV shows, young girls would have more role models and bigger ideas about what’s possible for them.
Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut to fly in space, once said “You can’t be what you can’t see”. If young girls see female airline pilots, female aerospace engineers, female astronauts, female aircraft mechanics, they could have a vision in their minds of what they could be someday.
Women’s History Month provides a focus on the incredible women in our past and our present, to put role models front and centre and make sure the world knows that for women, anything is possible.
Having a mentor is invaluable
I have two pieces of advice for girls and young women interested in aviation and aerospace careers.
The first is to do research, to find out about the many careers available in both industries. Did you know there are aviation photographers? Aviation lawyers? Aerospace medicine doctors? Spacesuit designers? There are so many careers in addition to flying that people might want to learn about.
Secondly, find a mentor! I have been mentoring for many years and really value this more than anything. It is hugely important for young people to find someone doing a job they might be interested in, to sit down with a pilot or engineer or air traffic controller and ask them questions about what it’s really like and how they got there.
You can also look for a mentor who can help navigate and support your path, even if they are not in the same field.
For example, as President of the San Diego, California chapter of Women in Aviation International (WAI) for four years, I mentored quite a few girls and young women. I helped one high school student figure out which aviation career was the best fit for her when she realised, right at the end of her flight training, that she actually didn’t want to be a pilot. I supported three women with their applications to Air Force and Navy Officer Training and Flight School, and all three are thriving now as military officers, with one of them on her way to being an F-18 fighter pilot!
Mentoring doesn’t have to be time-intensive – it can be one coffee meetup or one Zoom session – whatever works for both parties. One of the most amazing things about women in aviation and space is that we love sharing our stories and helping the next generation any way that we can.
So how do you find a mentor? There are a few international organisations full of women who love to mentor, and these groups also provide support including educational programs and scholarships. Some of my favourites are WAI, the Ninety-Nines, the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Look them up online and see how they can help!
The sky is NOT the limit
I have been asked to support a programme in Africa, which I am so very excited about! There is a non-profit in Botswana called Dare To Dream, founded by Captain Kgomotso Phatsima, one of the first women to fly for the Botswana Defence Force.
Her organisation provides education in what she calls STEAME – science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics and entrepreneurship. They have been educating boys and girls in Botswana for several years, teaching engineering, web design, robotics, business skills, and more.
Captain Phatsima wants to take her programme to some of the surrounding countries on her continent, so my consulting firm is now the US partner for the “Fly for STEAME Southern Africa Initiative”.
In September of 2022, we will fly our team in a Cessna Grand Caravan to Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa. In each country, we will host a one-day STEAME workshop for 100 young girls. Our goal is to introduce STEAME and the wonders of aviation to the next generation of young girls in Southern Africa, and to show them that their aspirations are achievable and their dreams attainable.
If successful, we hope to expand the programme throughout the continent of Africa, where girls and women have so few opportunities. We want girls everywhere to know the sky is not the limit.