By Danielle Sempsrott
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
Less than 10% of women are pilots with commercial airlines. Delta Air Lines hopes to change that statistic through initiatives such as its Women Inspiring Our Next Generation (WING) program, which familiarizes young women with the world of aviation and other traditionally male-dominated industries. Most recently, Delta flew 138 middle- and high school-age girls from Atlanta, Georgia, to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 23, 2022, for a glimpse of the many careers within America’s space program.
The concept of WING was born in 2015 when Delta General Manager of Pilot Development Beth Poole and Delta Pilot Cheri Rohlfing were discussing the lack of female presence in the airline industry – more specifically, pilots – and the need for action.
“We wanted to inspire young ladies by showing them what successful women can do, whether that’s being a pilot, a flight attendant, a mechanic, or ground personnel,” Rohlfing said. “Every aspect of these flights is operated and organized by women at Delta Air Lines, so we feel like if they can see it, they can be it.”
Through WING, Delta invites schools and organizations with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) focus to fly out of one of their hub cities to another aviation-focused city, free of charge. Delta has done six of these flights thus far, and now, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they chose to shoot for the stars with a trip to Kennedy.
“This is the relaunch for us, and we’re going big coming down there,” Poole said. “We’re really excited about it. I couldn’t wait for the young ladies to see everything that’s there.”
The day started with Delta’s 737 aircraft – operated by an all-female crew – touching down on the Launch and Landing Facility runway, becoming the first Delta aircraft to land on the same runway that welcomed shuttles home during the Space Shuttle Program.
Next, the girls and their chaperones boarded buses that took them to Launch Pad 39B for an up-close look at NASA’s Artemis I Moon rocket. As part of Artemis, future crewed missions with NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft will land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface. For most, seeing the Aremis I rocket in person and on the pad was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“This is an amazing experience,” said eighth grader Noa King. “Not many people get to come out here and see this. They don’t just let people walk onto the property, so I think it’s a really amazing opportunity, and I’m really blessed to be here.”
For some girls, such as eighth-grader Chloe Jackson, it was their first time to Florida. For others, it was their first time ever flying on an airplane.
Following their trip to the pad, the group stopped by Kennedy’s Space Station Processing Facility to hear from a panel of 15 women representing various career types at the multi-user spaceport. Additionally, Delta invited three other women to speak: Allison McKay, the CEO of Women in Aviation; Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta’s chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer; and Stephanie Johnson, a pilot with Delta.
“To open up a line of communication and be a resource for young women is very important to me,” Johnson said. “I think all women should be lifting each other up and looking at each other as if that’s your sister and that’s someone you need to help succeed.”
Johnson was the first Black woman hired as a pilot by Northwest Airlines in 1997 and, in 2016, she became the first Black female captain at Delta. She was the first Black female to graduate from Kent State University’s aviation program and, just recently, her daughter became the second.
“It’s something that has to change, and you guys are going to make that happen for us. You are going to change the numbers for us,” Johnson said during the panel.
The group spent the remainder of their time at Kennedy exploring the visitor complex, where they had the opportunity to learn about the shuttle and Apollo programs before heading back to the Launch and Landing Facility for their return flight to Atlanta. With Artemis I nearing launch, Hortense Blackwell, director of Kennedy’s Communication and Public Engagement, said the timing of this Delta WING flight couldn’t have been better.
“We’re getting ready to launch the most powerful rocket in the world, and these young ladies are what we call the Artemis Generation – this is the group that we want to take note of what we’re doing, because they’re going to be the leaders in STEM fields of the future,” she said. “And please, don’t be afraid of STEM because someone says it’s hard. In the end, it’s all hard; so you might as well invest in something that you’re excited about, and if STEM excites you, don’t let anyone steer you away from it.”