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Breaking Barriers for Women in Aviation—Now is the Time

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

NOW is the time to break barriers for women in aviation.

I shared this call to action with lawmakers earlier this month when I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) — a body I’m proud to have served for nearly 15 years in my pre-NTSB days.

It was the T&I Committee’s first hearing as it prepares to work on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill. In the words of Chairman Sam Graves, the bill is an unmissable opportunity to enhance “America’s gold standard in aviation safety.”  

Make no mistake: the lack of diversity in U.S. aviation is a safety issue, which is why I’m so glad Congressman Rudy Yakym asked me about it.

The State of Women in Aviation

I’m only the fourth woman to serve as NTSB Chair since the agency was established in 1967 — 55 years ago.

Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique; women are underrepresented across transportation in every mode and nearly every job category, especially in roles that tend to pay more, such as upper management and highly technical positions.

Aviation is no exception, where the data are startling: women hold less than 8% of FAA-issued pilot certificates.

Things are improving, but not fast enough. In fact, the share of commercial pilot certificates held by women is increasing at a rate of approximately 1% a DECADE. That’s unacceptably slow progress.

There’s also an unacceptable lack of ethnic and racial diversity among U.S. pilots, 94% of whom are white…and less than 0.5% of whom are Black women.

Other roles in aviation show a similar trend when it comes to gender diversity. Women represent 19.7% of dispatchers, 16.8% of air traffic controllers, 3% of aviation CEOs, and less than 3% of maintenance technicians. I could go on.

The System-Level Change We Need

What’s keeping women out of the control towers, off the tarmac, and everywhere in between — and what can we do about it?

The Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB) set out to answer these questions. Convened by Congress, the board’s charge was to develop recommendations and strategies to support female students and aviators to pursue a career in aviation.

The board concluded its work last year with a groundbreaking report, whose findings are best understood with an example.

Let’s use a hypothetical young woman who dreams of flying when she grows up. 

I’ll call her “Lexi.”

Barriers to Entry

Lexi will face significant barriers to entering aviation at all stages of her life — and they present sooner than you might think.

As one survey revealed, more than half (54%) of women in aviation cited childhood exposure to the field as a positive influence on their decision to pursue an aviation career.

Conversely, 70% of women outside the industry say they never considered aviation. The most common reason they cited? A lack of familiarity with aviation-related opportunities.

In other words, exposing young kids to aviation is a powerful step we can take toward our diversity goals.

That means Lexi is more likely to become a pilot if someone exposes her to it before she’s 10 years old.  

As Lexi grows up, society will send her powerful messages about who “belongs” in aviation. The WIAAB report points out, “During the secondary school years (ages 11–18), girls continue to be subjected to gender-limiting stereotypes and face bias and harassment for behaving outside of societal norms.”

Without intervention, repeated exposure to such negative messages can end Lexi’s aviation career before it even begins.

Barriers to Retention

Getting more women to enter aviation is only half the battle; we need to ensure they stay once they get there. Let’s assume Lexi is one of them.

Lexi is now a young adult. She’s completed her studies, graduated at the top of her class, and earned her pilot’s certificate. She’s thrilled to accept an offer to work as a commercial pilot.

At her new job, Lexi quickly makes a group of friends: 9 other women in aviation who defied the odds to be there. They “made it.”

The heartbreaking truth is that 6 of those 10 women will consider leaving aviation before long. Chances are, it’ll include Lexi.

What could possibly force Lexi and five of her colleagues from a job they’ve each dreamed about since childhood…one they worked incredibly hard to get?

In short: implicit bias discrimination, lack of career opportunities, and lack of flexibility and work-life balance. That’s what the WIAAB report shows.

The report also reveals chilling statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment. Among women in aviation:

  • 71% report experiencing sexual harassment at work or in an aviation setting.
  • 68% of flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying career.
  • 51% who reported or complained about sexual harassment experienced retaliation.
  • 62% say sexual harassment remains a significant problem in the aviation industry.
  • 81% say they’ve witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace.

It’s not right and it’s not safe — for anyone.

The Safety Implications

Keep these statics in mind. Now, consider this line from NASA’s Safety Culture Model, which was developed following the 1986 Challenger disaster: “No one should ever be afraid to speak up; it could save a life.”

How could a woman like Lexi feel safe speaking up if she’s being harassed at work? And retaliated against for reporting it?

It’s clear that our aviation safety culture is falling short on NASA’s measure.

The Royal Aeronautical Society makes the case succinctly: “Without an inclusive environment, there can be no guarantee of safety.”

Fortunately, the opposite is also true: an inclusive culture can make everyone safer.

That’s why the WIABB recommends interventions like creating an industry-wide reporting system on gender bias. Imagine for just a moment what that could do to attract women to careers in aviation and ensure they stay. It’d be game-changing.

Now imagine ALL 55 of the WIAAB recommendations are implemented — it would transform aviation.

THAT’s how we create a more inclusive aviation culture, one that attracts and retains people from all walks of life…one that makes our skies safer for everyone.

We also need to give credit where it’s due. Many in the aviation industry are taking proactive steps that are also having a tremendous positive effect. For example, several commercial airlines have launched pilot training academies to diversify their applicant pool, efforts that I applaud!

The next step, as I see it, would be for the entire industry and labor to combine efforts. Such an action could supercharge progress toward our diversity goals. It would also allow industry and labor to defray the costs associated with investing in tomorrow’s aviation workforce…an investment from which we all benefit.

A Personal Take

I want a different future for women in aviation. Women like Lexi…whose aviation career, I’ll now admit, isn’t hypothetical.

Lexi is my daughter.

Lexi speaking at the 2022 Women in Aviation International Conference

Though she’s now 15 years old, Lexi has known for years that she wants to be an aerospace engineer when she grows up. She even spoke about her passion for flying at last year’s Women in Aviation International Conference. I’m incredibly proud of her.

I have no doubt that my daughter will make her aviation dreams come true. And yet, I worry about the culture she’ll encounter once she gets there, and not just because I’m her mom — but because a more inclusive aviation culture will make everyone safer. I also think about the other little girls who never know that aviation is a viable dream in the first place.

Luckily, the Women in Aviation Advisory Board has provided us with a “flight plan for the future,” which gets at the root causes of our diversity problem.

Let’s get to work. Our “gold standard” of aviation safety depends on it.

Episode 54: Women in Aviation

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB we talk with Senior Air Traffic Control Investigator Betty Koschig and Senior Aviation Accident Analyst Allison Diaz in the Office of Aviation Safety, about their work to improve aviation safety and the NTSB’s participation in the upcoming Women in Aviation International conference. Hear more about opportunities to work at the NTSB and our efforts to advance aviation safety and support women in aviation.

For more information about NTSB job opportunities, visit our webpage.

To learn more about NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, visit the office’s webpage.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here:

Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Honoring Families, Every Day

By Elias Kontanis, Chief, Transportation Disaster Assistance Division

Last year, for the first time, the international aviation community observed February 20th as the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. This year, on the second annual observance, we join in reflecting on the lives lost in aviation accidents as well as on the vigilance needed to ensure safety remains the priority in aviation.

As important as it is to commemorate, it is imperative that we also commit—commit to ensuring our programs effectively address the concerns of accident survivors and families and provide the information and support needed after tragedy happens.

The NTSB conducts its investigations with the goal of preventing future accidents. We do this work so that no other families must experience the painful loss or injury of loved ones due to transportation accidents. Our objective is, first and foremost, accident prevention. We maintain a steadfast commitment to this because we believe that the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries in all modes of transportation is zero.

With our commitment to transportation safety, we also have a commitment to support families by offering information about the NTSB’s investigative process, addressing their questions about the specific accident investigation involving their loved ones, and offering information about other services that may be available. The NTSB’s family assistance team does this every day, not only for aviation accidents but for all transportation accidents involving fatalities investigated by the NTSB. In 2022, our seven-member team provided support for 868 investigations, interacting with 3,480 accident survivors and family members.

The NTSB’s commitment to supporting transportation accident survivors and their family members is long-standing, spanning over 25 years. In that time, we have established some basic yet enduring principles:

  • An independent and transparent safety investigation, with a focus on enhancing safety and not assigning blame or liability, is essential to the success of family assistance. Transparency and honesty fosters confidence.
  • Rapport and credibility must be established with family members by communicating realistic expectations about the investigation and other aspects of the response. This includes clearly and appropriately communicating limits to the information and services available.
  • A well-designed family assistance plan should be flexible and scalable. Rigid constructs break when they encounter an unanticipated force, but when the plan is flexible, it will bend and spring back to its original form when a stressor is applied.
  • The entity responsible for coordinating the response should use a unified command concept of operations, enabling organizations to work together without giving up authority, responsibility, or accountability.
  • A comprehensive response requires collaboration from multiple government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Participating entities should focus on the fundamental concerns of families within the boundaries of their mandate and capabilities.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has spearheaded several initiatives to promote these principles among contracting states (that is, countries) by developing a 3-day course designed to provide governments, aircraft and airport operators, and other stakeholders the foundational knowledge to develop family assistance plans. Most recently, the European Civil Aviation Conference and the ICAO European and North Atlantic Regional Office have also jointly organized a workshop on assistance to aircraft accident victims and their families, which is scheduled for February 20, 2023, in Milan, Italy. This workshop will bring together representatives from several countries, family associations, and other stakeholders to share best practices.

Family assistance needs to be an organizational priority, ingrained in the culture and mindset of an entity engaging in this work. More than regulations, policies, standard operating procedures, or checklists, family assistance is about listening to and learning from those affected by disaster. Ultimately, family assistance is about caring for our fellow human beings and treating them with dignity and compassion, the same way we would expect to be treated when faced with an unexpected injury or loss of a loved one.

We stand with our international colleagues in honor of this solemn day, commemorating the lives lost and the families who faced such unimaginable tragedy, and we will not forget our commitments to them in the work we do.

40 Years Later, The Marine Electric Sinking Remembered

By James Scheffer, Strategic Advisor, NTSB Office of Marine Safety

It’s been 40 years since the large bulk carrier SS Marine Electric tragically sank on February 12, 1983, off the Virginia coast. Nearly all aboard—31 of 34 souls—were lost. But I remember the events of that tragic day as if they happened yesterday.

On that day, I was the 34-year-old captain of the 661-foot, 34,700-DWT lube oil tanker Tropic Sun, the first vessel to respond to the Marine Electric’s early morning distress call.

On February 11, a nor’easter formed off Cape Hatteras and the Virginia coast. On land, the storm was responsible for a blizzard that set snowfall records in several eastern seaboard cities and blanketed Washington, D.C., in up to 30 inches of snow. At sea, it generated 50–60 knot winds and 30–40-foot seas.

On the evening of February 11, while on the bridge, I heard the Ocean City Coast Guard Station side of a VHF radio telephone call to the Marine Electric. The Coast Guard was acknowledging that the Marine Electric had pumps going and was telling the crew to keep the Coast Guard informed if they needed help.

Meanwhile, the Tropic Sun was rolling, the bow slamming into the swells and seas shipping across the main deck—not unusual conditions for a loaded tanker during a nor’easter. Again and again, water covered the deck; again and again, the deck emerged after each wave. We took that for granted. It was normal in a storm.

I tried—but failed—to get some sleep. The Tropic Sun was three hours from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and another from our discharge terminal at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.

At 0315, the radio telegraph auto alarm went off on the bridge. The SOS was from the Marine Electric, which was taking on water and readying its lifeboats for abandoning ship. The crew needed help as soon as possible.

The Marine Electric was more than 35 miles from us. I changed course and informed the local Coast Guard station that we were responding to the SOS. On our way south to render aid, we saw an unwelcome sight, one that still makes me shake my head: vessels that must have heard the Marine Electric’s SOS sailing in the opposite direction.

When we got within a dozen miles of the Marine Electric’s last position, our hearts sank. There was no sign of the bulk carrier on radar. Before daybreak the sea was full of blinking strobe lights, which we recognized as the lights on lifejackets.

I maneuvered the ship in heavy seas to a full stop alongside more than 20 possible survivors floating in the water around 0540. At the time, the water temperature was 39F with an air temp of 34F. They were unresponsive to our calls in the dark/early morning and eerily peaceful, all dressed in winter gear and lifejackets. By all appearances, the Marine Electric‘s open lifeboats had failed to keep them out of the water and alive.

My own vessel carried the same style of open lifeboat.

The Coast Guard requested that I launch our lifeboats to retrieve the potential survivors, but I refused because of the strong winds and heavy sea conditions. The chief mate and I would not put our crew in harm’s way in the same type of open lifeboats that had so abjectly failed the crew of the Marine Electric. At the request of the Coast Guard, I agreed to stay in the area following a search pattern for any missing crewmembers. The Coast Guard thanked us for our efforts, and we resumed our voyage at dusk on February 12.

Later, while discharging cargo at Marcus Hook, some of the Tropic Sun’s crewmembers discussed buying their own survival suits, but then thought of another solution, which I gladly forwarded to management: a request for survival suits for all onboard. Within two trips (28 days), the vessel was outfitted with survival suits, the first ship to be so outfitted in our eight-ship ocean fleet. These suits, also known as immersion suits, are used without a life jacket when abandoning ship in cold conditions. 

On July 18, while the investigation of the sinking was in progress, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard require immersion suits be provided for crewmembers, scientific personnel, and industrial workers on vessels that operate in waters below 60°F. The NTSB also made a companion recommendation to Marine Transport Lines, which operated the Marine Electric, as well as to industry groups to recommend their members also provide the suits. The suits became mandatory the following year.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the US bulk carrier Marine Electric was the flooding of several forward compartments as the result of an undetermined structural failure. The lack of thermal protection [survival suits] in the water was one of the factors contributing to the loss of life in the tragedy.

As a result of the Marine Electric’s sinking, the Coast Guard’s inspections improved, and many World War II-era (and older) vessels were scrapped. The Marine Electric tragedy also resulted in the creation of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program.

The Marine Electric as seen underway before its capsizing and sinking on Feb. 12, 1983 (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

I sailed for over 24 years with the Sun Marine Department, mostly on coastwise voyages on the east and west coast, with the occasional foreign voyage. I sailed as a captain for over 16 years without any casualties or pollution events. The night the Marine Electric was lost served as a constant reminder to me to respect the power of the sea.

Over the past 26-plus years, I have investigated dozens of accidents and supervised more than 200 accident investigations as Chief of Investigations and Chief of Product Development in the Office of Marine Safety at the NTSB. And since then, we have seen the emergence of technologies and innovations that, combined with survival suits, could have helped prevent such tragedies, such as personal locator beacons.

However, I will never forget the night the Marine Electric sank, and neither will the other members of the Tropic Sun’s crew. While events in our lives have sent each of us forward on our separate courses, whenever we meet, our conversations converge on that evening 40 years ago.

This anniversary has passed, but the memory of those 31 mariners will not.

Those of us aboard the Tropic Sun fared far better that night; however, our similarities to the crew that was lost drove home two points about losses at sea. First, if we are telling the story, we are the fortunate ones. And second, nothing is more important than taking fortune out of the equation by making life at sea safer.

Personal Locator Beacons Improve the Chance of Rescue at Sea

By Morgan Turrell, Director of the Office of Marine Safety

New Year’s Eve is a time of celebration and remembrance. Three years ago, on December 31, 2019, as the new year was being rung in across the lower 48 states, a tragedy was playing out in icy Alaskan waters. The fishing vessel Scandies Rose, with seven crew members aboard, encountered severe icing conditions and high winds and waves as it transited from Kodiak to fishing grounds in the Bering Sea. The crabber tried to make it to Sutwik Island to shelter from the storm; however, because of the weight of the topside ice that had accumulated on the vessel and the force of the winds and waves, the Scandies Rose capsized and sank before reaching safety.

Two crewmembers managed to climb out of the capsized ship and swim to a life raft, where they were tossed about for 4 hours in 50‑mph freezing winds and 30-foot seas. Search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, hampered by the poor weather conditions and unsure of the survivors’ location, struggled to find them. Eventually, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued the two crewmembers, but the remaining five were never found.

Our investigation into this accident found that the Scandies Rose’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) failed to provide a position after crewmembers were forced to abandon the vessel. The crew was left without a means of communicating with SAR personnel, who, going off the EPIRB information, were searching in the wrong area. As a result of this situation, we reiterated a 2017 recommendation (M‑17-45) to require mariners to have personal locator beacons (PLBs). This recommendation asks the Coast Guard to require that all personnel employed on vessels in coastal, Great Lakes, and ocean service be provided with a PLB. Unfortunately, this recommendation is still open.

Rescue helicopter search area for Scandies Rose based off position passed in error. (Courtesy: Coast Guard)
Rescue helicopter search area for Scandies Rose based off position passed in error. (Courtesy: Coast Guard)

A PLB is a personal electronic device that transmits a survivor’s location on or in the water to the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system during an emergency. It’s designed to be carried in a person’s life vest (or elsewhere on their body) and manually activated when the wearer is in distress. PLBs continuously update a survivor’s location.

The Scandies Rose is one of several notable marine casualties the NTSB has investigated in the last 5 years involving mariners lost at sea in which PLBs could have made a difference. These casualties highlight the critical safety need for PLBs to aid in SAR operations at sea. We’ve been recommending that all mariners use PLBs since our investigation of the October 2015 sinking of the cargo ship El Faro, which sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Island, Bahamas, after sailing directly into the path of Hurricane Joaquin. The entire crew of 33 aboard perished.

Three days after the El Faro’s sinking, searchers spotted the remains of one El Faro crewmember in an immersion suit. It’s unclear when the crewmember perished or if any other crewmembers were able to abandon ship; however, had that crewmember, or any others who were able to evacuate, been equipped with a PLB, searchers would have had the essential information to focus rescue efforts. We concluded then that equipping all people onboard a vessel with a PLB would enhance their chances of survival, and, in 2017, we issued safety recommendation M-17-45.

Since the sinking of the El Faro and the Scandies Rose, we have investigated two other marine tragedies that continue to highlight the need for PLBs.

  • On November 23, 2020, the Coast Guard received a distress signal about 27 miles from Provincetown, Massachusetts, from the EPIRB registered to the Emmy Rose, an 82-foot-long commercial fishing vessel with four crewmembers aboard. The Coast Guard recovered the EPIRB, but none of the crewmembers were located and are presumed dead. The investigation showed that if any crewmembers had been able to evacuate the vessel, they would have been able to survive up to 22.5 hours in the water with an immersion suit. It’s unlikely that the crew had PLBs; however, had they been able to activate a PLB after abandoning the vessel, SAR crews may have been able to find them.
  • On April 13, 2021, the liftboat SEACOR Power capsized off the coast of Port Fourchon, Louisiana, in a severe thunderstorm. Six crewmembers were rescued by the Coast Guard and Good Samaritan vessels, and the bodies of six other fatally injured crewmembers were recovered. Seven crewmembers were never found and are presumed dead. None of the survivors rescued had PLBs or similar satellite emergency notification devices (SENDs), which use commercial satellite systems, nor did they know of anyone else on board who did.

Other marine investigations we’ve conducted have shown how PLBs and SENDs, when voluntarily incorporated into marine operations, likely saved lives. For example, our investigation of the November 10, 2021, fire aboard the fishing vessel Blue Dragon found that SAR controllers were able to correlate location data from multiple emergency beacons. Similarly, our investigation of the July 23, 2016, sinking of the commercial fishing vessel Ambition found that use of the vessel’s SEND prompted an immediate response from the commercial response center when the Coast Guard did not receive the captain’s mayday call.

PLBs are now widely available, relatively inexpensive, and remarkably accurate. Models typically cost $300–$400, and most offer GPS location functionality that can provide SAR operations with a continuously updated location of each person to within 300 feet. PLBs can be equipped with an integrated automatic identification system (AIS) “Man Overboard” alert that, in addition to satellite GPS location, transmits AIS signals for local assistance from nearby vessels.

The NTSB has been advocating for PLBs for many years now. The Coast Guard should require them, but the marine industry doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—wait for a Coast Guard requirement to make PLBs a common piece of safety equipment on commercial vessels.

This New Year, as we reflect on the third anniversary of the tragic Scandies Rose sinking, we ask mariners and marine operations to make it their new year’s resolution to invest in their crews’ safety by providing PLBs. Without a doubt, a PLB can avoid turning an unfortunate accident or incident into a tragedy on the seas.


For more information on our marine casualty investigations, visit our Office of Marine Safety investigative reports webpage. Also, check out these resources on PLB use from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Communications Commission. Note that for any PLB, mariners should read the manufacturer’s instructions for specific guidance on use and register the device with NOAA prior to use.