Helene Niedhart, CEO of Switzerland-based CAT Aviation, discovered her passion for aviation in 1980, when she took her first flight over the Grand Canyon. Speaking during EBACE 2017 on Monday, Niedhart described her experience of flying low just over the tree tops, dipping into the canyon, “passing the massive rocks very closely and [flying] like a bird to the top of the canyon again.”
That was the moment she decided to become a pilot, and soon showed up to her first lesson—much to her instructor’s chagrin—in heels and a sundress. But she quickly adapted her wardrobe and went on to earn private, multiengine, and ultimately air transport pilot certificates by 1987.
But at that time in Switzerland, pilot jobs were not available to women. “I had no chance for a pilot position,” she said. Undeterred, Niedhart went to the U.S. to buy a Cessna 421 twin and brought it to Switzerland to start her own company, CAT Aviation, with CAT standing for Commercial Air Transportation. When she did this, Niedhart said, “pilots burst out and laughed at me.” But she said, “I am thankful to all of them because they helped me and didn’t even know it.” It strengthened her resolve, and this year CAT Aviation is celebrating the 30th anniversary of a charter and management firm that operates a fleet of Dassault Falcon 7Xs and 2000s, along with a Hawker 125-800. After CAT Aviation became a successful competitor, “no one was laughing at me anymore,” she said.
Niedhart described her story to attendees of the Cleared for Take Off: Women’s Networking Event held at the Inspiration Zone. The event provided opportunities for female industry leaders to provide insight on their successes, inspire, offer advice, and elicit ideas to help expand the population of women in the industry.
NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen kicked off the event, saying, “We have had a number of very significant women who have helped shape and form aviation in the U.S, in Europe and all around the world, but clearly it is a group that is underrepresented in our ranks and it is to the detriment of our industry.”
Taunya Renson-Martin, founder, MachMedia, echoed those sentiments, adding, “This is a shortcoming we much address. There are role models for the next generation that we want to attract,” Renson-Martin said, adding “The issue goes beyond business aviation and aviation,” noting the lack of interest from women in STEM subjects. “This has important implications,” she said noting a skills shortage in aviation. “We simply cannot accept to draw from half the skills field.” Renson introduced participants in the panel, saying, “These professionals prove that women can thrive [in aviation].”
Participants in the event highlight the need for women to network and mentor to help build a base. Karin Muller, a regional director business development EU for Sterling-Global Aviation Logistics and who has a long background with aviation companies such as AAR and Bombardier, introduced the Women in Corporation Aviation (WCA) organization to attendees. Muller, a director in the European branch of WCA, joined the organization almost two decades ago, she said because she “saw a great potential of bringing what WCA is doing in the U.S. over to Europe.”
The event also hosted round-table discussions in the areas of women at the CEO level, women entrepreneurs, and women pilots.
Cecile Coune, CEO of aviation insurer Aviabel, outlined the struggles of increasing the numbers of women on boards of directors and C-level executive positions. Coune noted that in the past seven years there has been “good progress” with more women joining boards, but said the gains have mostly come in non-executive, non-decision-making positions. Some of these gains have been made through quotas, and she said, “there is a lot of work to do” to bring up the numbers, pointing to an “unconscious bias.”
Coune discussed a need to employ best practices and innovative recruiting, but also stressed the importance of reaching out to other women and mentoring them to help fill middle management ranks that would eventually produce a pipeline for C-level roles.
Janine Iannarelli, founder of Par Avion, provided insight on being an entrepreneur in the business, noting the fortitude, inner strength, and positive attitude required for success. Another key, Iannerelli stressed, is “liking yourself when no one else does…There are moments I go out and believe I am the only one who does this.” But she also stressed that women cannot let people push them aside, noting she has faced that in the past as she built her business. She added that people will take note of those who back down as much as those who stand their ground.
Also, she added, women must work together rather than against each other, which still happens. But Iannarelli stressed that women should not promote other women solely based on gender, but push each other to be the best that they can be.
Carolin Freist, a pilot with BMW Flight Service, discussed her difficulties breaking into the field early in her career as a pilot, noting that women candidates would frequently get passed over. But she eventually worked her way up and now flies a Gulfstream and Falcon for BMW. Freist also discussed the importance of corporate culture, saying she receives strong support from management of BMW, and she underscored the need for networking in Europe. In the U.S., there is more networking, but not as much in Europe, she said.