Frances Shupe and Patricia Gagné from the University of Louisville put that question to 26 female U.S. pilots. The researchers wanted to know how women got hooked on airplane piloting, and what were the benefits. The majority of the women had at least 15 years experience. They ranged in age from 24 to 80.
The findings appeared online in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography on Feb. 26, 2016.
High Flying Females
The new research revealed many of the participants fell in love with flying as young girls. Sandra joined the Civil Air Patrol when she was just 14 years old. After taking an orientation flight, she was hooked. Others were drawn to the world of aviation by family or friends. Another seven of the women were married to pilots, when they decided to get their license.
The study found that personal and social benefits abound for women who choose flying as a pastime.
Here are five:
1. Sense of freedom: Women described experiencing an exhilarating sense of freedom, a freedom not found in other activity.
This was captured by Anita, 62, who described flying as "Freedom, ultimate freedom." She added, "Flying is like being closer to heaven, on top of the world. One leaves all his or her problems on the ground."
Flying put a sharper edge on life, attracting adventurous women. As one participant explained:
Women who fly airplanes are not afraid of a challenge or to learn something new. They have confidence in who they are. They believe that a woman can do anything. I've always been different from my non-flying friends. They all seem to ask: Aren't you afraid? Absolutely not! We all have that sense of adventure missing from most women.
2. Stress buster: Besides fostering a sense of freedom, the study found that flying lowered stress for women.
"Flying is most of all fun and is a stress-reliever," said one 59-year-old pilot.
The women spoke about feeling refreshed and invigorated after a flight.
Take the case of Amy, who started to fly shortly after her mother's death:
It was a pure distraction from work, stress and the pressures of daily life. I was losing faith in my ability to accomplish the goals I had set forth in my life and I was stressed out. When I took to the air, the necessity to focus fully on the task at hand allowed me a complete escape from my own thoughts, and, after a flight, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment and drive that I had been missing at the time.
In the same vein, the study found that the women's ability to focus spilled over into other aspects of their lives, making it easier to reason out problems in their everyday lives.
3. Wow factor: The women' s status as pilots bolstered their visibility in the community. "People who do not fly treat me as though I could walk on water," Vera said. "Whereas I might otherwise be ignored, now they always ask me if I have been flying lately, or something similar; a whole lot of respect."
Similarly, Alice, 70, spoke about people's surprise on hearing that she flies planes. Many viewed her achievement as remarkable.
People are surprised that I am a pilot. Probably because I am a woman, and a senior citizen! I respond by telling them about my experiences. I've landed in all 48 contiguous United States and Canada, and I race airplanes. That is the wow factor, for sure!
4. Fostering relationships: The study found a passion for flight was not the only reason women became pilots. Some had more pragmatic reasons.
For instance, they used flying as a way to cement important relationships. "My boyfriend is a pilot," one 65-year-old explained. "We fly a lot together and go to a lot of flying activities. So in a way it keeps us together."
Similarly, Wanda, 76, claimed flying enhanced her relationship with her husband, "I really believe our involvement in flying was a great asset to our marriage."
These women stressed the pleasure of sharing travel with their partners. They enjoyed being able to read the charts and call flight service to arrange for a trip. Moreover, their ability to take control of the plane should their pilot partner become unwell boosted their self-confidence, and it strengthened bonds in their intimate relationship.
5. Membership in elite club: Flying for pleasure opened the doors to deeper involvement in the social world of aviation. Participants were members of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization that connects women pilots from all around the world.
Established in 1929 by 99 women pilots, the Ninety-Nines supports women's involvement in aviation through mentoring, scholarships and education. The organization also supports social causes through voluntary activities.
According to researchers, the Ninety-Nines loomed large in the women's lives. As Alice put it:
Socially, I have met an impressive group of pilots who share the same love and our times together are just plain fun! The Ninety-Nines organization has given me a network of ladies who share the passion. And through this group I have branched out to the Air Race Classic, a transcontinental air race for women, which is supported by the Ninety-Nines.
Amelia Earhart was the first woman aviator to fly across the Atlantic and the first president of the Ninety-Nines. The pilots interviewed appear to take to heart her advice: "Fly for the fun of it."