Celebrating the Women of Boeing

Be ready. And always have your shoes on. That’s how Nelda Lee, the first female pilot to fly an F-15 Eagle, explained the success of her 35-year long career in aviation. A spellbound crowd gathered at the Future of Flight Aviation Center in Mukilteo as Lee told the story of growing up on a farm with shoes perpetually tied tight, ready to go on a moment’s notice. Her four fellow female panelists nodded their heads in agreement, knowing all too well that breaking gender barriers in the aerospace industry was going to require blazing their own trail.

Trailblazers: Celebrating the Women of Boeing is proof that they have done just that. Author and Everett resident, Betsy Case has compiled a collection of rare images and backstories as a tribute to female pioneers — Rosies, aviators, engineers and executives that have made Boeing the best integrated aerospace company in the world. In honor of the book’s March release, Lee was joined by trailblazers Patricia Beckham, Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, Megan Robertson and Sandra Jeffcoat for a book signing and Q & A panel to discuss
their unprecedented accomplishments.

The sunlit hanger of the lower-level gallery glowed as these women revealed what it was like to fly above the noise of “no.” Beckham, the first American woman to qualify as a crewmember in the F/A-18 said, “In college, my professor told me that girls didn’t belong there. And even though I got As in physics, chemistry and math, he made it hard on me. But I got through it.” Darcy-Hennemann, the first woman to join the elite Boeing Engineering Flight Test group, shared a similar college experience.“They told me I was too short and that I should go find the other flight attendants, convinced I was in the wrong place. I ran into that every step of my career.” And as the first African-American woman to become a member of the Boeing Technical Excellence Program, Jeffcoat also faced opposition, but drew on a dare to fuel her. “A manager of mine said I couldn’t do it, so I had to show him I could.” Years later, that man apologized and would call Jeffcoat periodically to ask, “Sandy, which doors did you open today?”

But not everyone on stage was at one time caught in the thicket of turbulation. The youngest of the group, Robertson, was the first female pilot to conduct a Chinook helicopter test flight. “I didn’t get a lot of nos because of these women sitting on this panel,” Robertson said. But as a native Washingtonian she did have one ulterior motive. “I knew that pilots got to see the sun everyday and I wanted that!”

Including the five panelists, Trailblazers is packed with stories of trend-setting women who bucked the system for their passion. The cover jacket has Barbara Jane “B.J.” Erickson London smiling from the cockpit of a B-17. A home economics major at the University of Washington, London enrolled in flight school after deciding that flying was “more exciting than cooking a souffle.” Also pictured is aviator Mae Jemison who was the first African-American woman in space. A glossy Hollywood headshot of Bessie Marie Dempsey represents an abandoned film career in the 1930s to study mechanical engineering and ultimately become the first female aeronautical engineer at Boeing.

And even though the purpose of the event was to applaud the past, it sparked talks about the future. “The door’s ajar, but it’s not fully open,” Jeffcoat remarked. Currently, only four percent of women in aviation are at the captain level. But with positive changes like the Boeing-supported Raisbeck Aviation High School which matches STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education) with a specific industry, the path is broader for today’s students interested in aerospace than generations before.

Laces tight and poised on the blocks, the women of Boeing featured in the pages of Trailblazers may have been instrumental in starting the race, but the journey has only begun. On this day, as author Betsy Case eloquently put it, “It was time to acknowledge the inspiring women who helped make the company the success it is today.

"Laces tight and poised on the blocks, the women of Boeing featured in the pages of Trailblazers may have been instrumental in starting the race, but the journey has only begun."