Let’s make Amelia and the Tuskegee Airmen proud


No one denies the hero status of 1930s aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Nor the Tuskegee Airmen – the legendary African-American Red Tail fighter pilots who fought for freedom a decade later in the skies of Europe. But sadly, their heirs still face discrimination both in finding employment and in flight training.

For evidence, gaze into the cockpits of business jets and airliners (when you can find one) the world over. Some progress is undeniable. But most cockpits are overwhelmingly the domain of white, often middle-aged men. Female and minority groups remain under-represented in all cockpits – from shiny business jets, such as the Gulfstream 700, and commercial airliners to training aircraft such as the humble Cessna 152 or Piper Super Cub.

Further evidence was supplied recently in the form of new research from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University published in the February 2021 edition of the journal Technology in Society. Researchers uncovered significant bias faced by aspiring female and minority commercial pilots. Based on scientific research into perceptions of pilot quality based on their gender or race, the researchers concluded: consumers and even other pilots respond more favourably to white male pilots compared with female and minority pilots.

‘Pilot shortages and lack of diversity’

Lead author of the research paper, Embry-Riddle PhD student Nadine Ragbir said the value of the research lay in demonstrating implicit or unconscious biases in aviation. Ignoring these biases may lead to consequences such as low retention rates, pilot shortages and lack of diversity due to under hiring of women and minorities,” Ragbir told Corporate Jet Investor. “If such biases continue to persist in business aviation, then they overlook the value and talent in the differences that women and minorities offer and shut down the path for change and growth.”

While some people know they are biased or prejudiced against an individual, others may be unaware. “Just being able to make people aware that there are unconscious biases that could influence their thoughts and actions is a step forward,” Ragbir added.

Co-author Stephen Rice, professor of Human Factors at Embry-Riddle, underlined the implications of the research for recruitment. “The aviation industry needs to be aware that this bias exists because they need to make sure their hiring process is fair to women and minorities,” said Rice. “They need to do whatever it takes to help women and minorities overcome these societal problems.”

‘Make sure hiring process is fair’

Diversity and inclusion programmes were Ragbir’s top recommendation for the aviation industry. She is right. As the global economy continues its long recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, business aviation and aviation in general need access to the very best recruits – regardless of their gender or skin colour.

Time is growing short. Despite the pandemic, a significant proportion of the industry’s workforce is reaching retirement age and Rice warns of a shortage of aviation professionals. Also, today’s recruits will be hiring the next generation before too long. We need to act now to ensure the bias detected in this study is not allowed to perpetuate through following generations.

Amelia Earhart never lived to see women and minority groups enjoy equal opportunities in aviation. (Her Lockheed Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937). Happily, some of the very few remaining Tuskegee Airmen just might. But we need to hurry.

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