Taking Flight

As Kent State celebrates the 50th anniversary of its flight technology program, we survey the sky-high dreams of women in aeronautics. 

By Erin Peterson, Illustrations by Jason Zehner ’10

When Amelia Earhart became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, she launched the dreams of millions of girls who suddenly saw a future in flight for themselves.

It hasn’t been a straightforward path. After substantial growth from 1960 to 1980, women still make up just 5.2 percent of the total number of “for hire” pilots in the United States. They also remain underrepresented in most aeronautics-linked careers, including air traffic controllers, flight dispatchers and aerospace engineers—but those numbers are growing.

Aeronautics programs like Kent State’s (its flight technology program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year) have been making a difference for women. The university’s Aeronautics Program in the College of Aeronautics and Engineering (CAE)—including accredited concentrations in aeronautical studies, air traffic control, aviation management and flight technology—has cleared a path for women who have gone on to work at NASA, who have broken glass ceilings in military aviation and who have risen to the highest levels in aviation-linked fields. 

"Our goal is to make sure young women realize they can go as high as their dreams can take them.”

These days, Kent State is accelerating its efforts to support women in an industry still dominated by men. Robert Sines, Jr., CAE’s interim dean, has committed to doubling the number of women in its aeronautics degree programs in the next two years. Currently, there are 59 women majoring in aeronautics (12.4 percent) and one woman majoring in aerospace engineering (4 percent). And this fall the college launched its newest bachelor’s degree, aeronautical systems engineering technology (formerly a concentration in aeronautics), with two women in the new degree so far (13 percent). 

Maureen McFarland, PhD, senior academic program director for Kent State University’s Aeronautics Program, is one of the only women in the country to hold a top post in an academic aeronautics program—and her entire team is working to create an environment where girls and young women can excel in aeronautics.

McFarland speaks frequently to groups about promoting women in aeronautics and feels a special responsibility to give women in Kent State programs the tools to succeed—a responsibility she takes seriously based on her own experiences as a woman in the field and the first female aviator in her squadron in the Marine Corps. 

Ongoing efforts at the university are also building a stronger pipeline for women in aviation for the future (see below). This summer saw the first Girls Geared for Engineering Camp for middle school girls and the tenth annual Nikki Kukwa Memorial Aeronautics Camp for high school girls to help stoke their interest in flight. 

Current female students are supported in events like the all-women Air Race Classic and participate in the Kent State chapter of Women in Aviation International. And in October, Kent State is hosting the first-ever SkyHack, an aviation hackathon where students will try to solve some of the industry’s biggest issues. 

Ultimately, Kent State wants to ensure that every woman who plans to pursue flight at any level has the support they need to excel. “Our goal,” says Sines, “is to make sure young women realize they can go as high as their dreams can take them.”

Here, we profile Kent State women from past decades who are breaking new ground in aeronautics-linked careers and experiences. They share the opportunities they chased and the optimism they have for the field.

1970s | Susan Johnson

Engineer project manager Susan Johnson’s four decades at NASA have led to groundbreaking innovations.

Susan Johnson illustrated by Jason Zehner ’10When Susan (Weisenbach) Johnson, BS ’74, was hired as an engineering technician at NASA just a month after graduating from Kent State (and two years after Congress passed Title IX), she knew she’d be among a tiny number of groundbreaking women in NASA. But even she admits that she was surprised by some of the early challenges she faced. 

“The building where I did my research didn’t have a women’s bathroom,” she recalls. “The nearest one was in the office building across the street.” (If it sounds familiar, it is: a similar issue served as a plot point in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.)

Eventually,  Johnson’s boss bought a magnetic sign for the bathroom door that employees could flip between “men” and “women,” which solved the problem. 

“Of course, it was a different era,” she says. When she entered Kent State, she was the first woman to sign up for the aeronautics technology curriculum. By that time, she’d already earned her private pilot’s license and her family had built an open cockpit airplane. “I understood aerospace and I did fine in the curriculum,” Johnson says. “I also was involved in the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; that’s how I met a number of NASA people.” 

If Johnson was going to be a pioneer, though, she wanted to do so on her own terms. Before she was hired by NASA, the U.S. Navy asked her to apply to become one of the first eight women pilots in its flight program. “Fighter jets?” she asked. “Cargo aircraft,” they responded. She passed.

Johnson went on to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and she was on a NASA team that won the coveted National Aeronautic Association’s Collier Trophy in 1987 for their development of advanced turboprop propulsion concepts.

During her four-decade career at NASA, she has watched the number of women rise steadily in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s important progress for women, she says, but notes there is still a need and opportunity for more women in STEM careers.

Mostly, she’s excited to talk about her work as an engineer project manager at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio. While the projects she and her team work on often require decades to fully take shape, some of her group’s most cutting-edge research has become widely used in the aviation industry. She’s helped develop fuel injectors and nozzles that reduce emissions. She and her team found ways to use lightweight composite materials to reduce the weight of certain airplane components by 30 percent.

Today, she’s leading a team working on vertical lift technologies that can make helicopters faster, safer and more fuel efficient.

“What I like about engineering is that it’s about problem solving,” she says. “Do you have innovative ideas? Great! We need you.” 

1980s | Jodi Dever

Jodi Dever’s path to captain at FedEx was propelled by a love of flight.

Jodi Dever illustrated by by Jason Zehner ’10For Jodi Dever, BBA ’88, captaining a Boeing 757 for FedEx offers plenty of benefits. It gives her a regular schedule with lots of time off to spend with her family, including her two sons. It pays well. And there are no passengers to cause trouble. “The boxes don’t talk back,” she jokes.

Dever climbed into the captain’s chair two years ago, and admits it’s been a long ride since she first began dreaming of a life in the sky in the ’70s. Growing up a few miles from Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, she spent long summer days in the backyard with her older sister, lying on her back and watching the planes overhead.

“I remember meeting pilots when my family went on trips,” she says. “They’d always tell me I could do something like [become a pilot], but it was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of time to get to where they were.”

At Kent State and beyond, she says the small numbers of women in flight have led to a tight-knit community. “In a way, it feels like there are a ton of women out there, but that might be because I know all of them,” Dever says. 

Dever and her husband, also a pilot from Kent State, have stayed in contact with many of their friends from college because of the close bonds they forged while spending so much time together. 

And while she’s unflinchingly pursued her career as a pilot, she says she understands why many women who start off in aviation pursue other endeavors—because of how long it can take to land top jobs like hers. 

These days, she often informally advises young women who want to carve a path in aviation while raising a family. Her best advice? Be willing to wing it. “I wanted to wait until everything was exactly right before starting a family, but if you get 70 percent of where you need to be, you’ll be fine,” she says. “If you get bit by the [flying] bug, you’ll do anything you can to make it work.”

1990s | Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson, Delta’s first African-American female captain, encourages young women to consider a career in the skies.

Stephanie Johnson illustrated by Jason Zehner ’10As long as she can remember, Stephanie Johnson, BS ’91, has been fascinated with airplanes. So when her high school physics teacher mentioned he had an airplane, she asked him if he’d take students flying. He agreed, as long as she could get a couple friends to join her and pay for gas. She found her two bravest friends and set a date.

“Taking off from Burke Lakefront Airport [in Cleveland] in his Piper Cherokee was the thrill of my life,” Johnson says. “Once we were airborne, he actually let me fly the plane. I will never forget looking out at the horizon, Lake Erie over one wing and the city of Cleveland over the other. My interest was fueled.”

Learning to fly at Kent State—the ROTC program and the size of the school appealed to her—Johnson was often the only woman in the class and was never in training with another black woman. “This didn’t faze me, because I knew I wasn’t entering a traditional field for women,” she says. “I learned not to give up when you come across obstacles and doubters.” 

Her persistence paid off, and Johnson became a flight instructor before she’d ever taken a commercial flight. While she worked several jobs and built her flight time as an instructor, the men of the Cleveland chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen—a group of African-American military pilots who fought in World War II—inspired her. “I spent time with some of the original members and, though most have passed on, I still draw inspiration from them.” 

Working for a commuter carrier, she earned enough flight experience to apply for a job at Northwest Airlines (now Delta Air Lines) and was hired as their first African-American female pilot in 1997. “Many people I flew with had never flown with a woman before meeting me, let alone a black woman,” Johnson says. “I saw skepticism on many faces, but fortunately that didn’t last long. For the most part, my experiences have been positive.” 

Upon completing her captain training in 2016, she became Delta’s first African-American female captain and currently flies the A320 (Airbus). In February, she again made history when she and Dawn Cook, a first officer, flew as the first African-American female cockpit crew on one of Delta’s mainline flights—a feat that garnered the duo a lot of media attention.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility to be a positive role model,” says Johnson, who has three children and regularly participates in career events for youth. Her goal is to share her passion for aviation and expose young people to opportunities in the field. And she’s succeeding—her eldest daughter enrolled in the Kent State’s flight technology program this fall.

“There are so few women in this profession, and too many women who still don’t think of it as a career option,” she says. “This is a great career—it’s worth the hard work.” 

1990s | Sarah Deal Burrow

A pioneer Marine Corps helicopter pilot, Sarah Deal Burrow blazed a trail for the female Marines who followed her.

Sarah Deal Burrow illustrated by by Jason Zehner ’10In 1993, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin created a new policy that allowed women to compete for assignments in combat aircraft, Sarah Deal Burrow, BS ’92, was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the change. 

She’d earned a private and commercial pilot’s license at Kent State, in what was then called the aerospace flight technology program, where she says she always felt welcome: “The people there—Ruth Sitler, Dick Schwabe, Tom Friend—gave me the confidence to do what I wanted to do.” 

She’d joined the Marine Corps after graduation and had been working as an air traffic controller as her military operational specialty [MOS] and had joined flying clubs on the bases. She’d racked up a lot of flight time and multiple ratings that allowed her to fly a wide range of aircraft. 

So she jumped at the chance and was selected for training that summer. But the new policy wasn’t welcomed by everyone, including some of her fellow pilots. “The only way to deal with it was to turn it into motivation. I was going to show them.”

She did. In the spring of 1995, she earned her aviator’s wings and became a pilot for CH-53Es—the largest and heaviest helicopter in the U.S. military. It was an exceptional accomplishment, but the pressure remained. 

“I had to be strong for the female Marines following behind me,” she says. “I wanted everybody to know we were here to stay, and we could do just as well as men.”

She deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 (she worked in the tactical air command control center) and again in 2009 as a reservist—where she got to fly. “That meant a lot to me. I could have said no,” she says. “But I knew if I did, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. I’ve been really proud to be able to serve my country.”

While Burrow is done flying combat aircraft—pilots typically are asked to step down from such roles in their 40s—she’s helped Marine Corps recruiters near her home in Michigan. She’s also stayed in touch with Kent State friends and was the keynote speaker at the 2015 alumni weekend. 

This August, she again deployed to Afghanistan, where she’s in charge of a defense logistics agency, receiving and cataloguing a range of returned gear in a combat zone. 

Burrow says it felt “like a bomb went off in [her] office” when she realized she’d be leaving her husband and three sons for seven months, but after the shock wore off, she is excited for the opportunity. And when the opportunities are right, she’s proven that she can rise to the challenge. 

2000s | Linell Homentosky

If your experience at the airport is getting better, you may have AECOM aviation project manager Linell Homentosky to thank.

Linell Homentosky illustrated by Jason Zehner ’10Linell Homentosky, BS ’06, was five years old when her family flew to Florida to go to Walt Disney World. “The pilots let me go into the cockpit, and I got a set of wings,” she recalls. “From that point on, I knew I was going to fly.”

She stayed focused on flight. Homentosky went to airshows and gobbled up every detail about planes and flights when her family traveled. When she began looking at colleges, Kent State fit the bill: it had a flight program, its own airport and a university big enough to give her plenty of diverse opportunities.

Homentosky got her pilot’s license while she was at Kent State, but soon realized that the 30,000-foot view that intrigued her most was metaphorical, not literal. “I got really interested in the business challenges of airport management,” she explains. “I liked thinking in terms of the 20-year road maps for planning that airports needed as they grew.”

It’s no simple task: airports are entire communities within themselves. “They have their own police and fire departments, their own concessions and retail operations,” she says. “And, of course, everything they do has to be synchronized, because if one thing goes wrong it can trickle through the entire system of aviation.” 

Today, Homentosky is an aviation project manager at the Philadelphia office of AECOM, a global consulting firm that provides services for major infrastructure projects. One project she’s had a hand in is the master plan created for the Philadelphia International Airport, which includes a new runway and terminals to prepare for expected growth. 

Airport Business magazine recently named Homentosky one of its “Top 40 under 40” for her efforts in this and other projects. 

Looking ahead, she says one of the projects she’s most excited about is one that is personal: her company is working on a design for the Kent State Airport and Classroom Terminal Building. “We’re designing a modern classroom and terminal building that’s going to be great for current students, and it will attract new ones,” she says. “Being able to come back to present to professors I had in college feels very full-circle to me. Kent State got me here, and now I have a chance to give back.”

Better together

Support through corporate partnerships has helped give Kent State’s Aeronautics Program a boost, giving all students more opportunities to benefit from cutting-edge technology and more time in the air. Here are two recent examples.

FedEx pledged $1.5 million to Kent State’s College of Aeronautics and Engineering to help support expansion and renovation of the Kent State University Airport

Cessna named Kent State one of its four “Top Hawk University Partners” in 2016, an honor that included the use of a Cessna Skyhawk 172 and an internship for one Kent State student.

Erin Peterson is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Back to Fall 2017

Here’s a glimpse at some of the opportunities Kent State currently provides for young women who are interested in flight.Air Race ClassicAir Race Classic

An all-female air race has inspired generations of women to fly. 

For the second year in a row, Kent State has participated in the Air Race Classic, which began as the Women’s Air Derby in 1929. Joining the all-female racing teams this year for the four-day competition that started in Frederick, Maryland, and ended in Santa Fe, New Mexico, were Jaila Manga and Helen Miller (pictured left to right, above), both Kent State seniors majoring in flight technology. Manga flew in last year’s race as a student; this year, she was the certified flight instructor leading the way. “There are a lot of amazing women who participate in this event, and I am lucky to be able learn from them,” says Manga. The pair, racing as the Flying Flashes in the university’s newest Cessna Sky Hawk, finished fifth out of 12 universities that competed and 15th, penalty free, out of 47 teams overall. 

Girls Geared for EngineeringGirls Geared for Engineering Camp

Middle school girls gain experience in aeronautics and engineering during a weeklong camp. 

“This summer, we offered our first Girls Geared for Engineering Camp for middle school girls,” says aeronautics program director Maureen McFarland. “Only about 28 percent of workers in the aeronautics industry are women of all ethnicities, so there is a need and an opportunity for more. Northeast Ohio is the number one supplier to Boeing and Airbus of aircraft parts and equipment; it’s a $3.2 billion industry.

“Using drones, girls learned about aerospace engineering and mechatronics while designing, building and testing their own components. And to tie in with the space portion of our program, they built their own rocket and launched it.” 

Girls Geared for EngineeringNikki Kukwa Memorial Aeronautics Camp

Now in its 10th year, this annual camp teaches high school girls about aeronautics careers.

The Nikki Kukwa Memorial Aeronautics Camp is named for a Kent State flight student who died of leukemia in 2006; her parents created the camp, and a golf outing to raise funds for it, in her memory. Nikki Kukwa was an exemplary aeronautics student who founded the Kent State Women in Aviation chapter.

Each summer, 15 selected high school girls interested in aviation and their moms (or other female surrogate) receive a free, three-day experience that shows them the many possible paths that exist in aeronautics.

Campers stay in Kent Campus dorms and all meals are provided. Participants visit corporate facilities and Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, tour the air traffic control simulation laboratory at the College of Aeronautics and Engineeering, and more. One thing sure to bring a smile is the flight from the Kent State University airport with a flight instructor who does maneuvers in the local area.  

Back to Fall 2017


POSTED: Monday, September 18, 2017 11:39 AM
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2022 11:15 PM
Erin Peterson, Illustrations by Jason Zehner ’10