WINCHESTER — Sixteen-year-old Liana McDonald is afraid of heights, but she's not afraid to try new things, such as flying in a small airplane to learn about aviation.
Liana, a sophomore at the Independent School of Winchester, soared into the sky on Tuesday morning, facing her fears as she got a free flight lesson. The opportunity was made possible through a recently established partnership between Aero Elite, a flight school based at Winchester Regional Airport, and STEM Flights, a Virginia-based nonprofit that's headquartered at the airport.
The partnership was formed in March, which is Women's History Month. STEM Flights and Aero Elite wanted to celebrate by offering flights to middle and high school girls in the Shenandoah Valley. Moving forward, the program will be available to any interested student.
Inspiring more girls and young women to pursue careers in aviation or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is part of the mission, said Carley Walker, STEM Flights' director of development.
In the U.S., only 27% of people working in STEM careers are women, Walker noted. In the aviation field, that number shrinks to 7%.
Devin Mungovan, a female flight instructor from Martinsburg, West Virginia, gave Liana a hands-on lesson in STEM and aviation on Tuesday morning, explaining to her the various parts of the small Cessna 172 aircraft they would be flying in before they took off on a 45-minute flight. Aero Elite covers the cost of fuel and the use of its planes, while the instructors donate their time.
Mungovan said "it's so important" to donate her time to this effort.
"There's so few of us out there," Mungovan said about women in aviation. "So we just really want to make sure that everyone has equal access, and typically women haven't been going into aviation, because they've never seen other women in aviation."
Before her flight, Liana said she's interested in STEM "a little bit." She recently won a silver medal in a local science fair for testing different types of face masks for their porousness.
STEM Flights and Aero Elite will continue to mentor Liana and offer her additional educational resources if she wants to explore a career in aviation, including scholarship opportunities.
"This is kind of the one experience, and then on the backside we try to take them and try to continue them down that path and then track what their interests are," Walker said.
Any middle and high school students interested in a free educational flight from Aero Elite and STEM Flights at the Winchester Regional Airport should visit www.stemflights.org for more information.