Check out a behind the scenes recounting of one of our signature aviation programs, Girl Scout discovery flights!
Girl Scouts’ history of aviation goes all the way back to 1913 when the Flyer badge was introduced just one year after founding the organization. The Wing Scout program was developed in 1941 for Senior Girl Scouts who were interested in flying and aviation and wanted to serve their country or pursue a career in aviation. Like our current WING Girl Scout Squadron (WINGGSS), the original Wing Girl Scouts designed their own uniforms.
Girl Scouts of Western Washington started offering discovery flights in 2016, in partnership with the Avian Flight Center in Bremerton. Today, we offer over 25 different aviation and space science programs for all age levels. These opportunities are made possible by our partners at Boeing, Alaska Airlines, The Museum of Flight, Avian Flight Center, Rainier Flight Services, Galvin Flying, Green River College, the Seattle Astrological Society, the Seattle 99’s, and the Washington State Chapter of Women in Aviation International.
Girl Scouts who participate in discovery flights have the chance to take their first steps into an aviation career through this process. At a recent discovery flight event in Bremerton, we talked with Chief Flight Instructor Mary Suligoy and Girl Scout participants Leilah and Qiji-li about flying, Girl Scouts, and gender equity.
Mary: I have been flying for almost 30 years now. I’ve done a little bit of everything: professional aviation flight instructing, running flight school, chief pilot, chief flight instructor. Currently, I am the chief flight instructor for Avian, and I am in pilot training for Alaska Airlines.
I was a Girl Scout growing up in Illinois. My mom was a Girl Scout troop leader, and we went on so many adventures. It was always such a fun experience. When the opportunity presented itself here, I was more than happy to do whatever I could to provide that experience for the Girl Scouts.
Qiji-li: I’ve been a Girl Scout for five years. I started as a Junior. When I attended Alaska Airlines Aviation Day last year, I saw some of the different opportunities available in the aviation field. Troop Leader and WINGGSS Advisor Jennifer Kopf encouraged me to apply for the WINGGSS Squadron. Listening to Jen talk about the WINGGSS Squadron, I felt like it would be fun and give me exposure to what the aviation field has to offer. I was right!
Leilah: I’ve been a Girl Scout ever since kindergarten, so about nine years now. Today, we flew in a plane, and we went all the way to Tacoma and then landed, switched pilot seats, and then flew all the way back to Bremerton. I’ve flown three times now, I think.
Mary: Avian Flight Center’s involvement with Girl Scouts started with our engine shop manager Dave Cisneros. His granddaughter was a Girl Scout. She would always come in, and the entire company bought [Girl Scout] Cookies. He came up to me when I first started working here and asked if there was a way to get the Girl Scouts flying. We rallied the troops, got a bunch of volunteers, and got some airplanes donated. Everyone donated their time, and I convinced Avian to donate the equipment for the flights so we could provide the experience for a minimal fee that essentially just covered fuel. At our first Discovery Flight Day, we had 24 Girl Scouts. I am so excited to see it grow into what it has become today. Our discovery flights with Girl Scouts are now fully funded by Boeing and Alaska Airlines!
Mary: The discovery flight program is essentially that; it’s to discover what flying in a small airplane is like. Most people don’t realize that every airline pilot, every Navy pilot, every pilot out there started in a small plane like this. So it’s very cool for Girl Scouts to take these first steps and follow in those footsteps.
Safety is always our number one concern. We teach them how to preflight the aircraft and make sure it’s in tip top shape. Unlike cars, we can’t just pull over to the side of the road if something goes wrong, so we want to make sure that everything’s safe. We get them buckled in. They get to sit in the left seat and actually take the controls. We teach them how to steer the aircraft on the ground—a lot of people don’t realize you steer with your feet. We teach them how to take off and climb, then we’ll level off if we can, go to a local airport, and land there.
Today’s flight was from Bremerton to Tacoma Narrows, which is a towered airport, so they got to hear and see a tower, then fly back. Along the way, they learn how the flight controls work: what the ailerons, elevator, and rudder all do. More than that gets overwhelming for people, but if they want to learn more about that, they can. And if they decide that they want to pursue aviation, we have a student orientation. We sit down, go over goals, and create a pathway to achieving those goals. Every Girl Scout here gets a logbook with their very first flight logged in it—or second flight for some of them. Every hour that they log counts toward their total flight experience.
Leilah: The first time I flew, it was like seeing the world from a whole different view. It was amazing. And I just fell in love with it. I love aviation, but my favorite thing is flying. This is my second year doing the program and it’s made one of my dreams come true of actually getting to fly. I love all the opportunities I’ve gotten from this. It’s amazing.
Qiji-li: Flying was fun and exhilarating, I felt like I could have spent a few more hours up there. Flying in a tiny plane, and in the cockpit, no less, was very different from flying as a passenger in a commercial plane. It was an experience that I will never forget. I also really enjoy my WING Squadron opportunities to listen and talk to subject matter experts in the aviation industry every month. Getting special access to aviation events like Seafair Weekend and Alaska Airlines Aviation Day is a big plus, too!
I’ve been in aviation for almost 30 years. When I first started, female pilots were about 1.7% of the entire population of pilots. It has grown now to 7%, and that’s over the course of 30 years. So, while we have made strides, there’s more that can be done. Discovery flights introduce girls to something that is typically seen as a “man’s job.” I think that’s probably the biggest reason to partner with the Girl Scouts—to show them what’s possible.
Mary Suligoy, Chief Flight Instructor, Avian Flight Center
Mary: There being such a small population of female pilots, I think a lot of Girl Scouts don’t realize that it’s a possibility for them or that it’s even out there. Even with the discovery flights we like to show them our airframe shop and our engine shop—the number of female airplane mechanics is extremely low. It’s important to show them the possibilities.
We’ve done a lot of Boy Scout adventures, but it was very, very rewarding to have the Girl Scouts come in and want to participate. It’s been amazing to see the program grow and gain support over the years, and now it’s fully funded. It’s really, really nice to see. Avian is committed to the Girl Scouts. Leading this company, we’ve had a lot more girls and women participate in the aviation program. Hopefully they’ll continue to discover the world around them, even from 500 feet.
Qiji-li: I think it’s important for girls to have access to aviation programs because most of the aviation field still mainly consists of men. Girl Scout aviation programs help to make more women in the aviation field a reality.
Leilah: Aviation is something that I’m passionate about. My mom signed me up for the WING Girl Scout program. I’ve always had an interest in planes and engines and stuff like that, so when she offered me the opportunity, I was thrilled to be a part of WINGGSS. I feel it’s important because women are often underrepresented in this field. Girl Scouts offers us the ability to learn and explore the field of aviation.
In the WING Squadron, we get to hear from guest speakers and see presentations from actual women in the field of aviation. I’ve learned a lot from them, and I’m so glad I got to meet a lot of them. I hope to one day have a female mentor.
Interested in aviation, or ready to fly? Check out our upcoming aviation programs for all ages!
Girl Scout Cadettes, Seniors, and Ambassadors may apply to be part of the WING Girl Scout Squadron. WINGGSS Applications are open August 1 through September 21, 2023.
Not yet a Girl Scout? Join today and take to the skies!