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Anahuac native gets help soaring into career as a pilot

October 21, 2018

As Addison Hemphill started her first semester at the University of Houston, something didn’t feel right. Her classes were boring, and the campus didn’t feel like home. The jets taking off overhead from nearby Hobby Airport as the Anahuac native hurried to class each day offered a glimpse of another life.

Less than three years later, Hemphill walked along the tarmac at Ellington Airport for this weekend’s Wings Over Houston aircraft showcase — a place that feels much more like home. That’s where the 20-year-old pilot comes for flying lessons two to three times a week in pursuit of a career flying planes for Southwest Airlines.

“As soon as we take off and we’re in the air, I’m happy,” Hemphill said.

Now a senior studying aeronautics and aviation safety at Embry-Riddle University’s Houston campus, Hemphill is also one of three recipients of the Wings Over Houston scholarship, an award worth $5,000. Her selection is noteworthy because just 7 percent of pilots flying in the United States are women, according to Women in Aviation International.

That stark statistic was on display during Wings Over Houston, an annual event planned by nonprofits centered on the preservation of World War II-era aircraft. Each year, a big-name flying demonstration squad, like this year’s Navy Blue Angels, will headline an afternoon of aerobatics up above grounded aircraft.

Of the half-dozen pilots and teams performing in Houston’s skies on Saturday, just one woman — world-champion aerobatics performer and flight instructor Debby Rinh-Harvey — was slated to take off. Low-hanging clouds led to several cancellations on Saturday, however, and Rinh-Harvey didn’t perform.

Although Hemphill doesn’t know any other female pilots at Embry-Riddle, a school well-known for its aviation programs, she is unfazed by the challenges she may face as a pilot.

“It does worry me that I might experience (harassment) one day, but I’ll just quickly shut it down,” Hemphill said. “I’m not going to go into an industry and let people bully me because I’m the only woman.”

Today’s steep price tag for aviation training serves as a roadblock for would-be pilots who opt not to enlist in the military.

Before moving on to earning an airline transport pilot license — the certification that allows pilots to fly commercial planes — Hemphill needs to log 1,500 hours flying smaller planes, like the Grumman Cheetah she uses for training. At this point in her flight education, Hemphill pays at least $180 an hour to fly out of Ellington Airport, with costs split between the plane rental and instructor fees. At the same time, she’s paying tuition year-round for Embry-Riddle, a private school.

Warren Benson, the chief instructor for the Flying Tigers, Hemphill’s flight school, thinks family obligations continue to steer women away from flight school. The former Southwest Airlines captain retired early to be able to spend more time with his wife and children.

“I didn’t think about it until I started flying, and I didn’t have much time with my family,” said Benson, 64, of Seabrook. “Maybe women think about that ahead of time.”

The benefits of enlisting in the Navy or Air Force, despite the military’s own history of sexism, was attractive to many young women who attended Wings Over Houston.

Junior ROTC-Air Force cadet Genesis Carreon, 17, graduates from Klein Forest High School soon, but will most likely enlist in the Air Force before donning the cap and gown. Carreon and her mother were volunteering with JROTC at Wings Over Houston on Saturday.

She’s not sure yet if she wants to fly, but her older cousin’s experiences in the Air Force have convinced Carreon that it’s the right branch for her. When she enlists, Carreon will be the fifth cousin in her family to serve in the U.S. military.

“For females, it’s a whole lot easier if you go into the Air Force or the Navy,” said Reyna Carreon, 47, Genesis’ mother. “In the Army, it’s a little more (misogynistic). The whole atmosphere is different.”

Despite that branch’s reputation within the Carreon family as more welcoming to women, Reyna’s niece experienced such extreme sexism on an Air Force base in Montana that it brought tears to Reyna’s eyes when she heard about the abuse.

“That will get me ready for the real world,” Genesis Carreon said. “Because I know that’s how people are going to be sometimes, and that’s just going to open my eyes and show me that it’s OK to be strong.”

Two other 17-year-old seniors, best friends Angel Caballero and Tabbata Robles of Cypress Lakes High School, decided to enlist in the Navy.

Robles had already enlisted prior to Saturday, but she brought Caballero — who was torn between the Air Force and Navy — to Wings Over Houston to speak to military recruiters, who took up much tarmac space. After a few hours, a virtual reality experience and a conversation with a Blue Angels member, Caballero decided to stick with her friend. She’s interested in flying, but poor eyesight disqualifies her for now.

If the U.S. Naval Academy will have her, however, Robles does hope to train as a pilot.

“We get a lot of discouragement,” Robles said. “If you have such-and-such woman doing this, then any other woman should be able to do it, too.”

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