Women’s History Month: looking to the skies for influential women in South Dakota
RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - Each March, we as Americans celebrate Women’s History Month. Here in South Dakota, several influential and progressive women made a lasting mark on the state, paving the way for today’s women.
Considered a pioneer of flight in South Dakota, Eleanor “Nellie” Zabel Willhite gained her place in South Dakota history by becoming the first deaf woman to earn a pilot’s license and the Mount Rushmore state’s first female pilot.
Nellie was born in 1892 near Box Elder. She rode in her first airplane in 1919 and began flying lessons in 1927 and by 1929, she was one of about 100 licensed female pilots in the world.
Although Nellie didn’t serve herself, she helped the World War II war effort as an office manager at Renner Air Service, both as an instructor and inspector of B-19 aircraft propellers.
Today, women at Ellsworth Air Force base are continuing her legacy.
“Definitely still a male-dominated career field but there are more women than I’ve seen when I started this job seven years ago,” said Captain Sarah Brandt, a B-1 weapons officer, and instructor for the U.S. Air Force. “So in our squadron right now, we have about 37 guys and we have three girls. Which, three girls is the most that we’ve had in the three years I’ve been up here so it’s really exciting to have more coming.”
Although the number of female aviators in the Air Force is still significantly disproportionate to their male counterparts, this military branch has released new policies to help diversify its fleet and make it more inclusive.
“There have been so many positive changes in, honestly, the past couple of years for females in the military,” said Brandt. “Three big ones - one is the hair change, we can now wear braids in our hair, which is awesome. Another would be uniform changes that have come down. And then the biggest one for me personally has been the pregnancy policy. So you can fly while you’re pregnant now, I am actually pregnant with our second child right now... My unborn daughter right now actually has 37 hours in the aircraft so I think that’s pretty cool to tell her someday.”
Clearly, Brandt is already preparing the next generation of women for a future in aviation.
Despite the disparity between men and women in the skies, however, she says it doesn’t make much of a difference.
“As far as most days, it really doesn’t carry much weight and it can be irrelevant but there are the days where it’s kind of isolating and can be lonely,” continued Brandt. “Everyone misses having that group of girls around but for the most part, it comes down to the love of the job for me and going out and executing the mission. And I know, male or female, regardless of who I work with, that’s their top priority. I personally have never felt different than my male counterparts and I am loved and accepted by all of them.”
After 7 years in the military, three of them stationed at Ellsworth Air Force base, Brandt has a piece of advice for anyone wanting to take to the skies, ”The old saying ‘that the sky really is the limit’; if you go out there and set a goal for yourself and you’re going to work hard, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to end up in a cockpit. And I love my job and I would suggest it to any little kid out there, especially little girls.”
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