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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s women empowerment: East Bay event honors women in aviation

OAKLAND — Airplane buffs young and old gathered at the Oakland Aviation Museum on Sunday to celebrate women in their proper place — the sky.
Little girls played with toy planes, zooming them on and off model aircraft carriers. Older girls listened raptly to professional women share tips on how to break into the aviation industry. Adults got a history lesson, learning about the role female pilots played during World War II.
The event was intended to show that women can tackle any job in the aviation industry — from flying a plane,  directing air traffic, to fixing aircraft — and have been doing so for decades, even though the world hasn’t always acknowledged their skill.
“Girls can do anything in aviation…I want girls and women and kids and people — anybody — to take away from this event the idea that women can be pilots,” said Walnut Creek resident Tiffany Miller, who organized the event at the small museum, a stone’s throw from Oakland International Airport. It was during Women’s History Month, and two days after International Women’s Day.
Miller honored two special guests in the audience Sunday, both local female pilots who served during World War II — 94-year-old Jean Harman of Menlo Park, and 98-year-old Alice Jean (AJ) Starr of Moraga. The women were part of the Army’s short-lived Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which trained just over 1,000 female pilots for non-combat roles. Harman was 19 when she joined in early 1944, and worked for several month testing planes on a Tuscan, Arizona training base. But when the program was disbanded later that year, Harman found there were no commercial jobs for a female pilot.
Now Harman says she’s gratified to see women excelling in all types of aviation professions.
“We paved the way,” she said.
To honor their service, staff from Rep. Anna Eshoo and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier’s offices presented Harman and Starr with certificates of congressional recognition and flags that have been flown over the U.S. capital.
Audience members also heard from a panel of female aviation professionals, including a private pilot, an air traffic controller, a mechanic and an inspector who x-rays planes looking for tiny cracks that might make them unsafe to fly. Many had stories about the challenges they’ve faced in a male-dominated industry. Air Force Staff Sergeant Madison Lightle, who said about three of the 45 air traffic controllers on her base are women, said she had to work extra hard because of her gender.
“An average, OK male controller was considered good,” said the 28-year-old stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. “And an average, OK female controller was bad.”
Private pilot Jan Johnson said when she lands her small airplane after a flight, she sometimes exits the cockpit only to be greeted by incredulous men asking her, “you flew that?”
But none of that matters, Johnson said.
“The airplane doesn’t know that you’re a female or a male,” she said.
Eight-year-old Jemma Marlow of Lafayette listened intently through the entire presentation, and then went up to meet the women.
“I just think it’s interesting,” Jemma said. She adores planes, and wants to be a pilot when she grows up. Jemma even has a favorite plane — the SR-71 Blackbird.
Sunday’s event also featured a screening of the documentary “WASP: A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower,” and a discussion with Erin Miller, author of “Final Flight, Final Fight: My Grandmother, the WASP, and Arlington National Cemetary.” Erin Miller and her sister, Tiffany Miller, fought to have their WASP grandmother, who died in 2015, buried at Arlington National Cemetary — an honor she otherwise would have been denied . These days Tiffany Miller, who works as a pharmaceutical researcher, is campaigning to name Oakland International Airport after WWII pilot Maggie Gee .
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What interested two-year-old Norah Sujo perhaps most of all about Sunday’s event was the bag of popcorn she got to eat. But the little girl loves airplanes, and her parents were excited to take her to an event that showcases the fact that planes aren’t just for boys — they’re for her too.
“We want her to be whatever she wants to be,” said her father, 35-year-old Luis Sujo of San Ramon. “You want her to live in a world where she has just as much opportunity as everyone else.”

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