As a young girl, Margaret Wright (née Blair) was propelled into the world of cars and aeroplanes which, she tells us, is thanks to her father’s belief that anything is possible – if you put your mind to it.
Back in the 60s it was unusual for a female to be involved on the mechanic shop floor or in the cockpit, and as she’s got older she says it’s been slow progress seeing society’s perception of aviation move away from being a male-only pursuit.
With many decades of business acumen, a pilot’s licence and a fair amount of tenacity, Margaret has proudly advocated for flying to become a more approachable path for young women to walk. This has led to the development of scholarships which offer the opportunity for young females to make their mark along a more inclusive career pathway.
Margaret is president of the New Zealand Association of Women in Aviation and a councillor on the board of the New Zealand Aviation Federation.
“My introduction to flying came at a very young age, all starting with my father Harold Blair. He loved cars and aircraft, and started to explore the world of flying through a flying scholarship he won at Palmerston North Aeroclub. When the call up came for World War II, he naturally chose to join the Airforce as a pilot, and years later he became a member of the Kāpiti Districts Aero Club, which today has around 25 female members.
By all accounts, my dear Dad was a bit surprised when I was born as he was really expecting, after two girls, that I would be a boy. I think he must have decided that it didn’t actually matter – that he was just going to teach me all the things he’d be planning to teach a son. I feel proud that Dad took this approach with me rather than just living with that societal expectation that cars and planes are only for boys.
Growing up, dollies had a different meaning to me as they were one of the tools I passed to Dad while he was panelbeating from his home-based business. He dressed me in overalls - the practical choice - and built me pedal cars. Though Mum always made sure I had an element of femininity about me; usually a ribbon in my hair.
As well as teaching me the tools of the trade, he would say to me, ‘you can achieve whatever you want in life, but you have to make it happen.’ This is advice that has stuck with me all my life, and something that I have passed on to my own children and grandchildren.
I watched him as he developed his own business and built a Midget Mustang from the US, from flat metal and plans. It was the first to be built in the Southern Hemisphere, and it was awe-inspiring - it really lit a spark inside me. Dad is also responsible for rousing my own interest in flying. I had hours of flying with my Dad which paid off when I flew with an instructor. And that was that, I had caught the flying bug.
When I gained my Private Pilot’s Licence in 1980 there were very few women flying in New Zealand, partly because it is a male dominated industry and partly because of society’s perception that it’s not very suitable for women. I often flew with family members on board to help with the challenge of balancing flying time with family. We would also factor flying into family holidays where we could, and it has been very special to introduce my children and grandchildren to the thrill of flying over the years. Especially my girls. I always wanted them to know that nothing was off limits for them if they wanted to do something.
Then there’s the social aspect, which is fantastically supportive. With the New Zealand Association of Women in Aviation (NZAWA) we have a three-day rally every year flying through different destinations in New Zealand, which involve flying competitions. They have been running since 1960, and the camaraderie that exists at those rallies is quite something. My specialties have been instrument flying, precision circuits and simulated forced landings without power and I’m always thrilled to win a trophy, as do all others who work hard to achieve theirs. It really generates a feeling of inspiration.
Over the years what became quite clear to me was that there were several barriers to females getting involved in aviation. I would often have girls and their parents come up to me at airshows or rallies and ask me how I got into flying, or how I made it work. Dad’s words would often ring in my head in those moments. But it also made me want to address some of these barriers.
The public perception of female pilots has only very recently started to turn. There is an inherent understanding from parents and teachers that being a pilot is a male’s career. How do we shift that? By changing the landscape. Pilot magazines need to keep focusing on being more diverse. There ought to be changes in career training and information in schools, and other programmes - all programmes - need not be gender specific.
In fact, when I was at the AOPA International Conference a few years ago, they talked about there being a shortage of pilots and it suddenly became obvious to the officials that they had been overlooking half of the population – the women! They’d always promoted it as a male’s career.
Then of course there’s the financial barrier with flying. It’s true that it’s an expensive pastime and career path, but there’s also a lot of support and sponsorship to help pave the way for the younger generation who are interested.
This is really why I put forward the idea of scholarships for young women in aviation to the NZ Aviation Federation, for which I represent the NZAWA. For many years I was the only female at that table, and they would talk a lot about being inclusive, wanting to help youth, and needing engineers. So I presented an application that I believed ticked all the boxes.
I’m proud to say that there are now a variety of scholarships available, through NZAWA and the NZ Aviation Federation, which offer multiple opportunities to start a journey in aviation.
We’ve seen great interest in these scholarships which is fantastic because it really helps to remove the barriers. The path should be there for anyone, if they wish to follow it.
The important thing to remember is, how you encourage the next generation directly impacts the generation after that. I have enough life experience to have seen that with my own eyes, and it’s been a very rewarding ride so far ensuring that females aren’t left to do the things that society seems to think they should be doing.