The Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) team sat down with Dana Kirchmar, VP Customer Support Operations at SmartSky Networks, as part of our Women in the Aviation series.
This series of interviews aims to shine a spotlight on notable women in the industry and the diverse career opportunities in the sector.
How long have you worked in the aviation industry?
“I started my career in the aerospace industry 35 years ago, working on a classified spacecraft program. 10 years into my career, I moved from aerospace to aviation and have been in this industry ever since.”
How did you get into the industry?
“I had been pigeon-holed into a role in a very large corporation and was not being encouraged or even allowed to move around to see what else might be available to me. It became apparent that in order to get out of the rut that I felt that I was in, I would have to leave the company.
“I think that the biggest challenge is the pilot shortage that the industry is now facing.”
I sent my resume to dozens of aerospace companies and was fortunate to land an exciting role, which I hadn’t specifically targeted. I progressed from being an entry level engineer (having had to basically start my career over after moving from aerospace to aviation) to a technical manager of a team in approximately 3 years. It could not have been a more perfect fit.”
What is it about working in the aviation industry that appeals to you?
“I have been fortunate to work in several organisations where aviation and specifically the airplanes themselves were the passion of everyone on the team. I think one of the best things about being in the aviation industry is the type of people that it attracts and the lifelong friendships that I have formed. And I have been fascinated with aircraft and spacecraft and flight for as long as I can remember.”
As a woman, how do you find working in such a male-dominated industry?
“As much as I have loved every role that I have had in the aviation industry, I would be disingenuous to say I hadn’t encountered difficulties that I would attribute to my being a woman. It is difficult for a young woman to aspire to a role in which she cannot picture herself and I have been in very few situations, because of when I entered the workforce, where I have had a woman in my chain of command.
I think that men also have had a difficult time picturing women in leaderships roles in aviation because it is such a rarity and until someone makes a brave choice and promotes a woman into leadership based on her knowledge, skills and expertise things will not change.
It is getting better, but we definitely have a long way to go. Women now make up about 24% of C-Level leaders in tech companies, which demonstrates some progress, but in aviation it is a startling 3%. This has to change.”
Have you encountered any gender discrimination in your career?
“I have encountered gender discrimination in my career several times. I believe that you would be hard-pressed to find a female engineer who entered the workforce in the 1980’s who has not experienced this. Things are getting better but we still have a lot of work to do.”
As a female senior leader, why do you think it’s important for companies to address the gender gap?
“The population of our workforce needs to reflect the population of our customer base. Without addressing the gender gap, we lose the specific insights that women bring to the table in regard to the products and services that we develop.
Additionally, having more women in STEM/STEAM careers in general is good for the economy, good for families and good for employers. STEM/STEAM roles are some of the higher paying positions and when women earn more, families are more secure. And, as we are all aware, we are currently experiencing a serious lack of professionals in the pipeline to fill the roles of those in the industry who are retiring – certainly pilots, but also other those in non-pilot aviation roles.
We should look to the approximately 50% of the population that is so under-represented in aviation (less than 10% of pilots and less than 5% of A&P mechanics are women, for example), to close the gap.”
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
“I believe that I have been successful because I have been encouraged to use the skills enabled by both the left and right sides of my brain throughout my career. I have people and communication skills (right side) not necessarily associated with stereotypical engineers and logic and problem-solving skills (left side) that I developed as part of my engineering education.
“Things are getting better but we still have a lot of work to do.”
I have been in many situations where I have been considered “the only engineer that we can put in front of the customer” and have enjoyed multiple opportunities where the door opened because of my engineering background but I was able to walk through because of my people skills.”
What characteristics do you believe women need to survive in the aviation industry?
“In order to survive in the aviation industry, I believe that women need a thick skin, the courage to ask for what they want, and resilience. First, one of my own personal struggles throughout my career has been that I tend to take things personally.
It has served me well to remember that disagreements and conflict are a healthy part of progress and a normal part of business. Second, if you do not let others know what you want to be, do or experience, you cannot expect it to just be handed to you. Sure, sometimes something serendipitous may happen but you may be surprised that in many instances, all you have to do is ask.
Finally, resilience is key because when you do ask, the answer may not always be yes. And it is just a fact that you will fail at some point in your career. Learning from mistakes is a key part of the process of advancing your career and the quicker you can bounce back, the quicker you can move forward.”
What would you say has been your career highlight to date?
“I have been fortunate to have had many “once in a lifetime” opportunities during my career and it is always difficult to pick out one highlight. One highlight that I am particularly proud of actually occurred about 18 months after I had graduated college and was working for Martin Marietta on a classified spacecraft.
“I think one of the best things about being in the aviation industry is the type of people that it attracts.”
I was selected to be part of the on-site launch team for the very first classified space shuttle launch and was in mission control, responding go or no go for my specific system, during the launch. It is really amazing to have had experienced that at 24 years old and I spent several months afterwards wondering if my career was going to be all downhill from there.
Luckily it was not. I have had many more highlights since then and am actually writing a book about them.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“This will sound kind of silly because at the time it was about a “team jacket” but it really did turn out to be a great piece of advice that I have thought about over and over again in my career. A “rival” team at my company had all been presented with jackets that bore the name of their customer and my team was jealous.
We complained to our manager for many months that we didn’t have our own jackets and questioned what made that team so special. During a business trip, I returned to my hotel room one evening to find a bag on my bed containing my own team jacket and a yellow sticky note that said only “Sometimes all you have to do is ask.”
“There are many wonderful career paths within aviation.”
I have no doubt that my willingness to ask directly for what I wanted from that moment on is precisely why I have had the opportunities and experiences that I have had.”
What advice would you give to female professionals interested in a career in aviation?
“Go for it! There are many wonderful career paths within aviation – no doubt there is one that would fit their interests. I have found that most people in the aviation industry are passionate about aviation and their place in it. The long-term friendships that I have built by being in the business is one of the very best things about it!”
What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the aviation industry?
“Based on the current situation with delayed and cancelled flights, I think that the biggest challenge is the pilot shortage that the industry is now facing. This is a great opportunity for our younger aspiring aviators to start their pilot training and get their foot in the door!”
What do you believe has been the biggest development in air travel over the past 25 years?
“I may be biased because of the last 14 years of my career, but I would say in-flight connectivity. There is not enough credit given to the engineers who have designed the systems, including ground, airborne and satellite systems, that make it possible to experience connectivity during flight.”
If you could change one thing in the aviation industry, what would it be?
“I wish that the aviation would be more welcoming to women, in all areas and at all points in their career paths. Tech industries in general are moving in the right direction, but aerospace and specifically aviation, is severely behind.”
Who has been your biggest advocate/mentor in the workplace and why?
“I had a boss when I was about 15 years into my career who put his faith and trust in me and treated me with more respect than anyone else before or since. He appreciated my background, skills and experience and interacted with me in a way that made me believe that I was an expert in my field.
He recently came back into my life last year, although we never really lost touch, and nominated me for a Board position at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. The opportunity to serve on this Board has truly changed my life and has allowed me to give back to aviation for all that aviation has given me.”
About Dana Kirchmar
Dana Kirchmar has 35 years experience in aerospace/aviation industries in global companies. Career highlights include being a launch team participant for the first classified space shuttle launch, calling “go/no go” for her system, flying to .97Mach in a corporate jet, and witnessing first flight of an aircraft she helped design.