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Budding St. Maarten aviation mechanic attends Women in Aviation Conference

1~ I just observed, listened and learned ~

Local woman and budding aircraft mechanic Claudette Alexander recently attended a conference organised by Women in Aviation International (WAI) in corroboration with the Association for Women Aviation Mechanics (AWAM).

Claudette (48) has had formal training as a car mechanic, and is well known on the island for her volunteering activities, particularly her boxing classes for local youths. Helping a friend repair his broken aircraft got her interested in making a career change, and without any financial backing, she has worked hard as an apprentice of local mechanics on small planes over the last few years. She hopes that her attendance at the conference will open the door to her next step in formal training and qualification.

It was AWAM that awarded Claudette her scholarship to the conference, which covered her registration fees, and through sponsorship by JetBlue, her airfare. Claudette had to fundraise on the island to get together the money for her other expenses, such as hotel accommodation, food, local transport and excursions. Princess Juliana International Airport SXM was one of the local companies that contributed.

Claudette describes how the life-changing experience started right at the airport. "The flight by JetBlue was excellent. It was a beautiful start to my trip, via Boston to New York. I had never been to New York before." Whilst in New York, Claudette experienced a novelty for a St. Maarten girl: Snow! Luckily, some friends also on route to the conference lent her some winter clothes.

ONE OF THE highlights for Claudette was meeting Jenny Gracia of AWAM who had facilitated her attendance at the conference. Claudette was introduced to Gracia by WAI president Linda Soller and by Mrs. Nina, a female pilot in her 80s and possibly the oldest woman to ever have landed an aircraft in St. Maarten. This happened just a few months ago, when she was the pilot on an incoming JetBlue flight. Claudette met the women on that occasion.

The following day, Claudette continued on to Dallas, Texas, where she settled in at the hotel where the conference was held. Upon arrival, there was a tour of the American Airlines factory and museum, "I saw how the batteries for the aircraft were manufactured, serviced and repaired, and how battery cells were replaced. They showed us the correct way to charge the battery, a process that needs to be closely monitored as too much charge can make the battery explode."

Claudette and her group were shown detailed parts of aircraft and how they are maintained: "For instance, the coffee machine that can be found on board; that, too, needs to be maintained and repaired." The group then learned about the life vests and floats coming out of the doors of the aircraft when it lands on water.

"This equipment isn't used much, but is very important if a plane ends up in the sea. It can save lives, so it's very important this equipment is well maintained," Claudette says. "They showed us how it blows up in a matter of seconds, how they check and maintain the floats, and how they pack it up to place it on the plane."

THE GROUP also learned about the different doors in different types of aircraft, and how to position yourself to open the heavy door without injuring yourself. They also learned about the benefits of being in particular places inside the aircraft in an emergency, and how to deal with various scenarios from the crew's perspective, bearing in mind pilots would try to help all their passengers before coming off the aircraft themselves.

Claudette enjoyed her accommodation at Hilton Anatole Hotel, which was designated for guests of the conference. "It was luxurious and so big! The hotel had everything you could possibly want, but to stay in a place like that, you need plenty of money in your pocket to spend.

There were many different vibes during the conference. A lot of emphasis was on leadership. One of the main purposes was to empower women to be leaders in the field of aviation. Tips and guidance were given on how to become a good and effective leader.

OLDER WOMEN attended the conference, too, the oldest being in her 90s. These women spoke of their experiences; they had a whole different battle to fight, growing up in an era where education for girls could not be taken for granted; girls who did get an education had to battle to learn jobs that were traditionally only for men. Claudette described their stories as fascinating: "I was so happy to hear them speak about their past."

There were many great speakers, but two were very special – World War II WASPs (Women Aircraft Service Pilots) amazingly still alive and ready to share their stories with the attendees. The WASPs used to fly aircraft for non-combat purposes, starting in 1941, due to the increasing shortage of male pilots who didn't have a very long life span. The chance to fly as a WASP was in high demand. More than 25,000 women applied, however only 1,074 were accepted. Only women with prior experience and pilot's licences were accepted.

Claudette describes the conference as a truly international experience, with people from all over the world, both women and men: "Pilots, astronauts, dispatchers, professors, mechanics...and I just observed, listened and learned."

THE WIDE ARRAY of topics presented at the conference was too varied to describe all. "Every part of aviation you could possibly think of was represented at the conference," says Claudette, "from Flying Object Damage (FOD), to maintenance and repair of the plane, to flying it."

Claudette also attended a one-day master class on aviation mechanics, and gained a certificate after completing the class, which was on FOD and Maintenance. FOD is a big problem in aviation as the powerful aircraft engines are known to suck in objects and even birds, which then cause damage to the engines.

Being an apprentice in aviation, Claudette was called to the front and was offered a scholarship to next year's WAI/AWAM, to be held in Nashville, Tennessee, in March next year. "I am so grateful to AWAM and WAI for giving me that opportunity," she added.

ANOTHER SPECIAL feature of the event was a Daughters Day, where young women, mainly teenagers, came to the conference to learn about air traffic, flying, and manufacturing the various parts and accessories for the aircraft. The children learned basic aviation tasks, like reading a chart, the science behind how a plane can stay in the air, which they practiced with paper planes, and using an aircraft mechanic's tools to make a piece of jewellery.

On one of the conference days, there was an aviation fair with loads of booths, where many different airlines, which were actively recruiting for new employees, and giving out information and paperwork about their requirements, were represented. There was also a stand where jewellery made of aircraft parts was sold.

Something that Claudette particularly enjoyed was meeting people who are working on the new Boeing Dreamliner, a new plane yet to be launched. She was shown around the manufacturer's area, and was strictly warned not to take photographs. "We saw three of the new planes," she remembers, before adding jokingly: "Inside there were lots of toilet seats. They all had a specific number written on the side."

THERE WERE ALSO flight simulators and many rooms where students could learn the different perspectives of flying a plane. "I am already looking forward to the next WAI/AWAM conference in 2016. I have been invited and I hope to be able to bring a second attendee from St. Maarten to share the opportunity that I have been given."

It's clear that Claudette Alexander is flying high, optimistic and motivated to go far. "I will now continue pursuing my dreams of achieving my A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) Licence," a diploma in aircraft maintenance and repair necessary to become an aircraft mechanic. "So I hope to get to the airport. Maybe management can help me get into the hangars to help out the qualified mechanics, so I can learn more and get a formal education in order to sit the official exams and qualify formally as the first St. Maarten female aircraft mechanic."

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