Our W4V entourage traveled down to Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Florida on March 2-5 for the 28th annual Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference. In addition to myself, my mom and sister, and two of our close family friends and one of their teenage daughters, we were joined by our 2015 scholarship recipient, Ashley Taylor (the smoke jumper!) and this year’s recipient, Sinead. It was an amazing crew of ladies to spend the weekend with, along side 5,000+ other conference attendees (most of whom were also women!)
More about this year’s scholarship recipient: Sinead is currently a C-17 Loadmaster with the Air National Guard, 105th Airlight Wing based in Newburgh, NY. She is finishing her BA in Biology in May at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz with an impressive 3.79 GPA. When she’s not in school or on base, she has been working towards completing her private pilot’s license so that she can eventually go through flight school and Officer Candidate School to be commissioned as an Air Force officer and pilot. In addition to these achievements and ambitions, Sinead is actively involved in community service through volunteering at the local VA and with the Hudson Valley Honor Flight. Like Val, she is one of three girls and passionate about female leadership and mentorship.
In her application essay, Sinead shared that since being very serendipitously introduced to Val’s story, “every time I fly or have the smallest lack of confidence in the task I am trying to accomplish, I can see Val’s smiling face. When I run my physical fitness test in the military, I think of Val and ask her for that extra little push to finish… It is because of people like Val that I am constantly reminded to be level-headed and focused on the big picture in life.” Amazingly, Sinead had written in her 8th grade yearbook that she would be flying jets in the Air Force and she has more confidence and determination now than ever to achieve that goal.
We are so excited to welcome Sinead into our scholarship family and to support her along her aviation journey in memory of our Val. When Caroline and I presented the scholarship award at the conference, it was an emotional moment of reflection for me and us that, while we still feel a huge hole in our hearts without our middle sister Val between us, we have gained so many new incredible sisters in the aviation community. It’s what keeps us inspired and dedicated to raising money for these scholarships so that other women can pursue their aviation dreams and soar to great heights!
Here are a few other highlights and photos from the conference:
- There was an amazing presence of female Naval Aviators, past and present, at the conference celebrating the induction into the WAI Hall of Fame the four women who made up the first class of female aviators in the Navy. They humbly acknowledged that they stand collectively on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, most notably the WASP of WWII, several of whom were in attendance at the conference.
- We loved reconnecting with Danielle Thiriot and KC Binder, two of Val’s close friends, fellow Navy aviators and W4V advisory committee members, pictured in their jump suits with us below.
- We had the honor of meeting Yvonne Cagle- Retired Air Force Colonel, NASA Astronaut, and Physician (talk about impressive!) – after hearing her inspiring keynote address. In her words, “Anything is possible because nothing is impossible. I AM Possible… Reach for the stars and launch your dreams.”
- We connected with Becky Watson, a USNA Class of 2013 graduate from Maryland who is now a Growler pilot with VAQ-129 at NAS Whidbey Island, WA. Becky knew Will McIlvaine, who was also killed in the crash alongside Val, and ended up pursuing a similar path as Val towards Naval Aviation. It was her boyfriend’s parents who we found out had been donating money to our Foundation around Christmas time each year on Becky’s behalf, and that’s how we eventually were connected. As God’s hand is clearly at work in this story, it turns out that Becky ended up at the same St.Mark’s Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi, TX that Val went to while she was there during flight training and met Father John and other families who told her how much she reminded them of Val. So, while Becky didn’t know Val directly, she felt very connected to and inspired by her and her story on her journey to now being only one of a handful active duty female Growler pilots. We were so happy to meet and spend time with Becky in person – we felt like we’ve known her forever and she quickly became a part of our growing family brought together by Val.
- Of course it wouldn’t have been a trip to Orlando without some Disney influence (even Mickey shaped butter and dessert) and exploration around downtown Disney Springs.
It was definitely another successful and enjoyable conference all around. We’re so proud of our scholarship recipients and our Foundation’s ability to grow the scholarship each year from $1,000 the first year to now $5,000 (an amount that rivals some of the larger scholarships given by major corporate airlines). We hope to continue increasing our scholarship program each year, while also continuing to support, encourage, and reconnect with our past scholarship recipients as they work towards their goals. The financial need is real and the future in aviation is bright, and we are humbled to play a small role in making these ladies’ dreams come true (with the help of a little bit of Disney magic, too!)