HangarBot Highlights Women in Aviation: Interview with Denise Bryan
To kick off our month-long HangarBot: Women in Aviation series, The HangarBot Team sat down with Denise Bryan, a Fairfield County Airport Director based in South Carolina, to learn about her aviation story.
Denise has over thirteen years of commercial aviation experience. She's a pilot and has worked in everything, from airport operations and emergency response training to airport inspections and aviation management.
We discussed obstacles she's encountered entering a male-dominated industry, the lack of resources to support older women looking to make a career shift, her favorite part about her job, and advice for other women looking to explore opportunities in aviation.
Denise Bryan's story is inspirational and a testament to never giving up. When one door closed, Denise persevered. To learn more about Denise Bryan, check out our full-length interview below.
First question, are you a pilot? I know you are a Fairfield County Airport Director, but are you also a pilot?
DENISE: I am also a pilot. I have my private pilots Single Engine and I am working on my instrument rating.
And, what sector of aviation do you work in?
DENISE: I started in Airport Ops at commercial airports, and that's where I got most of my training for emergency response to aircraft accidents, airfield inspection, that type of thing.
Currently, I am now the Airport Director for the General Aviation Airport, which I absolutely love.
What sparked your passion for aviation in the first place?
DENISE: If I had to guess, I guess it was just because I was born into it. My dad was an air traffic controller and that's obviously what I wanted to do when I got out of High School. I took the civil service test and made an 89 on the test which isn't bad. Not great, but it isn't bad. By the time they worked their way down the list as they needed air traffic controllers, and when they called me I was eight months pregnant with my first child so I wasn't able to.. yeah, it's all in God's timing for sure.
But it's probably a good thing my husband's an aircraft mechanic for UPS, his dad was a pilot for Delta, he flew L-1011's so I've just always been immersed in it throughout my whole life.
So tell me a little bit more about that, and what happened. You explained that you were pregnant when they called you for air traffic control. What happened next? That's really interesting.
DENISE: I had two children, so I stayed home with my children for ten years. I was lucky enough to have my husband, like I said, he's an aircraft mechanic with UPS so I was able to stay home and raise my children and by the time I got ready to get back into the aviation field, I don't know if you know but air traffic controllers have an age cutoff, and that, according to them, is because of their retirement system.
So I missed the age cutoff when I was getting ready to get back into it. So I pursued the airport ops side of it, and then they actually changed the cutoff age to increase it by I think two or more years, and I just missed it by that time too!
So by that time I was like, you know? I don't think God wants me to be an air traffic controller.
Yeah, maybe it's just not meant to be.
Other than the financial aspect, what did you see, if any, any other barriers for women entering an obviously male-dominated industry like aviation?
DENISE: Right. Okay so, we talk about it. I hate to talk about it, we hate to blame it on the male gender. But some of the things I have experienced, and I can talk about it because I have experienced it, is there is a certain age group of men that I have noticed in every aspect of aviation.
And that older generation of males for some reason, they make it very difficult and don't help you pursue stuff in aviation.
I've had a couple of gentlemen that truly did not believe women belonged in aviation and there's not anything you can do about that. You just have to push through and find people and other people that are in the industry that are going to support you. That's really the only blockade I've ever experienced.
Some of the difficult things for us as women today is there are a lot of scholarships out there for women and girls who are coming straight out of high school, but there's not a lot of scholarships out there for older women that may have already started a career and decided, "Hey! I think I wanna pursue something in aviation".
But Women in Aviation (WAI) was one of the organizations that actually-- they paid for me to go to a Women in Aviation conference one year. When, you know, I'm raising two kids and going back to college and just couldn't afford to do stuff like that and I thank them every single day. They were one of the only organizations that allowed me to do extra stuff in aviation that I couldn't afford.
DENISE: I’ve heard the numbers that there's only about six percent women pilots out there, I honestly think that that's increasing, but I think the thing about women pilots is, you know, there's a lot of men pilots but I don't think they participate like we do. I think we feel so lucky to be there, and so happy to be doing what we're doing because most of the women that you get that are pilots definitely wanna be there. They wanted to do this. It's not something that a lady will pursue without help and without support and when you have all of that you really want to participate.
Any advice that you would give other women that are entering the industry?
DENISE: I really thought about this question when I got a list of the questions from you. This one is probably one of the most important questions that I want to express, especially to the younger women that are getting into aviation.
So, aviation is kind of like the medical field. There are so many avenues and venues that you can go and specialize in or broadly not specialize in. But you have to find that particular niche for you. You know you've got flying, you've got aircraft maintenance, you've got airport management, you've got airport operations not management stuff. There's so many airlines, you know, airline work. Ticket agents, flight attendants, not glorified jobs in aviation, but still aviation. You just have to find out what interests you, make sure that it’s something that financially can support you because there's a lot of aviation jobs out there that can't financially support you. Unfortunately.
Find out what you need, talk to people in the industry. Try to go out there and experience the jobs before you choose what you want to do. You may pursue and invest and get there and say, "Okay, well I don't like this..." Because I thought I wanted to go into airport management and come to find out I didn't want to be a manager. I actually - even though I'm an airport director, I know that sounds funny, but I don't have any employees directly under me. As a supervisor in Birmingham, I had twenty-eight employees and I didn't like it. I didn't like being a manager of other employees. But this particular job allows me to be an airport director and responsible for the airport but operate it without employees directly under me.
I guess when you're not involved in that industry, you don't know what you don't know. I mean the same goes for any industry, so I wouldn't have had any clue whatsoever that there's so many roles in aviation aside from just flying. We just assume it's just flying, but as with any other industry - like you used the analogy of the medical field there's a lot of moving parts to keep the machine running.
DENISE: A lot of people don't realize I do everything from wildlife control-
Oh my goodness!
DENISE: Yeah, but you have to realize you're at an airport and those things can actually, you know, bring an airplane down or kill people so its priority. I do some trapping here at the general aviation airport just to- but that's one of the things I go out and I use pyrotechnics or bird bangers to scare birds off. You know those are the kind of things that people don't realize that you do as an airport director. So you're completely right about you don't know what you don't know. But it is quite interesting learning about those things that you don't know about.
So in closing, did you have anything you wanted to add just to bring it all to closure?
DENISE: No, I'm just glad we all have the opportunity to do this. As a woman in aviation I'm just glad people are interested. Because that means that we will continue to grow and have more women participate in aviation because they know they can do it.
In the past, when I was little, when I was a little girl - I'm not telling you how long ago that was, but, you know, it was, "Oh well, you really wanna do that? You can't do that, can you?"