Cara Martinez is used to the stunned reaction from strangers who learn that she is working to earn her flight wings.

“You get the same face, when someone mentions that you’re (studying to be) a pilot, and they go, ‘Oh, really?’ ” said Martinez, an aircraft pilot training student at Texas State Technical College.

Her flight instructor, Rosalyn Montgomery, said most people assume she’s a flight attendant when Montgomery mentions her aviation training.

But the surprised responses aren’t completely unwarranted. Just less than 7 percent of U.S. pilots are women, according to the most recent data collected by the nonprofit group Women in Aviation International.

At TSTC, Montgomery is the only female flight instructor. And Martinez and her roommate, Alyssa Cockrell, 19, are the college’s only full-time female pilot students, while a handful of women are enrolled in the aircraft pilot training program
part time.

There were 86 TSTC students studying to become a pilot during the 2012-13 school year, 95 percent of whom were male. Women made up 13 percent of the total enrollment in TSTC’s overall aviation programs, including air traffic control and airframe maintenance technician.

“They didn’t think we’d last,” Cockrell said of her male classmates. “But they’re like brothers now. And they make us be able to take more, to be able to handle ourselves.”

Last month, Montgomery, Cockrell and Martinez became the first team from TSTC to participate in the Air Race Classic, a long-distance flying competition strictly for female pilots.

Bad weather and poor flying conditions forced the team to withdraw from the race, which began in Pasco, Wash., and the group landed at the finish line in Fayetteville, Ark., a full day after the race ended.

But they gained valuable experience flying over mountain terrain and in extremely hot weather along the West Coast. And about 100 contestants and organizers waited to cheer them on at their late finish, some offering business cards and pledges of support in their future careers, the women said.

More than 50 two- or three-woman teams participated in the race, which exposed the TSTC group to female pilots from various career tracks in aviation.

“You would think that (the race) would be intimidating, but we felt comfortable because they were so nice,” Cockrell said.

Added Montgomery: “It was kind of like we knew them. Like we’d walk into a room and there were instant friendships.”

Some progress

Peggy Chabrian, president of Women in Aviation International, said there has been some progress in getting more women into the aviation field. She said a female pilot was first hired by a major airline in 1973. Now, that figure is more than 6,000.

Chabrian originally planned to become an elementary school teacher but began her pilot career in 1977 after experiences flying in small airplanes with classmates in college.

“I think in the schools today, if you take a high school guidance counselor or a teacher, there’s still a natural tendency sometimes to focus certain careers toward men and focus certain careers to women,” Chabrian said.

“Aviation still seems to fall into, ‘This is something that men do,’ and they don’t think about the fact that there are women interested in it, too, and it’s certainly a good career for them.”

Martinez’s mother served in the Air Force and later worked as a flight attendant, while her father retired after 21 years in the Marine Corps.

The family moved at least every three years, including a stint in Japan, so Martinez was used to being in the air. Also, her father had dreams of being a pilot but can’t because he is 

“I remember asking my mom, ‘Hey, can I be a flight attendant?’ thinking of avenues of what I wanted to do in the future, and my dad whipped around and said, ‘If you want to be a flight attendant, you might as well be the pilot,’ ” said Martinez, who now wants to become a corporate pilot. “I hadn’t ever thought . . . I could do it.”

Fascinated by planes

Cockrell also grew up fascinated with airplanes and had no qualms about entering a field dominated by men. She’s interested in possibly becoming a military pilot or flying cargo planes.

“I have four sisters, and there’s no boys in my family, so my whole life it was always, ‘Go change the car oil,’ or, ‘Go mow the lawn,’ so I kind of grew up in an atmosphere where I never thought I couldn’t do something,” Cockrell said.

Montgomery’s father is a pilot and flies for a private charter company based in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Robinson High School graduate grew up taking weekend flying lessons with her dad in his Piper Cherokee as a child and eventually decided to pursue her pilot’s license.

Montgomery became a flight instructor at TSTC two years ago but eventually hopes to be a pilot for Southwest Airlines. She said some fellow female pilot friends have lamented the drawbacks of being outnumbered by male colleagues, but she thinks the aviation field still is friendly and full of opportunities for women.

“It goes back to having that mentor support from someone to say, ‘You can make it through the program,’ and someone who pulls you aside and tells you you can make it all the way through,” Montgomery said.

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