DULUTH — After flying her Pitts Special biplane straight up into stalls, performing barrel rolls and wowing the crowd with other aerobatic maneuvers, Jessy Panzer hopes girls in the audience are watching when she’s back on the ground and exiting her plane.
They’re often surprised to see it was a woman behind the stick.
“It blows their mind, which is so great because it breaks barriers they may not have even known were there,” Panzer told the News Tribune after her Saturday performance at the Duluth Air and Aviation Expo at the Duluth International Airport. “It opens doors just to be here and let them see this is possible.”
A pilot for the past 25 years and an aerobatic pilot for 22 of them, Panzer, 43, of Lincoln, Nebraska, said she grew up around planes. Her dad was a corporate pilot who died in a plane crash when she was 7, but she knew how much he loved flying. And, as a child, she lived under the traffic pattern in Colorado Springs.
Without that exposure to aviation, she’s not sure she’d have pursued it as a career.
Aviation remains a male-dominated industry, and airshows are no exceptions — female pilots are still a rarity.
But things are changing.
Panzer was one of three women flying in this weekend’s Duluth Air and Aviation Expo.
Maj. Lauren “Threat” Schlichting, 32, a native of Stillwater, Minnesota and a 2012 graduate of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, is a member of the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, the airshow’s marquee event, and flew the demonstration team’s No. 3 plane.
The six-plane squadron completes difficult maneuvers, sometimes just 18 inches away from each other.
Like Panzer, she wants to be an inspiration for girls at airshows.
“I think it’s really important when you have a dream that you see yourself in someone else who’s accomplished that dream. I go out to events, and little girls want to come talk to me. It’s special to me because I was that girl,” Schlichting said, according to the St. Thomas article.
Maj. Kristin “Beo” Wolfe, commander of the F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team, showed off what the Air Force’s advanced fighter jet could do — from minimum radius turns and loops, to high-speed passes and a slow-speed pass that shows just how slow the plane can fly without stalling.
“The airplane can’t tell the difference in who’s flying it,” Wolfe, 33, told the News Tribune ahead of her F-35 demonstration. “As long as you keep your wingman next to you alive and fly the airplane as good as the person next to you, nobody really cares what you look like when you get out of the cockpit.”
Wolfe said the aviation industry is becoming more diverse but acknowledged there’s still work to do.
“We have a long way to go,” Wolfe said. “But at least we’re getting there by kind of showing some different sorts of people different airplanes.”