BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Berkeley County native Victoria Grace always knew there was more to life than being a passenger, the wise words of her childhood role model and pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.
Now, Grace is a pioneering aviator of her own, being the first female single-engine private pilot to be certified at Fairmont State University.
“I remember being a little girl, I watched her movie. I was like, ‘I want to do that. I really want to be her,'” she said. “Now I’m sitting here after all this time. It’s crazy.”
Both of Grace’s parents are air traffic controllers, and while aviation was always a big part of the family, she wanted to steer away and do something different.
“I started at WVU at their Art & Design program for two years, and then something in my heart was telling me it wasn’t right,” she said. “So I picked up the phone, called Fairmont State and said, ‘I’m coming,’ and now here I am.”
Having the opportunity to attend flight school so close to home and in her home state, Grace said it was a no-brainer to take advantage of Fairmont’s program.
“I got lucky, and being the first (female), it’s really unbelievable. It’s humbling,” she said. “I’m just really glad that I came in this program with these people because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
And among the things she loves about flying, being above West Virginia’s mountains may be her favorite.
“I really enjoy that I get the opportunity to fly in West Virginia specifically because there is nothing more beautiful than flying into the sunset over the hills. I know that sounds corny and clique, but I’m so lucky to be here,” Grace said.
Grace recently received some fame for her achievement, with a ceremony at the North Central West Virginia Airport in Bridgeport, where several notable elected officials attended, including U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito.
With so much attention, Grace said she hopes to attract more females to the field.
“We need more women. I’m excited for more girls to come. I’m surrounded by dudes all day,” she said laughing. “It’s just too much, but it’s exciting.”
Globally, the industry is seeing a pilot shortage of all genders. Estimates show that North America alone will need 250,000 new pilots in the next 10 to 15 years, with worldwide estimates over 700,000.
Women represent only 6 percent of current pilots — a number that is up from years past.
“I’ve really come to realize that there are a lot of occupations that are under represented by women, and aviation is certainly one of them,” Capito said. “There’s a huge pilot shortage. A lot of pilots are aging out, and we have a lot more service and a lot more variety of service, so Victoria is going to have a great pick.”
Fairmont State remains the state’s only part 141 flight school, though interest in aviation programs is growing in other institutions in the Mountain State, Capito said.
“I think some other schools are looking at expanding into aerospace because they realize what a big industry it is. What we have here at Pierpont and Fairmont are not only on the aviation side but (also) on the aviation maintenance side,” she said. “The graduates that they’re turning out at Pierpont are all employed in the airplane maintenance industry, which is enormous, and if we go into space and expand like we want to, as they say, the sky’s the limit.”
As for Grace, the sky truly is the limit as she explores what comes next for her.
“Just keep making history, I guess. I want to be Fairmont State’s first (female) Instrument Pilot, Commercial Pilot, and then hopefully their first flight instructor,” she said. “After that, I was really thinking about military, but now I don’t know — maybe airlines.”