SANDPOINT – When Amber Phillips was 15, her grandfather took her flying in a Piper Navajo.
Now she’s 26 and helps build airplanes next to the Sandpoint airport. Phillips is in charge of the subassembly area at Quest Aircraft Co., maker of the 10-seat KODIAK turboprop, a versatile plane used for mission work, tourism, skydiving and corporate trips.
“It was kind of a cool thing to call Grandpa and be like, ‘Hey, guess what I’m doing now?’ ” she said.
Aviation careers long have been dominated by men, but that is changing with encouragement from companies like Quest. It employs 39 women who make up almost one-quarter of the plant’s workforce.
An aircraft mechanic, Phillips has worked at Quest for six years and is close to getting her pilot’s license. She is involved with organizations such as Women in Aviation and Girls with Wings, and she’s spearheading an “aviation discovery” open house Saturday at Quest to show students and women of all ages they can find rewarding work in this field.
“In aviation in general it’s really hard to get women interested because they don’t think they’re qualified for it,” Phillips said. “Women are really good at paying attention to the fine details,” an advantageous skill for working on machines with thousands of parts.
Bunny Small is one of two electrical engineers at Quest. She grew up in Seattle and worked at Boeing for four years. When she and her husband looked to make a lifestyle change, they landed jobs with the Sandpoint company a year ago.
More opportunities are opening for women in aviation, Small said, but some hurdles do remain.
“Unfortunately some people still discourage girls early on, saying that’s such a hard field and they just can’t quite see a woman in it,” she said. “But then once we’re out there and we prove ourselves, it becomes easier. But, unfortunately, we do have to prove ourselves still.”
Small said she’s had no difficulty fitting in at Quest, where her work spans new design, production and customer service.
“We’re looked at for our skills and not for who we are and what gender we are,” she said. “We’re a family here; I really feel that.”
Heather Coop feels that way, too. The Sandpoint native joined Quest more than six years ago and works in wing assembly.
“It’s great to be working with the guys and get the chance to prove that girls can do it too,” Coop said.
“And I was never allowed to touch power tools before I worked here, so that’s great, too,” she added.
The men scattered throughout the sprawling assembly plant are very accepting of the growing ranks of women, Coop said.
“The last job I had was mostly women. And I fit in better here,” Coop said. “I think the guys have a healthy respect for a woman who can do what they do. They don’t see that as a bad thing. They enjoy watching the women succeed here.”
Women still hold a small share of aerospace jobs nationally and around the world. But with a growing emphasis on math, science and technology education for girls, the share of female graduates with science and engineering degrees is on the rise.
Gradually, more women are applying for these jobs. In Quest’s most recent two hires, seven women were among 41 applicants for an aircraft assembler position, and two women joined 32 men vying for an aerospace engineer job.
Women are starting to fill more positions with Coeur d’Alene-based Empire Aerospace, which performs heavy maintenance on regional-size turboprop planes, and Empire Airlines, a FedEx feeder carrier and the operator of Hawaiian Airlines’ Ohana by Hawaiian.
“I’m excited to see the number of women coming into more technical jobs in aviation, and it certainly is a trend,” said Empire President and CEO Timothy Komberec.
The company has five female pilots, plus four maintenance mechanics, four dispatchers and two other technical positions filled by women.
“I don’t think we see as great a differentiation between what men and women should traditionally do,” Komberec said. “Now, if you want to do that, you can go do that.”
Back at Quest, which turns out two $2 million planes a month, Coop recently gave her 9-year-old son a tour of the assembly plant.
“We stood underneath one of the wings and I said, ‘I built that.’ He was so excited. How many people get to bring their kids in and say, ‘Hey, look at that. I did that!’ ”