Whirly-Girls: Inspiring the Future

Learn more about the Whirly-Girls Organization and the women who are passionate about female helicopter pilots honing their craft.

By Jennifer Ferrero

Tori Duke is a female helicopter pilot living in Texas who recently won the 2021 Whirly-Girls scholarship. The scholarship sponsored by Erickson Incorporated, and Volo Mission provides the winner with additional industry training in long line and external loads. According to the Volo Mission website, “As the only helicopter company dedicated exclusively to external-load training, Volo Mission is uniquely qualified to provide our graduates with the training and skills that will allow them to jump-start a career in this challenging and rewarding field.”

Duke, who has unbridled enthusiasm for her field and learning more about the helicopter industry, will fine-tune her skills in the course that runs for two weeks at $18,000 for tuition.

She said she is a member of other helicopter pilot organizations but joined Whirly-Girls for the networking and to enter the scholarship program. She is an avid learner who may see as much as a 15% salary increase right off the bat, according to the Volo Mission website.

But Whirly-Girls is much more than just the scholarship program, although an important component. Kim Barwick, a volunteer on the Whirly-Girls board who manages the scholarship program said, “I think in any industry to have a core group of people who have walked in the shoes that you are about to walk in, really helps. Representing females in a male-dominated industry is helpful (to changing perceptions). Yes, opportunities (in this industry) for younger and college-aged women are opening. People are becoming more aware.”

The website, www.whirlygirls.org states, “The Whirly-Girls, officially known as Whirly-Girls International, are a non-profit, charitable and educational organization that aims to advance women in helicopter aviation. They are an affiliate member of the Helicopter Association International (HAI).”

Barwick is a helicopter pilot for IBM and lives in New Jersey. She said her job is to support corporate executives in their travel needs, an important function of the company. She joined Whirly-Girls in 2011 and has been active since. She enjoys the outreach that the organization does with younger children from elementary to high school. She said that different members of the 2,000-member organization go out into their communities to talk to students about careers as helicopter pilots.

Another Whirly-Girls Associate member and activist is Tamara Jackson, an Erickson employee. She loves the connections and good friends she has made through the organization, and although she works for a helicopter original equipment manufacturer and operator, she is not a pilot herself.

Jackson said that the women of Whirly-Girls are hardworking volunteers. She said there are only 3,500 female pilots in the world, so this international organization has its work cut out for it. At Erickson, there are four female pilots on staff. Jackson said that there is an opportunity to bring more women into the field.

One might assume that many women are exposed to the craft through military applications; but both Barwick and Duke came to piloting through a desire to fly, not through the military. Both seem to enjoy their work and have a desire for continuing education in their field. Duke works on powerline inspections with Lidar equipment. She said that she travels the country in a 21-days on, 21-days off mode. She said that the scholarship will, “build my confidence and will teach me to hold something under my helicopter.” She likes her current position but looks to the future for new opportunities and work with bigger helicopters.

Barwick hopes to inspire more girls to look at the field, which is why she participates in school outreach to introduce kids to the industry. She said that the annual scholarship winner through Whirly-Girls, “receives a fantastic opportunity.”

Whirly-Girls membership is open to student pilots, industry professionals, and associate members. They have an annual membership meeting and scholarship banquet in March. In 2021, it was virtual through HAI, but they hope to be back in person in 2022.

To be eligible for the scholarship, “the applicant must be a helicopter pilot with at least a commercial pilot certificate/license with at least 1000 hours total time. She must be a member in good standing at the time of application submission, award of scholarship, and during scholarship training, and must have joined the Whirly-Girls no later than October 1, 2021. Scholarship training must be completed by December 31, 2022.”

One thing is for sure, whether joining to participate in the scholarship opportunity, for networking, or to learn more about the industry, members make like-minded connections with adventure-driven women in the helicopter industry.

To learn more about the Whirly-Girls Foundation and/or the annual scholarship opportunity with Mission Volo and Erickson Incorporated, visit www.whirlygirls.org.