First female air traffic control tower manager at eastern Iowa airport brings visibility to the field

Elizabeth Wichmann, traffic control tower manager at the Eastern Iowa Airport, stands for a portrait September 22 at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. Earlier this year, Wichmann became the first female air traffic control tower manager at Eastern Iowa Airport (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Elizabeth Wichmann, traffic control tower manager at the Eastern Iowa Airport, stands for a portrait September 22 at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. Earlier this year, Wichmann became the first female air traffic control tower manager at Eastern Iowa Airport (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — When she started her aviation career 15 years ago, Elizabeth Wichmann used to be one of the only women in the room — if not the only one.

Now as the first female air traffic control officer for the Federal Aviation Administration at the eastern Iowa airport, she knows how important her visibility is for women in aviation.

Today, she is one of approximately 6,000 women in the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

“It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes I had to work harder to prove myself, but I never let that stop me. I actually used it to push myself a little bit harder,” Wichmann said.

The airport control tower manager, 39, fell in love with aviation as a college touring student. Her academic advisor saw in her an aptitude for aviation.

“I went up for my (demonstration) flight and fell in love with flying – that feeling and the whole aspect of flying from point A to point B,” she said.

She earned a degree in aviation management in 2005 from the University of Dubuque and was with the FAA for nearly 15 years in positions throughout the Midwest. She started working at the eastern Iowa airport in 2015 and worked her way up to supervisor before becoming air traffic control tower manager in January.

Over the years, she has seen improvements in the field and changes that give women more opportunities to break into aviation. The FAA has since implemented paid parental leave, for example, and a more structured bidding process gives women a better chance of getting their job.

With women making up just 19% of FAA air traffic controllers today, she doesn’t take her role as a manager lightly. Women can face daunting prospects for balancing family life with jobs that require more demanding hours.

But half the battle is visibility – letting women know what’s available to them.

“I want women to know they can do the job. … I want them to see it’s possible,” she said. “When a woman sees another woman doing the work, she also sees what her future may hold for her.”

Some of her work therefore takes place outside the field in education, where she shows girls what is possible. With job shadowing, visits, school presentations and working with Girl Scouts, the next generation learns through her what exactly air traffic control is and how many opportunities are available in the field.

Most of the girls have surprising reactions to the simulations she uses to show what an air traffic control tower does. Through demonstrations and observation, girls and young women can see how the soft skills they develop early – something as simple as remembering orders as a restaurant server or being able to doing quick calculations in their heads – can apply to daunting areas.

“It’s letting them know that it’s even an option. They think (we are) the people holding the orange cones on the ramp,” Wichmann said. “It’s really no different than being in medical, firefighting, EMT – we’re needed 24/7 to make this the safest place in the world.”

Simply put, one of the biggest hurdles for women today is simply knowing about the jobs that are out there.

Today, women are still a minority in her field. But she’s not alone – giving her the chance to be a mentor every day as she leaves her mark as the first woman in her position at CID, the airport call letters.

“I try to develop these leaders. You can do whatever you want if it’s a job you want to do,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8340; [email protected]

Comments are closed.