Celebrating Amelia Earhart Day: Honoring Women Shaping Aviation

July 24, 2023

Despite living in different eras, contemporary female aviators have a lot in common with Amelia Earhart: a habit of perseverance, challenging the status quo, and pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable for women in aviation. It is no surprise that Wisk HQ has a conference room named in honor of Earhart, and it is fair to say she was an inspiration to many people who work at the company. 

On Amelia Earhart Day, we recognize Earhart’s impact on aviation and her influence on just one of our many female aviators.

Catherine MacGowan, Wisk’s Vice President of APAC & Air Operations, cites Earhart as one of her many inspirations. For MacGowan, her boundary-pushing started when she joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1999, a time when women were still rare. Like Earhart, her presence upset the status quo. “It was a world that was designed around men,” she recalled. “There wasn’t the space or language so your presence was often an imposition. There wasn’t a lot of understanding or support for women or other minorities. It’s been great to see this change over the years thanks to the work of champions in the Royal New Zealand Air Force.” Despite the lack of support and understanding, she refused to conform. Instead, she opted for authenticity. “I am just me,” she said in her friendly and open way, “I am a woman in the Air Force and I act like me. People really reacted to that.” MacGowan’s approach and hard work opened the door to a range of opportunities across a 22-year career.

Group Captain Catherine MacGowan and members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force during parade.

Group Captain Catherine MacGowan and members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force during parade.

Failure as a Stepping Stone Forward

Failure is often a necessary component of progress and innovation. Earhart’s notable accomplishments are interspersed with periods of failure and delay. She dropped out of junior college, and later a pre-med program at Columbia University. She had to sell her first airplane due to financial difficulties. Her first attempt to circumnavigate the globe failed when she crashed her twin Lockheed Electra on take off. Her second attempt, as history knows, was also ill-fated.

MacGowan seemed predestined for an aviation career. Her father was a helicopter pilot in the New Zealand Air Force and her grandfather was an aircraft mechanic. The only problem: “I am incredibly uncoordinated,” she confided. She was ultimately cut from pilot training, and “it was the most crushing and humbling failure you could have,” she recalled. But, like many other female aviators, she found a way forward. “I still wanted to fly,” she said, “so I became a navigator.”

As a member of a P-3K Orion crew, MacGowan participated in numerous regional and international deployments, conducting search and rescue, and patrolling missions throughout the Pacific. After leaving flying duties, she held a range of leadership positions across the Royal New Zealand Defence Force, and is now an officer in the Reserves. 

From the New Zealand Air Force to Wisk

MacGowan became Wisk’s Vice President of APAC and Air Operations in December of 2021.

“I actually left the Air Force because I love aviation, and working at Wisk is advancing it. Aviators have always been disruptors and innovations. Aviation dares to imagine a different future, one where we can be more connected, and even safer. I looked at Wisk and thought, what an adventure. I am going to learn hard things that I would never learn in the Air Force. I will be part of a future revolution; fear of failure is always part of that.” – Catherine MacGowan

MacGowan’s successes reach across APAC. She was instrumental in establishing Wisk’s partnership with Japan Airlines earlier this year and in fostering the adoption of AAM and its subsequent economic development with the South East Queensland Council of Mayors (COMSEQ).

Since joining Wisk, she has been an outspoken advocate for women in aviation and community outreach. She became the executive sponsor of Wisk’s Women’s Resource Group, and she has overseen initiatives in both New Zealand and Australia to engage the public with Wisk and our mission of everyday flight for everyone.  

Moving Aviation Forward: AITP Integration

Aviation is constantly redefining itself. This includes not only who can fly, but what, and how. One of MacGowan’s core responsibilities is overseeing the testing and integration of Wisk’s unmanned aircraft into New Zealand airspace. Advantageously, her aviation knowledge and the close-knit New Zealand aviation community have placed her at the forefront of airspace integration initiatives. Wisk was the first industry partner, and the only passenger-carrying eVTOL company, to participate when the New Zealand Government announced that it was establishing an industry-wide Airspace Integration Trials Programme (AITP) to facilitate the safe testing, development, and market validation of advanced unmanned aircraft. 

In March 2021, Phase 1 of the AITP explored “issues that would allow a highly-automated, uncrewed system to be safely integrated alongside crewed aircraft into airspace, followed by interactions with air traffic control in a simulated controlled airspace environment.” In 2022, Phase 1.5 successfully simulated uncrewed system interaction with Airways – New Zealand’s air traffic control provider. 

MacGowan and Wisk are currently working with the New Zealand Government, Airways, and the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand to facilitate Phase 2. Scheduled for later this year, this live test will be the first instance of a civilian remotely controlled drone being integrated into active airspace while being managed by air traffic control. 

Earhart and MacGowan are part of the rich history of aviation that continues to be driven forward by persistent and brave women. Happy National Amelia Earhart Day to all aviators who strive to push the industry forward.

If you would like to know more about women in aviation and at Wisk, check out our recent blog for Women’s History Month. If you are interested in working in aviation, our current job openings can be found on our Careers page.