Dr. Carolina Anderson always knew she wanted to fly. When she was growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, her father worked as a pilot for Avianca, the country’s main airline. “I've always been an airplane nut,” she says. “I started flying gliders at the age of 14, and then started flying them by myself at the age of 16.” With all this early experience and enthusiasm, it was only a matter of time before she was sitting in the cockpit herself.
Academia, however, was a less expected path for Anderson, currently an Associate Professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, Florida. Though she graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Los Andes University in Bogotá (while also earning her private pilot’s license), her passion for aviation never wavered. She resolved to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a job as a commercial pilot. But timing wasn’t on her side: when she graduated, the local airlines were in the midst of a hiring freeze. Without any options at home, she decided to take a leap: in 1999, Anderson came to the United States to earn a commercial flying certificate, which brought her to Embry-Riddle.
This decision turned out to be a momentous one that would change the direction of her career. She has lived and worked in the United States ever since, finding herself so much at home here that, she says, “I never looked back.” One she earned her certification at ERAU, Anderson enrolled in a master’s program and began working as a flight instructor. She put down roots in the community, and after completing her master’s stayed put at the school she had grown to love. She worked for 11 years in the flight department, where she was promoted to manager, and also eventually completed her PhD. She finished with the first graduating class of aeronautical science PhDs at ERAU, and was the only female student to graduate that year.
While flying was her initial passion, Anderson’s scholarship is of equal importance in her life. She describes the field of aeronautical science as a bit like social sciences, incorporating a lot of statistical analysis. Her academic interests focus on aviation safety, and her dissertation looked at aircraft safety certifications and their impact on aircraft accidents. Currently, she has begun to conduct research on drone safety as well. “I'm also really interested in STEM education and using aviation as a way to get kids interested in science,” she says, noting that she especially would like to see more girls become interested in STEM.
Like many STEM fields, Aviation is male-dominated, but Anderson has been heartened by the increase in women in the field over the course of her career, particularly the university’s more recent efforts to hire more women faculty members. “I think the university now has a goal to increase the female student population, and they realize that one of the best ways to do that is to increase the female faculty population because female students need role models to look up to,” she says. “I didn't have many mentors early in my education, but later I was lucky to know a female faculty member in another field who helped me decide I wanted to be a professor.”
Despite the lingering gender imbalance in her field, Anderson says that her experience in aviation has been overwhelmingly positive. While she has not felt disadvantaged as a woman in the profession, she notes that more visibility for women in aviation makes a huge difference, as it allows younger women to envision a path for themselves.
Many years after she flew her first glider, Anderson still lives for flying. Her husband is also a pilot, and in their time off the two pack up their two daughters – aged eight and three – into their single engine airplane and fly to various locales. The fun, Anderson says, is in the flying, not the destination. In fact, the couple’s eight-year-old has already been bitten by the aviation bug and is learning the family profession.
For young would-be aviators, like her own child, and for women seeking a career in aviation, Anderson’s advice is simply the same: “You have to keep dreaming and work hard,” she says, noting that the challenges and setbacks are more than worth it in the long run.
Dr. Carolina Anderson is currently an associate professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. She is also a Certified Flight Instructor and Airline Transport Pilot. Her articles on aviation safety have appeared in the Journal of Aviation Technology and Engineering and the Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education and Research.