BGSU student’s formative experience bolsters passion for narrowing the gender gap in aviation

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – A Bowling Green State University student is using her passion for aviation to inspire young girls and women to pursue careers as pilots – an industry where fewer than 20% of the workforce is female.

BGSU senior Olivia Thornton remembers the excitement of boarding a plane for family vacations and being more interested in the flight than the destination.

She was fascinated by the mechanics and the complex technology inside the flight deck.

As early as middle school, Thornton noticed that most of the pilots were male — an observation that fueled a budding passion for becoming a commercial airline pilot.

“I kept asking my mom why there weren’t any women in the flight deck,” Thornton said. “I was already interested in aviation, and realizing how few female pilots there were made me want to become one even more.”

Thornton, a native of Buffalo, New York, enrolled in the BGSU aviation program in Fall 2020, drawn to the program for its strong reputation, modern fleet and the convenience of an on-campus airport.

BGSU has one of the largest aviation programs in Ohio and the U.S. and has added seven new aircraft and three new flight simulators to its fleet in 2023 in response to record growth.

The $4.5 million investment is a continuation of a key public-private partnership with North Star Companies, which owns and operates the BG Flight Center and has partnered with BGSU since 2015.

The University also recently partnered with Republic Airways, one of the largest regional airlines in the U.S., to provide students with a faster pathway to a career in aviation.

“The airport on campus and the modern fleet were big selling points for me,” said Thornton, who is specializing in Flight Technology and Operations. “Learning to fly using the most advanced technology is something I really value. BGSU also felt more like home than any other campus I visited. I immediately felt supported by everyone I encountered.”

Women in aviation

Nationally, fewer than 20% of the aviation workforce is female, according to the Women in Aviation Advisory Board, established by Congress in 2018 to identify barriers to recruiting and retaining women in aviation and recommending changes.

Thornton is working to increase enrollment of future female aviators in the University's aviation program as the missions and outreach chair in the Women in Aviation International BGSU chapter and president of BGSU Aviation Ambassadors, a student-run organization that engages with prospective aviation students at recruitment events, college fairs and air shows.

“When I look around and see other women in class, I’m excited that we’re a part of closing the gender gap that exists in the aviation industry,” Thornton said. “Representation matters. I hope to inspire more women to join this field.”

Cameron Olding ‘21, a recent graduate of the BGSU aviation program and flight instructor at the BG Flight Center, said Thornton’s passion for flying and commitment to continuous learning will take her far in her career.

“She’s extremely hard-working and smart,” he said. “She takes a lot of learning into her own hands to continue building her knowledge, which is critical in this industry. She’ll inspire a lot of people through her hard work. It takes a lot of dedication and passion to succeed in this industry and it’s evident that Olivia has both.”

FAA internship

As a junior, Thornton, a President's Leadership Academy scholar, was among 200 students nationwide selected to participate in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Minority Serving Institute Intern Program.

She was assigned to the Aviation Safety Organization within the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service, which provides oversight and establishes safety standards for the Air Traffic Organization.

Thornton participated in various workshops throughout her internship and met with several senior leaders within the FAA and other stakeholders.

“We had some incredible opportunities within the program that I was so grateful to be a part of,” she said. “I was able to see the management side of aviation that I hadn’t experienced before.”

Thornton was an intern with the FAA from Summer 2022 through Spring 2023, an experience she said broadened her outlook on the careers available in aviation.

In preparation for her senior year, Thornton spent the summer in Bowling Green working toward her commercial multi-engine rating.

“It’s always been my dream to be a commercial pilot, and BGSU has provided me with a solid foundation to achieve that,” she said.

Updated: 09/26/2023 11:55AM