Award carries special meaning for first female aviator in her family.
Growing up in Frenchtown, Montana, Diana Stearns was intrigued by her mother’s career as an emergency room / air ambulance flight nurse. But it was a pivotal experience as a teenager that ultimately led her to pursue a job in aviation.
During her junior year of high school, on a fluke Diana took an aviation class, where she discovered she enjoyed learning about engines and conducting simulator flights.
“I took the class because one of my friends wanted to take it, and I wanted to get out of chemistry,” recalls the 2020 winner of the HAI Foundation–sponsored Women in Aviation International (WAI) Maintenance Technician Certificate Scholarship. “My friend ended up hating it, but I absolutely loved it and kept going from there. At the end of the class, a private pilot who flew in the area offered to give us a ride, and I knew that was the career for me.”
Diana graduated from high school in May 2016 and started flight lessons, obtaining her private pilot’s license that December.
After graduation, Diana was determined to find meaningful work that combined compassionate missions with aviation. As she researched potential employers, she noticed a common theme: the organizations preferred their pilots to be aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs), as well.
In looking at educational programs for becoming an AMT, Diana realized she might have to leave Montana to pursue the best training. She made the difficult decision to relocate when she discovered the School of Missionary Aviation Technology (SMAT) in Ionia, Michigan. There, she says, she overcame her lack of maintenance and hand tool knowledge by asking questions and taking advantage of additional opportunities to learn from instructors and peers.
Diana values her WAI scholarship not only because she’s the first woman in her family to pursue aviation maintenance and pilot training, but also because she’s a woman working in an industry dominated by men. The award, which comes with a $2,500 prize, will allow Diana to complete her training at SMAT with less debt while helping her obtain her airframe and power plant (A&P) license.
“I’m very honored [to win the WAI scholarship] because I know there are few women in aviation,” Diana says. “Realizing there’s this kind of support for female mechanics and female pilots is just amazing.”
As it has for so many students this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented another unforeseen obstacle for Diana to overcome as she works to become an AMT. Because her courses are necessarily hands-on, it was difficult for her to transition to an online learning environment. Then, on May 4, the SMAT campus reopened, enabling her to resume in-person classes and stay on track to finish the AMT program in exactly one year.
In addition to completing her A&P license, Diana’s goals for the future include pursuing her instrument rating and commercial license. She also hopes to obtain her Inspection Authorization (IA) certification, as it would enable her to return aircraft to service after their annual inspections.
Diana urges other students pursuing aviation careers not to be afraid to ask questions.
“In maintenance, it can be difficult to find straightforward answers, so listen to those who have experience and ALWAYS follow the manuals,” she advises.