From loss, family of Valerie Cappelaere Delaney works to help women fly

The first wings arrived the night before Valerie Cappelaere Delaney's funeral, gold pins spaced with military precision along the length of dark-green parachute straps.

The pins, hundreds of them, were sent by other female naval aviators — junior officers to admirals — as a sign of respect for the 26-year-old Naval Academy graduate from Howard County who had relentlessly pursued her own wings.


Three years after Cappelaere Delaney's EA-6B Prowler jet crashed during a training exercise in Eastern Washington, the wings have inspired a foundation created by her parents to help other women to fly.

Wings for Val distributes scholarships to young women pursuing careers in aviation.


"Our goal is to carry on Val's legacy," said Doreen Cappelaere, her mother. "She reached out to those ahead of her for mentorship, and she reached back to those behind her to help."

Women make up less than 9 percent of the Navy's roughly 13,000 aviators, according to a spokeswoman. Only about 4 percent of pilots holding airline transport certificates are women, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

There were just over 39,000 female civilian pilots in 2015, including students, private pilots and commercial pilots — up from about 36,000 in 2006.

There are many reasons for the small number of female pilots, analysts say. One major factor: Airlines historically have hired from the military. And the Navy opened combat missions to women only relatively recently, in 1993.


Peggy Chabrian, president of the Ohio-based Women in Aviation International, said her group is working with schools and extracurricular organizations to challenge long-held assumptions about the industry. As part of the effort, the nonprofit helps to identify applicants for groups across the country, including Wings for Val.

"Even today, you'll find high school counselors or teachers where aviation [for girls] doesn't come to mind right away," Chabrian said.

The Cappelaere family is hoping to chip away at one of the impediments: cost. The group has awarded scholarships to three women since its inception in 2014.

The group is set to hold its second fundraiser on Saturday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut, Naval Academy graduate and Marine lieutenant colonel, is scheduled to speak.

Wings for Val has awarded relatively small scholarships, a few thousand dollars each. But recipients said their awards have made a difference both financially and psychologically. Having support for their effort to break into a field with few female role models, they said, is beneficial.

"It helps a ton," said Ashley Taylor, a smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service who wants to fly the planes she now parachutes out of. "It really just solidifies that I'll be able to do it."

Taylor, who received a scholarship from the group last year, jumps ahead of wildfires, removes the brush that fuels the flames, and then hikes back out. She is often the only woman in her crew.

The 30-year-old Idaho woman, who has a business degree from the University of Montana, loves the job, but is cognizant of the possibility of a future injury.

If jumping to the ground became impossible, becoming a pilot would allow her to fight fires from the air. She has her private pilot's license and will begin work this fall on her instrument rating so she can fly in adverse weather.

"I just decided that it would be a really cool backup plan," she said. "I just started trying to find a way to stay in the world that I love."

Cappelaere Delaney was inspired to fly by conversations with her grandfather, a retired Air Force pilot. Her family and friends said she pursued her goal with passion, and sometimes against the odds.

She didn't make it into the Navy Academy after graduating from Centennial High School in 2004, despite good grades. Rather than giving up and going to another school, she took a year of preparatory studies in Massachusetts and won a place in Annapolis the following year.

She graduated from the academy in 2009 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, was commissioned an ensign in the Navy, and earned promotion to lieutenant junior grade.

She served with the Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-129, a training group based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington. The EA-6B Prowler, designed by Northrop Grumman, is used primarily for jamming enemy radar and radio communications.

She married Sean Delaney, a fellow Maryland native, academy graduate and Navy pilot, in 2012.

Her plane crashed on March 11, 2013, in a field about 40 miles west of Spokane, Wash., killing all three crew members. A Navy investigation found the most likely cause was pilot error.

The investigators found the instructor evaluating the flight on board lacked the hours required to safely monitor the low-level maneuvers Cappelaere Delaney was attempting.

Her friends started collecting the wings, and gave the initial set to Doreen and Patrice Cappelaere the night before her funeral. They are now on display at the Women's Memorial at Arlington, where Cappelaere Delaney is buried.

Doreen Cappelaere said women continue to add wings to the exhibit.

Chelsea Atwater was the first to receive a scholarship from the group. The 30-year-old Arizona woman spent years as a Grand Canyon river guide before deciding she wanted to get out of rafts and into helicopters.

Atwater worked at her license for five years, and finished her training last month. She hopes to pilot medevac flights.

"I don't have a whole lot of mentors, or people who have done this before," said Atwater. "Just having this community encouraging more people to get involved is important."


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