Linda Castner, a no-nonsense kind of woman with a pair of aviator’s goggles as well as reading glasses hanging around her neck, leans back in her lawn chair on the edge of the runway and watches a Cessna take a pass through the overcast sky above.

“That Sue up there?” she asks no one in particular. Without waiting for an answer she continues, “She’s really got that pattern down. Thatta girl.”

Castner isn’t training new instructors for her family-owned airport in the middle of New Jersey farmland.

Nor is she supervising an end-of-the-summer scenic flight for vacationing families, though both are part and parcel of her normal duties as president of Alexandria Field Airport. These days, Castner is doing something she never thought would be in her job description: turning female executives into small-craft pilots.

Leaders Take Flight is the brainchild of Castner and Sue Stafford, a philosophy professor at Boston-based Simmons College. They train women in business to fly as an experiential metaphor for developing leadership.

“We use the flight experience to teach these women about managed risk, because that’s so much of leadership: being aware of your options, being in touch with yourself and making solid decisions,” explained Castner.

The workshop is structured around three key competencies: self-confidence, adaptability and collaboration. Participants explore them on the ground through lectures, group discussion and journal reflection, and then take to the sky to put their learning into practice.

Of the dozen business leaders who took to the skies in the latest workshop one weekend in September, the eighth in the project’s seven-year history, only a few had ever helped command an aircraft in any way.

Terry Palmieri, vice president of finance at Eracent, Inc., an Internet tech company based in Fairfax, Va., was one. Though she had assisted in small-craft flight before, she had never sat in the pilot’s seat.

Beaming on the ground after just landing her second flight, she described the feeling. “You’re nervous, but you’re not scared,” she said. “You go through the visualization beforehand and you have a competent instructor next to you.”

Roslyn Taylor, a budget manager at Simmons College, the country’s only business school for women, had never co-piloted an aircraft, and had a fear of flying before the weekend began. She mustered up the courage to take the yoke anyway. By her second day, she was feeling some confidence.

“I was really scared, so this has been a real challenge for me,” Taylor said. “It is getting easier, though. I’m a lot better today.”

As she pulled her Cessna in for a landing, she radioed in like a pro: “Alexandria traffic, blue and white Cessna, final for runway 26.”

The student pilots didn’t fly quite far enough to see Newark, but the spirit of one of its historical moments was present nonetheless. Amelia Earhart once eased her small plane onto the ground there and became the first pilot, man or woman, to solo a flight from the bottom to the top of the United States.

Earhart also pioneered the first solo flight across the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 11, 1935 and lost her life attempting to solo a flight around the world in 1937.

“Women must try to do things as men have tried,” Earhart once told George Putnam, her partner and publisher. “When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Many know of her courageous and remarkable career, as short-lived as it was, but few are aware of the long and diverse history of women in flight.

From E. Lillian Todd, who designed and built aircraft in 1906, to Helen Richey, who became the first woman pilot for a U.S. commercial airline in 1934, women have taken on crucial roles in the advancement of the industry. In 1999, astronaut Eileen Collins became the first female space shuttle commander. Few people, however, know their names.

The Ninety-Nines, Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots based in Oklahoma City, wants to change that. With over 5,500 members in 35 countries, the Ninety-Nines has a mission to “promote world fellowship through flight, provide networking and scholarship opportunities, and preserve the unique history of women in aviation.” The name derives from the 99 original charter members.

Just under 6 percent of pilots—private and commercial—were women in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Just under 12 percent of aviation students were women.

Castner, a member of the Ninety-Nines herself, said the genesis of Leaders Take Flight came about, in part, because of her frustration with the lack of women in the field. After interviewing hundreds of women she concluded that the main deterrent for females getting into piloting was psychological.

“They thought they weren’t smart enough,” Castner said. “That really got to me. Those that did fly usually got into it because of a husband or father.”

Such was her own case. Castner earned her pilot’s license at age 22 in order to get her father’s attention. “I saw the way he celebrated my brother getting his license, so I figured, if that was what I had to do, I would do it,” she said.

Castner’s father many years later actually lost his life in what she describes as a preventable plane crash. Castner stopped flying for 22 years. She passionately describes the moment when she finally decided to get over her fear and get back into the plane.

“I was sitting in my office and all of the sudden, I smelled diesel fuel,” she said. “My dad always smelled like that and I knew it was his way of telling me to get up there and stop making excuses.”

She did, and decided that she would dedicate her life from then on to helping other women get over their fears and become the best leaders they could.

Castner and Stafford have followed up with their students to make sure their time in the sky translates into change on the ground. They e-mail participants and ask them to identify any decisions they made as a consequence of their experience with Leaders Take Flight.

Most speak of an increase in general confidence or improvement in communication skills, but one woman reported finally asking her husband for a divorce. “Like I said,” Castner said with a giggle, “it’s all about managed risk!”

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on the drive for perfection among young women. n