Benét Wilson is an aviation journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aviation Queen LLC, a consulting and multimedia business that features Wilson’s writings on aviation and travel. She was a speaker in The Daily Princetonian’s panel on diversity in the newsroom, where we got to sit down with her to discuss her experiences in the media industry.
The Daily Princetonian: How did you get started in journalism, and why did you want to enter the field?
Benét Wilson: I grew up being nosy. I was always curious about things, always wanted to know how things worked and what was going on. And I did work on my high school paper and then when I got to college I knew I wanted to major in journalism, and that’s what I did. Although I did major in broadcast journalism, but I did an internship in the summer and that was enough to kill any desire to be anywhere near a television.
DP: How did you find your niche with the aviation industry, and how did your passions for aviation and journalism come together?
BW: My father was in the air force, so we’ve lived all over the world and I took my first flight when I was six years old — Pan Am 747 from New York to London. And that was back when travel was very civilized, and you dressed up, my cousins would come to the airport and they dressed up because back then flying was a really big deal. And when we got on the plane the captain allowed me to sit in the cockpit and showed me the cockpit and let me wear his hat, and I was hooked. I became — well, we call ourselves “aviation geeks” or “av-geeks” — and then I didn’t realize that there are people out there who would actually pay me for my hobby. I found a job in the newspaper in the classified ads for an aviation journalist, and I was like “Oh, yeah, I can do that,” and never looked back.
DP: Can you tell me more about Aviation Queen, how it got started, and why everyone should use it?
BW: I didn’t actually come up with that name. The industry gave me that name. I am a black woman and, as you can see, I dress very brightly. And aviation is still a very white male-dominated industry. So I knew I was going to stand out anyways so I decided to really stand out. And then, I think I was at a conference, and they were like “You know, you always dress like a queen. You’re an aviation queen,” and then it caught on. So when I decided to form my company, I thought I might as well go ahead and trademark it and brand myself.
DP: Can you tell me more about how you operate your business?
BW: I worked for “Aviation Week & Space Technology” magazine, which has been around so long that Orville Wright was a subscriber. And in October of 2011, they laid me off. And it got out on social media — because the av-geek community is big but it’s small — and that’s how my freelance career started. All of Aviation Week’s competitors and people that I had known in the industry started calling me and emailing me saying “Do you want to freelance? Do you want a job? What do you want to do?” So I had a full-time job, but I still freelanced because I still loved the industry. I took a job in the fall of 2014 that I thought was my dream job, and it wasn’t. Six months later I rescinded and I did a consulting gig with one of my former editors at Aviation Week, and in January I freelanced one hundred percent.
DP: What’s been the most exciting piece to cover?
BW: That is so hard because I’ve done so many cool stories! Wow. Ok I thought of one — Dr. Alfred Khan was basically the father of airline deregulation. He’s the reason why airfares are so cheap now and he basically brought capitalism to the airline industry. And I got to interview him before he died. Anybody who’s a history student of aviation, that’s kind of a really big deal. And I got to interview him before he died, so I think that’s probably my number one.
DP: Your website emphasizes the importance of new media and social media, in your view how important is it that journalism outlets utilize new media and social media tools?
BW: It’s interesting because I started my career on a typewriter. I literally went into a newsroom, first job out of college, and they were excited because they had just gotten electric typewriters. As much as I loved it back then, I really enjoy the tools that I have now that can help me do my job even better and smarter. And it’s fun. And there’s still a bunch of old school journalists who are still resisting this, and people who still think it’s a fad, even in 2016. And I tell them this is not a fad, this is the business, and you either adapt or you retire. There are a lot of free or low-cost tools out there — if they want to adapt, they will. If they don’t they’ll find another job or another industry or they’ll retire. Simple.
DP: As a woman of color engaged in journalism and aviation, to what extent have there been obstacles working in those fields?
BW: Almost every day. My father was an Air Force officer during the Vietnam War, my grandfather was an air force officer during World War II, so I grew up kind of watching them negotiate their careers at a time when it was much, much harder. So I don’t feel like I can really complain; they were both in the military for 30 years and had very successful careers despite some of their obstacles. There’s a saying by Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t allow you to sit at the table, bring your own folding chair,” so I’ve always kept that in my head. And my dad always said it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. So I don’t give people a chance to tell me no. If you don’t ask, you don’t give them a chance to say no. And there’s always going to be people who are dumb and say stupid things. I have seen more than my fair share of it in aviation, again being one of a handful of people of any color covering that industry exclusively. I’ve heard some horrible, horrible things from people running global airlines, but if I let it get to me then I’d probably be at home with my head under the covers. But I’m very proud of my career, I’m proud of my work, and I’m not going to let anybody devalue what I do because they feel threatened by my gender or my skin color.
DP: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to break into journalism or the aviation industry, or both?
BW: I’m on the board of the National Association of Black Journalists and I’m active in the Baltimore chapter and we have a mentorship program. And this is my third year in it and I met my mentee yesterday, and she asked me that question. If you stay in journalism, you need to find a niche, you need to specialize. The days of covering general topics are going away quickly. So I tell people to find an industry. And for god’s sake please don’t let it be sports, entertainment, or fashion. They are oversaturated, they’re highly competitive. There are so many interesting verticals out there, like aviation! The last time someone my color worked in aviation with me was Keith Alexander, who just won a Pulitzer Prize at The Washington Post. He was the business travel columnist, that’s how we became friends. So I just tell people to specialize, and don’t give anybody a reason to get rid of you. I see so many friends and colleagues and people that are scared to death that they’re going to get laid off. When I got laid off from Aviation Week, there were 17 of us who got laid off that day. And there was [Human] Resources] and the president of the company going on and on. And I’m sitting there thinking okay, my resume is on my phone so when I take the train ride home I’ll start calling people, so I was already planning ahead. And so the president of the company looks at me like “Are you okay? You’re not upset.” And I’m like, why should I be? This is a business decision, I know this isn’t personal, and I said frankly I’m going to have a job by the end of the month. And I did – two days before the end of October I had four job offers. That’s why I tell people specialize, find a niche, and don’t let anybody try to crush you and tell you that you’re not worthy to be in this industry. Because there are people that are going to do that, and it’s going to happen a lot, so you have to develop a tough skin and be really confident in your own abilities.