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Ms. Fix-it

By Matt Adams

Yolanda Gong had been awaiting this challenge all day. As fellow competitors looked on, she took a pipette and carefully removed lubricant from a jet engine, then injected it into a handheld machine to analyze its viscosity, a process that aircraft maintenance technicians use to gauge an engine's health. She moved quickly with a steady hand and steely confidence, and if you watched her closely, you would have caught a glimpse of who she was, back in a laboratory in another life, when she was living someone else's dream.

Each participant was allotted 15 minutes, which was 11 minutes and 44 seconds longer than Gong needed. It was the fastest time recorded at last spring's Aerospace Maintenance Competition – which draws civilian, military and student technicians from all over the country, all vying for coveted bragging rights – where she captained the team from West Los Angeles College. The oil analysis was just one event in which she and her teammates competed over the course of three days, during which Gong impressed a lot of people, including the members of United's all-female "Chix Fix" team, who were also there.

"When I saw her on stage receiving awards, I knew Yolanda would make a good addition to the United team, not to mention a strong competitor for Chix Fix," says United's San Francisco-based Airframe Overhaul and Repair Managing Director Bonnie Turner. "Her professionalism and talent caught my attention that day, and I've been thrilled to have her as a technician."

In September, after earning her airframe and powerplant license, Gong was hired by United to work at its San Francisco maintenance base as an Aircraft Interior Repair Tech. To Gong, meeting Turner and the women of Chix Fix was serendipity; a chance encounter that led to a life-changing opportunity. But that's not entirely true. She might have been in the right place at the right time, but make no mistake – her success is a byproduct of effort and ability. She's doing what she was meant to do, though it took her traveling an unconventional path to get to this place of self-realization.

Growing up, Gong's mother and father steered her toward a more genteel career. In their minds, she would become a doctor or a lawyer. In other words, something "suitable for a woman," a notion that rankled their mechanically-inclined daughter. In the end, Gong settled on medicine for many of the same reasons she would eventually move into aircraft maintenance.

"I was interested in how the body works," she says. "I like systems and puzzles, looking at causes and effects."

She completed her pre-med studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, but when it came time to take the MCAT and apply to medical school, Gong found herself at a crossroads. She realized her own goals were more important than the ones someone else had set for her, and she certainly wasn't going to let something like expectations based on gender stand in her way. After some soul searching, she enrolled in West Los Angeles College's aviation technology program, where she was one of only four women in a class of around 30 students.

"I've always wanted to know how to use tools and do things for myself," says Gong. "And I never paid attention when someone told me, 'You can't do that.' I've always said, 'Well, let me try.'"

Over the past few months since graduating, Gong has been a rising star at United. She's even set to return to the Aerospace Maintenance Competition in April, this time as part of team Chix Fix, where she and her colleagues plan to show what they can do.

"It's likely there will be a shortage of technicians soon," Gong says, "so I want to make sure women know opportunities are here for them. Don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't love. The only thing stopping you from doing what you want is your belief in yourself. It's incredibly freeing when you stop caring what other people think and just do it."

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