Doctoral candidate, pilot navigates past obstacles for Harvard program

GCU doctoral candidate Leja Noe is a Delta Air Lines flight captain who was selected to participate in a Harvard University program.

Leja Noe’s mother was not about to let her daughter face the same obstacles she faced as a teenager.

“She wanted it known that she wanted a career, but her guidance counselor told her women could be only nurses or teachers, so she could be a nurse or a teacher if she wanted a career,” Noe said. “So it was clear to her that no daughter of hers will ever have those limitations.”

Leja Noe, a GCU doctoral candidate, is pushing for more women in the aerospace profession.

Noe has made her mother proud by excelling in a profession dominated by men.

The Grand Canyon University doctoral candidate, a flight captain for Delta Air Lines, was one of 30 women selected to attend Harvard University’s professional development course, “Women in Leadership: A Program for Emerging Leaders." The three-day course, presented by Women in Aviation International, is coming up in May in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I am so excited about this opportunity,” Noe said. “Leadership is part of what I do for Delta Air Lines. It’s going to be a huge opportunity to grow. It’s also instrumental to my dissertation.”

Noe, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Portland (Oregon) University and a master’s degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, leads Delta’s human performance team. She has been doing safety work for 16 years and has held several positions for the Air Lines Pilots Association, in addition to flying planes for Mesa Airlines.

Her team at Delta gathers, evaluates and combines scientific data and industry and human factors practices into Delta flight operations’ philosophy, policies and procedures.

“A lot of what we do is a response,” Noe said. “Unfortunately, we usually respond reactively to safety information. So a big part of the work I’ve done in the past has been on pilot experience, and there have been some regulatory changes as of a result of that.

“But the human performance aspect is very interesting because 50% of the time we show up, we’re performing below our average. There’s always room for improvement.”

Noe is particularly thrilled for the course because Harvard professor Amy Edmondson was the researcher for the theory she is using for her dissertation, titled “Perception of Psychological Safety in the Flight Deck.”

Leja Noe's interest in flying planes started as a youth on family plane in her native Northwest to becoming a flight captain for Delta Airlines.

She hopes to gain leadership insight that could spike decades of sluggish growth among women in the aviation industry.

Females make up only 7% of private pilots in 2020 – a 1% increase in a 40-year span, according to a Women In Aviation workforce report published in 2021.

During that same time period, the percentage of females among commercial pilots has more than tripled – but only to 7.4 percent, according to the report.

“The ultimate hope for the program is to get more women as executive managers in the aerospace industry,” Noe said.

Dr. Barrett Mincey, GCU College of Doctoral Studies senior dissertation chair, said it's easy to see what makes Noe suited to be a pilot. “When I met her, she was a little intriguing because she was so focused. I noticed her attention to detail when we had our first Zoom call."

That focus has helped her in her aviation career.

One of Noe’s family members owned a small plane that was often used for trips from Bellingham, Washington, where Noe grew up, to the San Juan Islands, about a 25-minute flight to the southwest.

"I never knew that (becoming a pilot) was an opportunity. The more people know what opportunities are out there, the more chance we'll have at diversity in the flight deck."

Leja Noe,
GCU doctoral learner and Delta Air Lines pilot

“I thought that flying airplanes was a hobby but not a career,” Noe said. “That was an opportunity that I had that not many people had.”

But basketball consumed most of her free time, and she attracted interest from the Air Force. Noe enrolled in an ROTC program to gain aerospace knowledge and training.

The thing to do in the Air Force is fly airplanes,” Noe said. “I got my private pilot’s license (in 1996) to see if it was something I’d enjoy doing. And I fell in love with flying.”

As for basketball, she continued to play in pickup games at the gym while completing her bachelor’s degree requirements at Portland.

Noe described her pursuit of a doctorate as “a growth mindset.”

“But as I do seek the advocacy work. I definitely want to come from a place where I at least know where the research lies,” Noe said. “I want to understand emotion, cognition and motivation for pilot behavior in order to make good safety recommendations and advocate for better tools for pilots.”

GCU stood out among the doctoral programs she looked at, she said, because of its program in performance psychology and its support of veterans. Also, GCU’s online program made it possible for her to complete her work around her unpredictable schedule as a pilot – a profession she hopes other women will see as something they can do.

“I never knew that was an opportunity,” Noe said. “The more people know what opportunities are out there, the more chance we’ll have at diversity in the flight deck.”

GCU News Senior Writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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