Up, Up, and Away: Girls can Be Pilots, Too

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Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

A few weeks ago, I attended a preview showing of Rocky Mountain PBS’s Colorado Experience Viewer’s Choice documentary on Colorado Aviation. It was held at Wings Over the Rockies museum in Lowry, and featured a post-airing panel discussion. Along with Colorado’s rich history of aviation invention and management, Denver is also home to Emily Warner, the first woman pilot hired and retained by a U.S. commercial scheduled airline, and the first woman to be accepted into the Airline Pilots Association.

Prior to Warner, other U.S. and international women were also blazing trails in aviation, according to Chuck Stout, a local aviation historian. In particular, aerobatic pilot and Amelia Earhart Trophy Race finisher Helen Richey was leading the way. Richey was hired in 1934 by Central Airlines as part of a publicity stunt against its competitor, Pennsylvania Airlines. Despite her skill, she only flew a handful of scheduled flights before being forced out by an all male pilot’s union that refused to accept her as a member. She was also limited to fair-weather flying because men in aviation at the time didn’t think a woman competent enough to fly in inclement weather. After Richey resigned her position, it was 40 years before commercial airlines saw another woman regularly in the cockpit.

Emily Warner

In 1973, Denver’s Emily Warner was finally hired by Frontier Airlines to fly commercial, scheduled passenger flights. Warner fell in love with flying after being invited into the cockpit by a pilot on a flight she took to Gunnison. She began flying lessons, funded by her work at a downtown department store, and has flown for much of her adult life. She was appointed as an FAA Pilot Examiner in 1967, and trained scores of male pilots, all who were hired over her. A superior pilot, with hundreds of hours of experience, Warner had tried for six years to get hired as a commercial airline pilot. She relentlessly applied to commercial passenger airlines without a single callback, all the while less qualified men she trained continued to get piloting jobs. Her interview for Frontier included a difficult flight simulation; a test male pilots were not asked to perform. She aced the test and with that, her position was sealed in history. In 1976, Warner became the first woman U.S. airline captain and is featured in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and National Women’s Hall of Fame for her accomplishments.

Warner has her fair share of stories from her piloting career to make you cringe. “When I first started . . . everything went along for a while, but I knew something would happen,” she said. “One time, I flew with a pilot who said ‘don’t touch anything on the airplane.’ It was a quiet flight,” she laughs as she recounts the story. “When I got off the plane, I said to the captain ‘it was really great flying with ya!”’ Gradually, the old male aviation guard began to shift.

Inequality Continues

While we are no longer in the 1970s, struggles still exist for many women in aviation. Women’s involvement in aviation, particularly as pilots, has been slow to develop. Many of the same issues limiting women’s engagement and roles in science, technology, engineering, and math fields exist for women in aviation. Women currently make up only five percent of all pilots and only about 3% of commercial airline pilots.

There are so few women pilots, young girls don’t see role models who look like them. Donna Miller, an American Airlines pilot based out of Denver, shared she still regularly gets asked by young girls whether they can be a pilot. The lack of women’s representation in commercial aviation leads young girls to believe there is something about girls and women prohibiting them from being pilots. According to Women of Aviation Worldwide Week, a week of awareness raising activities aimed at encouraging girls’ interest in aviation and celebrating women pioneers of aviation, women pilots woefully lag behind women in other aviation related fields:

"When we compare the progress of commercial female pilots to other professions previously male dominated, the progress seems dismal. Female air traffic controllers now represent 26% of the air traffic controller population. Female flight dispatchers stand at nearly 18% of the people working in this field. Even female aerospace engineers have made greater progress. Virtually non-existent in 1960, the percentage of women making a living as aerospace engineers reached 9.2% in 2010." (Women of Aviation Worldwide Week)

Women Pilot Numbers Still Low

When I asked Miller about the challenges still facing women and girls interested in becoming pilots, she shared that while the airlines are recruiting more diverse pilots, women pilots are not often supported.

“There are a lot of women who have had children, or who are pregnant and then it’s do you fly or not fly?” says Miller. The systems, policies, and practices have not evolved to effectively support a diverse workforce, with needs beyond those of white men. According to Beverly Sinclair, a pilot for thirty years, currently flying for Frontier Airlines, there has been an evolution, but the culture continues to be an issue for women pilots. “There’s an animosity towards women. [A certain amount of] push back, resistance . . . more from old school people,” she says. Sinclair does see this changing as newer, younger male pilots come up through the ranks. For them, she says, women have always been there, so women no longer seem out of place or like they are intruding in a male-only space. What’s most maddening about the push back Warner in particular experienced, Sinclair shares, was “[the] older seasoned pilots at Frontier learned to fly from her [Warner]. It was like, how could they hold that against her? She got them where they were going.” Warner trained most of the pilots she flew with, those who dismissed her, and those who assumed she wasn’t capable. Sexism does not understand irony, clearly.

Despite the paucity of women pilots in commercial aviation, there is a strong network. Warner, Sinclair, and Miller meet monthly in Denver with other women pilots for support and to share stories. There are several organizations for women pilots including the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for licensed women pilots, currently with members from 44 countries, the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21), an organization Warner helped to establish, and Women in Aviation International, which is an organization for anyone connected to aviation.

Broads, we need to spend more time encouraging women and girls to enter aviation--if you have a daughter, niece, or friend who is interested in aviation, encourage and applaud their interest. It’s 2018, and the primary words used to describe what it’s like to be a woman pilot in commercial aviation should no longer be “hostility,” “animosity,” or “chauvinism.”