My friend Mark Magin, Onboard Images President, recently told me a hilarious story. Sitting in first class on a commercial flight, he noticed there was an all- female flight crew. When the stranger sitting next to him also took note of this, he spontaneously said to Mark: "Oh my God! There's no man in the cockpit!" Mark, who works with a lot of female pilots, thought this was one of the funniest things he has ever heard, and so do I. But, seriously? Women have been flying airliners for 40 years since Emily Howell Waner became the first female airline pilot, and it's been 101 years since Harriet Quimby earned her pilot's license!
This made me think about the things female pilots never hear—and about the things that we do. Since women make up roughly 50% of the population but less than 10% (and rising) of pilots, we're obviously in the minority, but any thinking person would have to agree that women bring the same talent, skill and dedication to the job as a man does. Maybe because flying is still considered a glamorous thing to do, people are even more curious about what's it's like to be a woman in aviation. It's a question I'm asked a lot but always confused how to answer. I'm just a pilot, and flying an airplane isn't something I think about in terms of gender.
Women pilots still hear the most astonishing things and are sometimes treated in the strangest manner. The professionals in the cockpit the day Mark was flying probably never heard the comment, but during their careers, you can bet they've heard it all. I decided to ask a few girlfriends some of their stories. I gave them an example of my own to start with: Why is it that when I taxi into an FBO sitting in the left seat of my Bonanza with a male passenger, the line guys invariably ask him what services we need? My other example: When I flew a single-seat biplane around the country, why was I asked at fuel stops, "Did you really fly that thing?"
Melissa Courtney, a flight instructor with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Flight Science from Western Michigan University, said, "Your example happens to me so often that I don't think I notice anymore! On a recent trip from the East to the West coast in my Bonanza with a male passenger, the people at EVERY fuel stop asked him about services even though he was clearly in the right seat! When I give instruction in my Decathlon, I'm in the back, so of course, people assume that my male student is giving me a discovery flight! When we stop for fuel, people come over to ask questions about the pretty Blue and Gold Super D, and invariably pepper my student with questions about how long he has owned it and what year it is, etc. It's so common that I just wait and watch it happen. I find it entertaining because I know that the person asking will be pointed in my direction, and the reaction is always one of surprise mixed with disbelief, which does get tiring."
Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, an ATP and premier skywriter whose 1929 Travelair D4D hangs in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, Udvar F. Hazy Center, relates an early experience: "In the late '70s, I was building time by ferrying Pipers from Vero Beach to Hillsboro, Ore. I had picked up a few single-engine airplanes, but this time was sent to pick up a Seneca and was excited about twin time. The dealer always sent a letter of authorization, so the factory knew it was ok to release the airplane to me, but when I showed up to pick up the Seneca, the person in charge of releasing the new airplanes would not believe me or the letter from the dealer. He very adamantly stated that he would not release the airplane to a young 'girl.' I remember turning every shade of red both from anger and embarrassment. So we had to wait three hours until the dealer came into the office to talk to him. This would not have happened if I'd been a guy!"
Teresa Stokes, commercial- and instrument-rated pilot, wing walker, aviation artist, mechanic, musician: "One time, I was flying a Twin to an air show and had to land short of my destination because of deteriorating weather. The small airport where I landed was deserted, so I called a taxi and was tying the twin down for the night when the cab driver pulled up. When I jumped in the cab and told him my destination in town, he continued to wait for the invisible man! After arguing with him that I did not drive in—I would not have needed a cab—and that I was alone, he was still unable to comprehend the possibility that I had flown that plane in myself, no matter what I said. Finally in frustration, I threw my hands to my cheeks in mock 'Southern-belle' horror and exclaimed, 'Oh my! Whatever was I thinking! I can't fly that big machine without a man in there!' Though I love the camaraderie with women pilots, all bad stories aside, one of my (many) favorite things about aviation is that there are a lot of men around! Nice!"
USAF Lt. Col. Jill Long is currently assigned to Kabul, Afghanistan. She has accumulated more than 3,000 military flight hours and 50 A-10 Warthog combat missions in the Global War on Terrorism. Jill recounts an earlier experience, "When I was a lieutenant, I joined a health club in Spokane. After an early-morning workout, I showered and changed into my flight suit for work. One of the older ladies turned to me and said, 'Oh my! Isn't that darling! I didn't know there was a costume party today— where is it?' I stood there dumbfounded, breathed deeply and said, 'Ma'am, I am going to work.' She turned beet red and said, 'Oh my, when my husband was a pilot, there weren't any women.' After an awkward pause, she smiled and said, 'Good for you!' We later became friends and still laugh about it."
Debbie Gary, air show pilot, first woman in the world to lead a formation team, first woman to form one of the all-women wing-walking acts and writer and contributor to Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine: "I learned to fly at age 19, and when the inevitable 'girl pilot' buzz cranked up around me, I decided it was important to ignore both the flattery and the criticism. No point in thinking I was either better or worse than I really was. With time, it was fun when people were surprised by my ability, but occasionally, I lost my temper over stupid remarks. In 1974, I was a pilot on the four-plane Carling Aerobatic Team in Canada. As the only girl flying full-time formation aerobatics at that time, I was used to being treated with a lot of respect. So the day a Toronto reporter approached me and said, 'So...you're the token girl on the team,' I was shocked and offended enough to want to wring his neck!"
Julie Clark, airline pilot and air show pilot: "At Oshkosh 2008, I was getting ready to depart, and the 'pink shirts'—volunteer ATC controllers—asked on the radio, 'Why is it that you beautiful blondes always get to sit up front and ride in these great warbirds?' I replied, 'I'm up front because this is my airplane and my back-seater doesn't even know how to fly!' There was a brief silence and then I heard a whisper, 'That's Julie Clark…' The controller then simply said, 'Taxi into position and hold.'"
We aren't all as famous as Julie or as high ranking as Jill, so I wonder what it's like for the rest of women pilots? How does bias and stereotyping affect their ability to want to learn to fly or their learning experience as a student pilot? How does it affect their ability to get jobs in aviation, or to get promotions in non-union job environments? How many women are kept away from aviation altogether by gender bias?
I really wanted this column to be humorous, but the more stories I heard, the more I wanted to cry! On one hand, we've made great strides over the past few years in asserting ourselves as professionals but, on the other hand, we still hear astonishing things like, "There's no man in the cockpit!" But, and I'm sure I speak for each of my girlfriends, I've had the greatest respect and encouragement, and still do, by many men and male instructors along the way, and am very grateful to them.
To some extent, we're all victims of stereotype and preconceived ideas. I believe in education, effort and example to help cure bias. It used to be common to hear "lady" doctor, but now that 50% of med students are women, we don't hear that as often. How can we make that shift in aviation?
Speak up! Complacency makes us complicit! If you're a woman and someone mistakes you for a passenger, let them know in no uncertain terms, nicely and clearly, that you're the pilot. If you have a male passenger, tell them what they might encounter and encourage them to speak up, too.
Keep your sense of humor. Humor is a wonderful way to educate one soul at a time. A little lighthearted teasing about an offensive comment can lighten the mood and helps put things in perspective.
Educate other women. I heard a recent statistic that over 80% of flying spouses (mostly women) are non-pilots. Tell them about your good experiences. Tell them if you can do it, they can do it. Encourage their husbands to help them learn to fly. We need more women pilots!
Tell your stories. Each of us has the power to change perception. Like Jill's experience with the older woman who she thought she was going to a costume party, the woman had preconceived ideas that were pretty valid. Jill did a good job of educating her, and used her story, her confidence, professional manner and sense of humor to educate and change her perception. Even well-meaning people are sometimes just misguided. We can help guide them.