Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Oh My God! There’s No Man In The Cockpit!

Change perception through education

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!"


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