She’s a Pilot

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I was a new first officer (copilot) for a regional airline when I got the phone call I had been dreading. I was on standby as a backup pilot when the dispatcher put me on a four-day trip with Captain P. His reputation was well known among the female pilots. “He will start off by explaining how you should be home baking cookies and making babies,” warned one of my female colleagues. Although I enjoy baking cookies and wanted to have babies, I also had wanted to fly since the age of fourteen. Why couldn’t I do all three?

As I settled into the right seat of the Saab 340, a twin-engine turboprop with thirty-four seats, Captain P started in with his views on the world. In his eyes, my place was not here in the cockpit but at home with my hubby tracking my ovulation. Even when I told him I was eager to start a family after I became a Captain, he still was not pleased I was his copilot for the next four days. Finally, we had something we agreed on.

We started running through the checklists while I silently seethed in the right seat. I clung to the words of a fellow pilot who once told me that Captain P was fine to fly with once he saw that you knew your stuff. I felt like I was on trial and the judge to my left was already convinced of my guilt simply because I lacked a Y chromosome.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time that being a female in the male dominated world of aviation had become problematic for me. Once, I had been turned down for a job as a flight instructor because my flight training was done at my local airport rather than at a collegiate aviation program. My degree in business from the state university wasn’t deemed to be good enough. And I grew more suspicious when I noticed a brochure on the flight school that boasted, “It takes a tough man to make a great pilot.”

My suspicions of bigotry toward female pilots were confirmed when a male colleague applied for the same job that I had and was immediately hired. He had a fraction of the flight time I had, and he had not attended college at all.

On another interview for a job at a small airline, the chief pilot asked whether my husband approved of my flying, whether I wanted to have children, and whether my husband wanted me to get the job. He then asked me to fly a type of airplane that I had no experience flying—and not the type of airplane used by the airline—while explaining that a female pilot he’d once hired had not “worked out.” Many male pilots also didn’t make it through training, but he never made them demonstrate their flying skills before they were hired. I wanted to be treated just like the male pilots during the hiring process. Though I was offered the position, I declined his job offer. My job would have been to fly an airplane that required two pilots. For these airplanes, safety of the flight depends on both pilots being able to speak up when something is not going right. I knew this airline was not as safe as it should be if female pilots were not respected. I I wanted no part of it.

So, when Captain P decided he would fly the first leg of the trip, and I would presumably sit in awe watching him, I was prepared for anything. I soon realized he was not a proficient pilot, despite his propensity to freely give advice to others. On the first leg of the trip, the autopilot failed, and we had to “hand fly” the rest of the day. This should not have been a problem for a proficient pilot, but Captain P’s flying skills were subpar. He was one of those pilots who turned the autopilot on right after takeoff and left it on, so he didn’t have to fly. It’s not a good way to keep one’s flying skills intact. I was in the unenviable position of being the one who had to point out when we were two-hundred feet off on our altitude or flying in the wrong direction. He was not happy to listen to what he must have judged as “constant nagging” from the right seat, but this was my job. The nonflying pilot on each leg was responsible for pointing out any deviations from the proper flight path, so it could be corrected. I was pondering how long before Captain P tuned me out completely, or something worse, when it occurred to me what I needed to do.

“How about if I fly for the rest of the day?” I offered as earnestly as I could manage. “I can use the practice,” I added, hoping he would not suspect my real intentions were to keep us safe.

He leaped at my suggestion, so I flew the next three legs in relative peace and quiet except for a few “pointers” from the left seat. I eagerly anticipated getting an airplane with a functioning autopilot the next day, but suspected Captain P still preferred to leave me behind at the hotel.

The second day began like the first, with no camaraderie with my colleague in the left seat, but Captain P refrained from repeating his views on female pilots. I just had copied down our clearance from air traffic control when one of the gate agents asked if we would allow a passenger who was intoxicated to board. Allowing drunks to board was a clear violation of the federal aviation regulations. We also knew that passengers who had a little too much to drink at the bar were boarded onto flights all the time, but this guy needed help just walking to the airplane.

“He’s a happy drunk,” the gate agent said, “and we think he will probably just fall asleep as soon as you take off.”

Captain P watched the “happy drunk” for some time as he considered his response (without conferring with me, of course.) He decided he would allow the man to board and prepared to relay this message to the operations agent over the radio on the company frequency. As he pushed the button and started to transmit “Yeah, we will take the dru-,” I noticed he was on the wrong frequency. He was talking to ground control, not company operations, so I quickly reached across to switch his frequency. He looked at me as if I had just ripped the captain’s bars off his shirt. How dare I reach across to his side of the cockpit was the clear message.

“You were on ground control,” I said hastily, hoping to avoid another conversation about my place in the cockpit. I will just go back to my little ole job over here, I thought, and keep you out of trouble.

“Thank you,” he said, as he realized the potential consequences of his mistake. Making a public statement about his willingness to violate the regulations, and all on tape, was not a good career move to say the least. I had again made him look better than he was.

Soon, Captain P was telling everyone that I am a great pilot. He even offered to take my bags to the airplane on day three of our trip. I let him. The aviation industry being what it is, the airline we flew for was soon out of business, leaving both Captain P and me looking for other jobs. I lost track of Captain P.

One day, I got a phone call one day from a former student of mine who now flew as a captain for a small airline. He had flown as a first officer with Captain P and was my former roommate. He had listened to me rant about flying with Captain P, and his wife was also a pilot.

“You will never guess who my first officer is for my next trip. It’s your old buddy Captain P,” my friend said.

Captain P had recently been hired to fly for my student’s airline, so he was on the bottom of the seniority list and a first officer. My student was now his captain because of hiring seniority, and he wondered if I thought he should give Captain P some payback for how he had treated the female pilots who flew with him. I suspect it was a long four-day trip for now First Officer P as my friend spent much of the trip bragging about his wife and all the other female pilots he knew and admired.

Meanwhile, I had moved on to working as an instructor pilot at a major air carrier. While in training, my instructor for the day took one look at me and said he had to tell me a story about the first female pilot at his airline. This instructor admitted he didn’t like it when a female first officer showed up one day for a trip with him. He started complaining about how he didn’t want to have to stop swearing in the cockpit for her sake, to which she responded, “If you’re done now, how about we get this mother fucker off the ground?” He said she made him realize what a jerk he was being, and he respected her for that. I was grateful for women like her who made things easier for me by earning her colleague’s respect.

Shortly after I finished training at this airline I put my nine-year-old daughter on her first airline flight to Denver to go skiing with friends. I was nervous since this was the first time she would be flying by herself, so I took her to our training facility and showed her all the emergency exits on a Boeing 737. When she returned from her trip, she told me how the flight attendant tried to brief her on all of the emergency exists on the Boeing 737.

“It was funny, Mom. I told her I knew where all the exits were because you had shown me. Then she said something weird. She asked if you were a flight attendant. Why would she ask that? I said no – she’s a pilot!”

To my daughter, I was a pilot, not a female pilot. Just as it should be.

Shirley Phillips
Shirley Phillips is a former airline pilot and flight instructor flying the Airbus A320. She will complete the Master of Arts in Science Writing at Johns Hopkins University in December. She lives in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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