Amelia Earhart‘s name might be synonymous with flying, but it’s pretty surprising that over 70 years after her disappearance, Amelia remains the only female pilot most of us know by name. I know I can count on one hand the number of times a woman’s voice has come over the PA (who wasn’t an airline attendant) when I’ve flown, or even seen a female pilot walking through the airport.
That’s because in 2011, women only make up about 5% of the 53,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association, the organization that represents pilots at major and regional carriers in the United States and Canada.
Flying is seen as an exciting and rewarding profession, but the cons often outweigh the positives — for women in particular.
First, the schedule of a pilot makes it difficult to raise a family. You may be away for days at a time or not know your schedule far in advance. Plus, you have to go through rigorous training to get to the pilot level. The courses to become a pilot are not terribly long–usually six to eight months–but accumulating the necessary flying hours with an instructor can get very expensive. About 40-hours are expected to obtain a pilot’s license, but the national average for flight training of about 80 hours requires flying several times a week. Most people do not have that kind of time, so the process can take a while.
After initial pilot training is completed only 30% of women continue on to earn either their commercial pilot license or an airline transport pilot license. One female pilot said, “My flight training was one of the most wonderful things I have ever done. But, I can also tell you that it really did feel like the loneliest thing I have ever done. It would have helped if I had a community of female pilots close at hand, who reached out to me.”
And then there is the stigma that flying is still a man’s job. The traits associated with a pilot are more stereotypically associated with men than women, such as strength and assertiveness. A woman can embody all those characteristics that we want to see in a pilot but passengers and the world are just so accustomed to seeing men in the cockpit than women. One female captain of a large European airline expressed concern that male captains simply expected less of female co-pilots. Even in the marketing video for a renowned flight academy there was only one shot of a female pilot and she didn’t speak.
There were even fewer female pilots in the 1970s when Carolyn Dillon, who retired a few years ago after serving as a captain of a Boeing 737 for a major commercial airline for 20 years, started her training. She tells The Grindstone that when she started her training she really had no female pilots to look up to as role models:
“I was born in 1961. The first woman hired to fly for the airlines wasn’t until 1973.”
But she grew up with a Boeing pilot as a grandfather. He told wonderful stories about his career, which fostered her love for the sky at an early age. He also let her take hold of the controls during occasional glider flights as a young girl.
Dillon earned an accounting degree in college, but her brother (a pilot) encouraged her to follow his lead:
“He assured me the field was opening up to women – albeit 2% – and he thought I could do it. Acting on his words of encouragement, I came home in 1987 from traveling for a few years and headed to the local airport to begin private pilot lessons in a Cessna 152. I was 25-years-old now and felt late in launching a career. I pursued it single-mindedly with my brother assisting as my instructor.”
She quickly achieved the necessary credentials to become a flight instructor. And she found a few other young women like herself pursuing flying. However, when she started flying commercial planes, she was frequently the first woman her male colleagues and supervisors had ever flown with. Accordingly, “there was still porn hung up in the cockpit when I started.”
But she was so enamored with flying and doing her job well that she was able to look past the fraternity-like pilot atmosphere.
Some of the passengers were also not used to a woman in the commanding seat on a plane. One male passenger in the late 1980′s seemed particularly disturbed by the fact that a woman had flown the plane he was on and said he felt sick for most of the flight.
“As a minority is the workplace, there were instances of harassment and negative bias, but I found that patience, acceptance and forgiveness were easy to muster for a career I cared deeply about. In staying focused on my craft, and maintaining a balanced disposition, those moments passed.”
However, Dillon said by the 1990′s the airline industry had changed a lot in terms of technology as well as friendliness to women.
“The cockpit became computerized, creating rapid and endless changes to procedures and policies. We became students, together, mastering our aircraft by GPS satellite, rather than the older traditional ground-based navigational aids. In 1996, I became the first woman in aviation history to fly the RNP satellite-based approach to landing in public service.”
Dillon said she also had a number of male mentors, including her brother, who helped her tremendously in her career.
“Gender aside, we are human beings first with the same fears and desires. For us pilots, a shared love of flying created an easy camaraderie in the workplace. We strove to be the best pilots we could possibly be to earn the respect of our fellow crewmembers, and equally so that we could sleep at night.”
Angela Masson, a retired American Airlines captain who heads the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, recently told CNN, “flying has to be something that you really, really want, because even gender issues aside, it’s a very challenging and demanding career.”
Mason said we shouldn’t be surprised that women don’t flock to an intense male-dominated job that requires lots of training and keeps them away from home for large amounts of time:
“I suppose if the job were just concerned with flying, there would be a lot more women.”
But not all females with a love of flying have the drive and ambition of someone like Dillon.
She looked at being a pilot as a career she was meant to do and worked as hard as she possibly could to achieve her goals as a pilot and not just a female.
“Aviation is a dynamic field requiring a high level of focus and commitment. So, the next time you board your flight, blow your pilot a kiss. He or She has invested a tremendous amount of their heart and effort into gaining that seat up front. They’ll get you to your destination safely…because they love to fly.”
Today, only about 450 women worldwide are airline captains — pilots in command who supervise all the other crew members on a flight, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Many barriers still make this a challenging career choice for women. Women have been flying since the early 20th century (and another 100 years before that if you want to count balloon flight) but the number of women in the field has only increased marginally considering the time span. And it looks like a lot more has to change before we see many more female voices coming over the speaker of a plane telling us we are coming in for a safe landing.