Aviation and Gender Bias

I learned to fly to fly before I learned to drive.  Going to the airport and getting in a plane is as normal to me as getting in a car is to anyone else. I started to work when I was 13 years old and saved every penny I made to pay for my flying.  It was my dad’s airplane, but I had to pay for part of it.  That’s who he was – he was a “you don’t get something for nothing” kind of person.  By the time I was 16, I was holding down three jobs and maintaining straight As in school.  I wanted to fly in the military, but they didn’t allow women at that time.  So I stuck it out and worked hard.  I detoured my career, was successful enough to retire at 43, then pursue my passion.

I never asked for special treatment.  I never complained when I was flying night freight that some of the freight hangars didn’t have women’s restrooms.  I used the nasty restrooms with the men and never thought twice.  I used the pallet jack to move truck transmissions off the back of the DC-4 in Detroit. I’ve climbed on the wing of a DC-4 to measure the fuel level in the main tanks, and I’ve pumped oil out to the engines during flight.  I’ve flown powerful people into Aspen, Colorado, where every approach requires precision and finesse.  I’ve flown into East Hampton, New York, and into Ocean Reef, Florida, on Key Largo.  These are challenging runways, short and narrow, not runways that are two miles long.

About a year ago I read an email forwarded from Leonard Brunasso, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot who is now a check airman for Omni Air.  The email was titled “The Age of the 707/DC-8” and it begins, “Those were the good ole days.  Pilots back then were men…”  You can just guess how far it went downhill from there, as he went on to insult every category of people except for white male pilots. From what I can gather, taxpayers paid for Leonard’s flight training in the Air Force.  He refers to pilots “in the good ole days” as real men and refers to flight attendants as stewardesses who appreciated a little sexual harassment, and were “proud to be combatants in the sexual revolution.”  He went on to say these women didn’t have any “plastic or composites” in their pectoral regions.

Rarely am I offended, but having been subjected to blatant sexual harassment and abuse in the cockpit, I have a few things to say to Leonard.  I am beyond angry.  I am furious.  I am sad.  I am, unfortunately, flooded with memories of clowns just like this guy who didn’t think I belonged.  The ones who objectified women.

I’ve taught over 1000 people to fly and I have an impeccable record.  I’ve shared my love of aviation with literally thousands of people.

I’ve endured sexual harassment in every form possible.  I had to sit through an oral exam for 8 hours for a multi-engine rating, purely because the check airman didn’t think women should fly.  I’ve had a check airman stalk me and a chief pilot try to push himself in my hotel room.  There was no question what was on his mind.

During nursing school, I would instruct in the wee hours of the morning and then go to the hospital in Charlotte for clinicals, then I’d go to the airport and fly afterwards.  And I kept my grades up while I was doing it.  I am as proud of my RN as I am my ATP and CFI.

I learned instrument flying with nothing more than needle, ball, and airspeed.  I’ve made the decision to go or not, when flying fuel to some of the most remote villages in Alaska in a DC-4.  I’ve manually calculated how much fuel to take on, and looked at prog charts to see whether it was even safe to go.  I didn’t have dispatch to calculate weight and balance for me, tell me how the weather was, and determine whether I’d be released to fly or not.  I made those decisions, on my own.

I worked my way into the cockpit with my skills and abilities to fly.  I’ve been pinched, grabbed in inappropriate places, and even been physically assaulted by other pilots.  I’ve been asked whether I ever felt guilty taking a job away from some poor man trying to feed his family and when I’ve adjusted the temperature in the cockpit, I’ve been asked if I was having hot flashes.  I knew when someone was having fun and when the line was being crossed.

When I first became a flight instructor, there were only about 4000 women in the US with commercial pilot certificates.  I was one of the youngest, since I was only 18.  Today, 40 years later with my Airline Transport Pilot certificate, I am one of only about 8000, still only about 6% of all pilots.  I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.  I’ve got more than 45 years in the cockpit plus I’ve earned a PhD, started 4 successful businesses, and have tried to be the best person I can be.  I’m happily married to a retired Delta pilot who recognizes and appreciates my brains and my talent.

I want to say all kinds of ugly things to Leonard, but it would do no good.  I just hope that someday, this brand of pilots is replaced by kinder, more respectful human beings, by people who don’t care whether you are male or female, provided you can competently perform your duties in the cockpit or in the cabin.

Today I read a Facebook post where someone shared an article about a crash.  There were no women involved in the crash, but he prefaced his comments by saying he knew a woman who had slept her way into the right seat of one of these jets.  He went on to say she bragged about it, and that he respected my record and my professionalism.  I know he does; I value his friendship.  But why is it necessary to comment on one random woman, when her situation is totally unrelated to this crash?  Why not talk about the incompetent men who make it to the left or right seat because they know someone or because they have the money to persist?  Or the man who carries a flight bag full of porn on every flight?  Incompetent men exist, but why do aviators only highlight the women?  Misogyny?

Honestly, I just wish people would accept other people for who they are.  Be kind.  And stop spreading messages that promote hate.

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