Tag Archives: women in aviation

Remembering

“Four shirts, four pairs of pants, a snow machine suit, and I’m still cold.”  Thus began my journal, on this this day in 2000. I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, flying a 1946 McDonald Douglas DC-4 delivering fuel to remote villages.  This contract pilot stent may very well be the craziest thing I’ve ever done and sometimes I still can’t believe I actually did it.

Why was I in Alaska?  Money.  Insanity.  Opportunity.  Adventure.  I already had a class date with Netjets of February 8, 2000.  I had sold my flight school and would finally get the airline job I had coveted for 30 years, and I really had nothing to do.  A month in Alaska would help me cover the gap.

I got my DC-4 experience flying night freight for Custom Air Charter out of Hampton, GA.  Not many people want to fly 60 year old airplanes, at night, without radar and at fairly low altitudes. Bob McSwiggan’s attitude was that radar “only scares the pilots.”  He was the owner, and besides owning a freight airline he is a tap dancer!  But that’s a story for another day.  The photo is not the DC-4 that I flew, but you get the idea.  In Atlanta, I flew the Carvair conversion, which you can see here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FfOmlb4SAU.

Flying a DC-4 was romantic and exciting, but it was hard work and sometimes dirty work.  The radial engines leaked oil and sometimes quit unexpectedly, but I loved those R-2000 engines.  On the ground, you had to climb on the wing and put a stick in the fuel tanks to confirm the fuel levels. In the air, you had to keep your eyes on the gauges and periodically pump oil to the engines. The instruments in the cockpit were appropriate for the 1940s.  It was just plain fun.

I got a call from a pilot friend in December to fill in for one of the pilots for Brooks Fuel in Fairbanks.  There aren’t a lot of qualified DC-4 pilots and initially I said no.  He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse –  I would be guaranteed 8 hours a day flying time, a ridiculous hourly rate, a generous per diem, plus a place to stay.  Off I went.

The place they gave me was so dirty that I washed my feet in the sink after I took a shower.  I lived off chicken pot pies that I could heat in the microwave.  The high one day was a whopping -17 degrees and another was -20, but I saw spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis and I went to places you won’t see on an Alaskan cruise.  Cruises won’t take you to Beaver, Kobuk, or Alakaket.  We flew kerosene, gasoline, and propane.  When we weren’t flying fuel, we’d fly snow machines to these same remote villages.

I learned a lot on that trip, and will now summarize a few of those lessons:

  1. There are no words to describe the beauty of the Northern Lights, especially when you are that far north and that far away from civilization.
  2. Boots certified to 40 below don’t really work that well past -10.
  3. Always take shower shoes. If you can’t eat in the kitchen, you really don’t want to put your bare feet in the shower, either.
  4. People who live in remote villages work on a different timetable than those of us who like cities.  They won’t accept fuel during lunch hour or on weekends, but they’ll take a snow machine whenever you can get it there.
  5. When you’re in a different place with a different culture, don’t expect to feel perfectly at home. It takes an effort and you need to respect them.  When a native decides to give you a baseball cap, accept it with kindness and treasure it.
  6. A 2300’runway, covered in snow with mountains on either side, is a challenge when empty, but even more when the aircraft weighs about 50,000 pounds.
  7. Appreciate your ground crew. They are the ones who get to the airport at 0400 to put heating blankets on the engines.  Without them, you wouldn’t fly.  You don’t like to get up that early and you know you don’t like being that cold.
  8. To expand on #7, appreciate everyone and everything around you. We’re all in this world together so let us work together to make it a better place.  Together, we can.
  9. Remember this. Whatever it is, you can do this.  Whatever your situation, it is not worse than -27 and no ladies restroom (actually, no restroom) in Anektuvuk Pass, Alaska.  It will get better.  You will get to warmer weather.
  10. Look at life as an adventure. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and experience life and to meet new people.  Maybe you’ll learn something and maybe you will gain a new perspective.

Finding these pages from my journal was a tremendous treat.  Sitting here warm and safe in our home in Macon, Georgia, I can’t believe I actually did it.  Am I the same person who took off that day for the trip of a lifetime?   Would I do it again?

I just don’t know.

Women in the Cockpit

I am a pilot.  I learned to fly to fly before I learned to drive.  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 – a “you don’t get something for nothing” kind of person.  By the time I was 16, I was holding down three jobs and was still an A student.  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 men’s room and never thought twice about it.  When we had to unload truck transmissions in Detroit, I used the pallet jack and moved the transmissions along with the guys.  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.  These are challenging runways, short and narrow, not runways that are two miles long.

Today, in the “Pilot Communications Network” was 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, as he was an Air Force pilot.  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.  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.  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 3 or 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.

Honestly, I just wish people would accept other people for who they are.  Be kind.  And stop spreading messages that promote hate.  Can’t we all just get along and treat everyone as human beings?