The Female Pilot
Back in 2010, I was sitting at the Charlotte, NC airport on a layover between my flights from Atlanta to San Francisco. The area at my gate was all occupied with the passengers on my next flight, so I found a quiet place in the corner of another gate waiting area next to a plug to power up my computer. Good time to sit down and look through my conference presentation.
Suddenly, I heard a loud thump and sigh next to me. I raised my head and saw a woman in an airline pilot’s uniform landing on a seat right across from me. The benches next to the electric outlets were quite close to each other, so her knees almost touched mine.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I just need a moment to catch my breath. And charge my phone.”
“It’s alright,” I said, watching her plugging her phone into the outlet. “Running for your flight, ah? I don’t think it will go anywhere without you.”
She gave out a loud and hearty laughter, “True. No plane will go anywhere without its captain.”
“Wow, you are a plane captain?” I confirmed incredulously. “Which flight?”
She gave me the flight number and nodded toward my gate. “No way! I’m taking that flight!”
She laughed again and said, “That’s a nice coincidence. So, what do you do for living?”
“I’m a professor, teaching public relations and international communication in Atlanta.”
“Oh, that’s nice. I was trying to place your accent,” she said.
“Is it that noticeable?” I asked, feigning being insulted. Sometimes I like playing that game with people.
“Oh no, no, it’s quite pleasant, and hardly noticeable at all,” she started to say apologetically.
I interrupted her, “It’s alright, I get that all the time. I know I will never get rid of my accent because I learned English as an adult. I’m Russian, by the way.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Your English is superb, by the way,” she said, smiling again.
“I know,” I said, smiling back. “Years ago, I got the highest TOEFFL score among all post-Soviet graduate candidates for a program to study in the US.”
For some reason, it felt nice to brag about my achievements to a female pilot and captain of my plane.
“That’s impressive,” she said, and added a second later, “What’s a toffle?”
“TOEFFL – Test Of English For Foreign Learners,” I said.
“Ah, that makes sense. And why are you going to San Francisco?”
“Academic conference,” I said.
“Oh wow, that’s great! Must be fun.”
“They are, most of the times. I also like traveling.”
“Me too. One of the reasons I became a pilot.”
“By the way, how DID you become a pilot? I don’t see a lot of women pilots, and if I do, they usually are a second pilot, not the plane captain.”
“True,” she said. “It was my childhood dream. Ever since I remember myself, I wanted to be a pilot. One of my mom’s brothers was a pilot, and I always harassed him for stories of flying around the world.”
“I can imagine,” I said dreamily. “All those travel tales are fascinating.”
“Yes, but when I was growing up, they didn’t hire women to be pilots in civil aviation. The most a woman could hope for was to become a stewardess.”
“Geeze, a stewardess? When was that, the 1970s?” I said, laughing. I was born in 1970 and the woman didn’t look much older than me.
“Yes,” she said seriously.
“No way,” I said nervously and incredulously, “You don’t look older than 35.”
“I’m 52,” she said, flashing her perfect white teeth at me in a smile, “But thank you.”
“So how you did become a pilot, if they were not hiring women into civil aviation?” I asked, trying to deflect from the awkward discussion of age.
“Oh, simple. I became a military pilot first.”
“What?!?” I nearly jumped out of my seat. “How is that simple?”
“Believe it or not, for a woman at that time it was easier to become a military pilot than a civil aviation pilot. The Navy started recruiting women pilots in 1973, and they did it better than Air Force. So, I signed up and got in.”
“Oh wow, and how many years did you serve?”
“Twelve total, retired in the rank of a captain.”
“Wow, and now you are a civil aviation captain. Doubly captain,” I said, laughing at my own joke.
She laughed too, and said, “Exactly! Flying my dream and still loving it.” She stood up and said, “Need to go now, otherwise they won’t start boarding you. It was nice chatting with you.”
“You too!” I said, looking at her strolling toward my gate, with her pilot suitcase in tow. I was still digesting the conversation, impressed beyond words. I jotted down some facts for a future journal entry.
When I was boarding the plane, the captain was standing at the cockpit door, greeting the passengers with her happy and welcoming smile. She immediately recognized me and when I was next to her, asked “Wanna peek into the cockpit?”
“Of course,” I said.
She let me through. The cockpit was very small, and the second pilot (male) was sitting in his place, checking on the equipment.
“You can sit in the chair if you want to,” the captain said.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t…” I said, itching to do it.
“Go ahead, try it. I know you want to, and when else will you have an opportunity?”
I sat in the swiveling captain’s chair for a minute. Even though the plane was still standing, and I could only see the airport terminal through the windows, it gave me a completely different panoramic view, compared to being a passenger.
I felt happy like a small kid, and very proud and honored to have met the captain. I got up, thanked her, and went to my seat. I am clearly biased, but to this day I think it was one of the smoothest flights I ever had in my life.