My Flying Tribe

“I want to say something,” a teenage girl hedged, “but I don’t want to be rude, or insult you.”

I was speaking at an aviation expo, in hopes of encouraging young women to explore STEM fields for their futures. I faced this young woman, feeling her eagerness to hear how I had navigated a virtually all-male domain as a female airline pilot years ago. Then her smile turned quiet and she shuffled her feet in uneasy tension as she spoke up.

“Yes, please tell me what you’re thinking,” I nudged her on.

“I was just thinking… I’m happy I was born when I was,” she paused to assess my reaction, “and not into your generation.”

“Oh,” I sighed, and I grinned.

I wasn’t insulted at all. She got it. But I was surprised by the emotions her comment stirred in me. A sense of familiarity came over me and I realized that I had the exact same feeling of relief when I was her age.

When I finally upgraded to Captain at United Airlines, I flew with an all-female crew for the first time in my life. I proudly added this bit of trivia into my passenger address welcoming our passengers onboard. After I released the talk switch, it hit me – I had never flown with a female captain in all of my years as a first officer (co-pilot). I never had a female flight instructor. I never had a female boss at all. Not in my entire aviation career.

I had always been grateful to be in the pilot seat, any pilot seat, knowing my mother’s generation had no chance at this dream. It wasn’t until that moment, until I said it aloud to 147 passengers, that I realized how isolated I had felt on my journey to this seat.

Any lofty ambition will be a challenge to reach. If you haven’t failed, then you haven’t stretched your mind, and you haven’t grown and gotten better at something.

Young women today will face obstacles no matter what they choose to achieve. Gender role expectations and barriers, both culturally and self-imposed, are as present today as when I took my first flying lesson. Though, they may look different.

But not seeing anyone that looks like you on that journey, will not be one of those obstacles. Not if I can help it.

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