Women pilots find balance between earth and sky. Women pilots. Most of us wouldn’t bat an eye at the idea of being on a flight that’s commandeered by a woman. After all, women have been flying for 100 years, from airborne explorers like Amelia Earhart to astronauts like Sally Ride. So, it may surprise you that women pilots are still very much a minority. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, women who pilot commercial aircraft make up barely 6 percent of all commercial pilots in the United States. No doubt, the job has its challenges. For starters, a pilot spends about the same amount of time in technical training as a doctor devotes to medical school. A pilot is also in charge of getting 50 tons of steel up in the air. But once there, several women pilots who make Denver their home will tell you their job is like no other — and they can’t imagine doing anything else.
None of these women planned to fly airplanes for a living; it was recreational interest and a fascination with flying that got most of them into an airplane, but it was passion that pushed them forward through the rigor of advanced certifications, logging enough hours to be considered by the airlines, applying and re-applying for pilot jobs and not taking “no” for an answer. The reward is an office with a view like no other and lessons in leadership that change with every flight, every crew and every passenger that comes on board.
Krisan Wismer – United Airlines
How does a young woman with a degree in history become an airline pilot? Simple: There was no plan. After college, Krisan Wismer had a few jobs, none of which related to her degree. Flying had always intrigued her, and flying lessons, as it turned out, were the perfect gift. When she took her first solo flight, Wismer was excited — and scared to death. She was also hooked. She drove 70 miles to a small airport in Louisiana, where she initially flew recreationally, but she pursued advanced ratings and quickly became a flight instructor, then a pilot for a New Orleans-based commuter. It wasn’t long before she was flying for Eastern Airlines, then United Parcel Service. United Airlines hired her in 1989, as a second officer flying Boeing 747s.
Today, Wismer is still with United, and she’s a captain, flying an AirBus 320 on domestic flights and occasionally into Canada and Mexico. By the time Wismer became a pilot in the 1980s, women in the cockpit were becoming increasingly common, but considering that the airlines didn’t start hiring women as pilots until the early 1970s, Wismer remembers feeling a little isolated from the professional development opportunities her male counterparts had available to them. “So many of the male pilots, mostly because so many came from the military, had this built-in network; they helped each other prepare for tests and interviews. They had mentoring opportunities that were hard for women to come by,” she recalls. The airlines themselves, even though they were trying to attract and hire women pilots, had inadvertently handicapped themselves because their interview process and line of questioning were skewed toward male pilots. Wismer helped United identify the problem and started talking with other women pilots about developing a resource to help women pilots succeed. Today, the International Society for Women Airline Pilots — known as ISA+21 for the original 21 women who founded the organization — serves women aviators around the world. The group’s members help women prepare for ongoing certification testing, and the group offers scholarships to qualifying women pilots who are pursuing advanced training. “Flight training is very expensive, and the airlines don’t pick up the cost,” Wismer says. “This helps me give back for all the help I got over the years.” Wismer says that the most important thing that flying has given her is confidence. “Now, I trust my own judgment, and I believe in myself and my abilities. I lacked confidence when I was younger; piloting helped me overcome that,” she says.
Sharon Colburn – Frontier Airlines
When Sharon Colburn was a girl, she looked up to the sky whenever she heard a plane overhead. “I thought everybody did that,” she laughs. Her parents encouraged her to pursue a professional career, but being a pilot never occurred to any of them. Colburn got a degree in finance, but grew restless. She started taking flying lessons; it wasn’t long before finding time to fly was competing with her full-time job. One day, she decided to quit her job, load up on as many student loans as possible and devote herself to getting as far as she could in aviation. She got a job at the flight school where she was working on her pilot ratings. In two years, Colburn was a Certified Flight Instructor. Teaching allowed her to build her hours as she taught student pilots, which she did for about a year and a half, all the while keeping one eye on the horizon for a job as a pilot. After Sept. 11, Colburn expected the airlines to stop hiring, so she pursued a Plan B — she applied to be a Special Agent with the FBI. To her surprise, she made the cut and was accepted into their training program. “It made me think about what I really wanted to do,” she says. She decided to stick with flying, for better or for worse.
Not long after that, she received two offers; one was with a small airline that flew tourists over the Grand Canyon, and the other was with a commuter airline that could give her more hours. She took the commuter job. When Frontier made her an offer in December 2005, Colburn was ready to move up. As a first officer, and new to Frontier, Colburn is “on reserve,” meaning she takes on flight schedules with short notice. She must be able to get to the airport within two hours of receiving a call during the hours she’s on reserve. Most of her trips are one leg out, one leg back or an occasional overnight. The unpredictability is OK with the 30-year-old Colburn, mostly because she’s just happy to be flying. “I love the decision making; the thinking aspect of it, the anticipation,” she says. She thrives on the environment where nothing — from the crew to the passengers to the flight itself — is the same twice. At the same time, she’s quick to say that she’s created boundaries around the role flying plays in her life: “It’s what I do, not who I am.” Colburn says she’s seen the toll that flying takes on the lives of pilots, explaining, “It can be a lonely job, and it’s easy to get caught up in chasing your career goals.” Colburn admits that she fast-tracked herself, and in those first few years as a pilot, she spent more time thinking about the hours in her logbook than she did about her personal life.
These days, she’s much more relaxed and spends more time on the other aspects of her life. She’s married to another Frontier pilot, and she spends most of her free time riding her motorcycle. “Most people don’t think about how this profession extends to our personal lives,” she explains. “We study on our own time, and there are so many policies and regulations that govern our lives on and off the job.” Her advice to women who want to fly? “This is a phenomenal career. If it’s in your heart, do it, but don’t play the woman card.”
Holly Petitt – Southwest Airlines
Holly Petitt always wanted to be a flight attendant. College came first, though, and soon after graduating, she began a six-year stint as a flight attendant for United Airlines. She loved her job, and would probably still be a flight attendant today, except for the ferry flight she took one day from San Francisco to Denver.
Sitting in the jump seat on the flight deck, she surveyed her surroundings: “In a moment of clarity, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
From the start, Petitt knew things would be tough. “I came home from that flight, and I told my husband I wanted to be a pilot. We had three kids under 3 years old at the time. He thought I was crazy,” she recalls. Petitt says they made a pact: She would go for it, but at no point would the family be sacrificed.
She kept her flight attendant job while she learned to fly. As she built her hours, she heard about a small regional carrier that hired pilots with fewer hours. She applied and was turned down, but she kept applying until she was hired in July 2000, a little less than two years after taking her first lesson. In 2004, Petitt joined Southwest Airlines, where she is first officer. Like the other pilots, she bids on her work schedule every month. “It’s easy to control my schedule,” she says. Though she lives with her family in Loveland, her flights are based out of Phoenix, so she commutes there on her own time and her own dime to get to work. She often flies there the night before she’s scheduled to report in. Her schedule can take her just about anywhere Southwest flies.
This month, she flies for three days and is home for four days. “It really is a neat schedule when you have kids. You’re home 24/7 for four days out of seven,” she comments. Petitt throws herself into being the closest thing to a stay-at-home mom on those days, balancing housework with coaching basketball and mentoring fifth-graders through the Adopt-a-Pilot program at her kids’ school. When she’s away, she gets the alone time that’s so elusive to many women. Petitt says it offers balance in her hectic life as a pilot, wife and mom. “I use my time alone to rejuvenate,” she says. Even though she makes it sound like a best-case scenario, Petitt is quick to admit that she suffers from her share of mom guilt every time she leaves for work. “I have to balance work with being a mom,” she says. Her biggest lesson learned: “Time flies. I’ve learned to live in the moment because you don’t get time back. I’ve learned to cherish my time with my kids and my time at work.”
Karen Nathan – United Airlines
When Karen Nathan began her career as a pilot in 1979, women in the cockpit were still somewhat of a novelty. “I was the 20th woman to be hired as a pilot at United,” she says. Like other pilots, she worked her way up through the varied aircraft. She’s been in the coveted left seat for 14 years. Nathan’s dad was a pilot, and her mother was a stewardess. “When I was growing up in the 1960s, there wasn’t anything else a woman could do in aviation,” she says. When she finished school, she started where her mother left off, which lasted about three years. Nathan was bored with her job, but loved flying, so she started taking lessons on her days off. “I never dreamed that I’d fall in love with it, but I did,” she says. One day at work, she was talking to a crew member in the cockpit. She recalls, “He asked me if I’d ever thought about flying as a career. Of course, I didn’t even think it was possible, but he asked me, ‘Do you love it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I really do.’ He said, ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’”
It was the mid-1970s. The airlines had just started to hire women, and Nathan knew she had a tough road ahead. Working for United, Nathan chalked up a first for women pilots. “I was the first United pilot to fly pregnant,” she says. The airline didn’t even have a maternity policy for pilots, much less a uniform to accommodate her changing figure. Nathan volunteered to design her own uniform and worked through her second trimester. Seniority affords Nathan a fairly predictable schedule, though some elements of it change from month to month. “Right now, I fly from Denver to Honolulu a lot,” she says. The seven-hour flight affords her a 33-hour layover before the return flight. She also takes a lot of domestic flights; most are three-day jaunts with three to four legs per day.
Nathan takes advantage of her seniority to ensure flight schedules that offer balance. She explains, “During my layovers, I relax and enjoy myself. When I reach my destination, that’s my downtime. I can go for a run around Lake Michigan in Chicago; I can spend time on the beach in Hawaii. When I get home, I focus on my husband and the kids, who are now 16 and 23.” In her free time, she’s an avid photographer and runner, and she and her husband fly small aircraft together. She tells other women pilots who are frustrated by less forgiving schedules to hang in there for the payoffs seniority offers. Nathan looks to two moments in her career that make it all worthwhile: “The first is getting hired at United,” she says. The second was making captain. “I was the ninth woman to make captain at United. Learning to manage and coordinate from the left seat, working through all of the procedures, it hit me one day, ’I really know this stuff and I deserve to be here.’”
Aviation is a very hierarchical industry. In the cockpit, a typical crew includes a first officer, often referred to as “the right seat,” and the captain, “the left seat.” Larger planes may include a second officer. At each airline, for each type of plane and within each rank, each pilot has a “seniority number.” Each pilot’s pecking order is defined by that number and, among other things, it determines the types of flights and schedules a pilot will fly. A pilot with a lower number has less flexibility and choice of schedules than a pilot with a higher number. And if you get promoted, begin flying a different type of plane, or move to another airline? You start all over again with a new number.
By regulation, pilots fly no more than 80 hours in a one-month period. But the number can be misleading. That’s 80 hours from the time the plane’s brake is released to the time it’s set after arriving at the next airport. Time inside the plane before and after a flight, inside the airport, time recording flight details, logging flight plans, time spent on a layover, or the commute time to reach a pilot’s base airport do not factor in. Add it up, and the average pilot is away from home, working or resting up for the next leg, about 290 hours a month, but is compensated only for the 80 hours, explains United Airlines Captain Krisan Wismer.
The flight from Airport A to Airport B is called a “leg.” A schedule can have a pilot flying one leg out and one leg back in a day, or a pilot can fly a series of legs and be gone four or five days at a time, and then head home for several days before flying out again. Many pilots have schedules that offer a mix, but the consistent patterns and dependable schedules are reserved for pilots with the most seniority, a process that takes years to build.
Wismer, who has flown for United for 17 years, has a varied schedule, but a recent week looked something like this:
Day 1: Fly from Denver to Las Vegas, then to Chicago, arriving in Chicago at 5 a.m.
Day 2: After a 12-hour layover, fly from Chicago to Tampa.
Day 3: After an overnight layover and spending the day in Tampa, fly at 6 p.m. to Washington/Dulles, then back to Las Vegas the same evening.
Day 4: Fly from Las Vegas to San Francisco, back to Las Vegas, return to Denver.
Even though pilots are often gone for days at a time, many women claim that the job meshes well with raising a family.CAUnited Airlines Captain Karen Nathan says being gone for several days and home for several days always worked well for her family. “Being away is hard, and you need people you can rely on to handle things when you’re gone, but when I’m home, I’m focused on being here, spending time with my family,” she says. She compares it to most traditional office jobs: “You’re at work all day, getting home at 6:30 every night, and you have a couple of hours with your kids.”
By SUSAN SHEFFLOE SPEAR