“Nancy, do you read me? Nancy, can you hear me?” Nothing but silence. I could clearly see her in the tiny blue and white Cessna, for the Fall evening sky (in the closing months of 1977), was a soft blue, with calm winds giving way to unlimited visibility. She was in a left turn, rolling wings level on what looked to be a perfect heading for a downwind leg in the traffic pattern at our home airfield. Her altitude seemed good, her airspeed looked spot on; everything seemed to be normal, save one rather important thing. This landing approach would be her third, with the first two ending in an “abort”, with her climbing away from the ground at the last second.
A ”go-around”, as it’s known in the aviation world, is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve done them in everything from small planes (like the Cessna 150 trainer that Nancy was piloting), to widebody behemoths like the Boeing 747 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. I’ve done hundreds over the years, and on every airline simulator check-ride, I’ve had to demonstrate proficiency in the art of abandoning a landing attempt (safely) and maneuvering yourself for another one. It’s a skill that every pilot must have in their bag of tricks.
But this was something far different than just a “go around” (or two in a row in her case), for she was alone in an airplane for the first time. A few minutes earlier, after several circuits of the airport doing “touch and go’s”, I deemed that she was ready to fly this machine by herself, and no longer needed the jaundiced eye of her flight instructor. She had landed, and after exiting the runway at the mid-field taxiway, I told her to set the parking brake (quizzical look on her face). I announced that I felt she was “ready to solo”, instructed her to do 3 take-offs and landings, and after the third arrival, taxi to the ramp fueling station, shut down the engine, and I would meet her there.
Her wide-eyed grin met my best nod of “you’re ready, you can do it” look as I exited the airplane. She taxied to the departure runway, and I ran to an inert machine, flipped the battery switch to “ON”, and brought the #1 Comm radio to life just in time to hear her announce her departure as per our “no control tower” procedures dictated. Off she went (literally) into the wild blue yonder, flew a picture-perfect traffic pattern, and made all the required radio transmissions…she was doing great. It all seemed to be progressing normally until on short final approach, she executed a “go around”. I could hear her push the throttle forward, as I watched her raise the nose, and climb away from the runway pavement. “OK”, I thought to myself, it looked fine, but clearly there was something she didn’t like, and she decided to abort that landing and try again. No harm, no foul.
Again, great looking traffic pattern, good radio calls, and again, on short final, she abandoned the approach and climbed away. That’s when the waves of thoughts began to crash against the shores of my brain. Was she having some sort of mechanical issue? Was she so nervous that she had forgotten her training? Had she become so afraid of crashing that she may end up doing exactly that? All of these thoughts were racing through my mind as I attempted to contact her on the radio of the parked Cessna trainer I was sitting in.
The date was October 13th, 1977, and I had been a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) for a grand total of two and a half months. I was in my junior year at the aviation university where I was studying to obtain my Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Aerospace Technology. I knew that my path to an airline cockpit would travel through such an institution, and that journey would include more than a few hurdles. One such “fence to clear” would be to become a flight instructor; preferably employed by the university itself. This would allow me to turn the corner in my flying world in two very significant ways.
First, I would go from the “I’m paying for the plane/fuel/instructor” mode to the “I’m getting paid” to be here mode, and second, the more students I could log time in a cockpit with, the more flight time I would accumulate, and the closer I would get to that “magic number” of 1500 flight hours (the number needed to obtain the pinnacle of all aviation licenses…the coveted Airline Transport Pilot License…don’t even think about applying to a major airline until you had one). It would truly be a “win/win” situation for me.
One of the most time-honored responsibilities that a CFI shoulders, is to determine at what point in a fledgling pilots training, they are ready to fly the airplane by themselves. Again, it’s known as flying “solo”, and as everyone that’s ever piloted an airship by themselves will attest to, the first time you do by yourself, it’s a special day indeed (it’s a memory that you’ll take to your grave). It’s a weight that no flight instructor takes lightly, for the consequences of using bad judgment when the matter is literally life or death, can obviously be rather dire indeed.
After what seemed like an eternity, Nancy acknowledged my radio transmissions with a rather calm, almost cheerful, “Yes Bill, I hear you, go ahead.” I immediately asked her if she was O.K., and if anything was wrong with the airplane. She nonchalantly replied, “No, everything is fine.” I was more than just a bit perplexed (and curious), and offered her what seemed to be the obvious question, “So why have you done two go-arounds?” Her answer was as simple as it was perfect, “Well, you always said that if I didn’t like what I was seeing on short final, or just didn’t feel comfortable with the approach, to just “go around” and try it again…so I did.”
I chuckled a little, relaxed more than a little, and replied something to the effect of, “Well, have fun and I’ll see you when you taxi in.” Within the next half hour, we were standing in front of the little trainer, as I listened to her (excitement and adrenaline-infused) tale of just how it all went. She mentioned just how light the airplane felt as it seemed to literally jump into the sky on takeoff (I distinctly remember that being one of the first things I noticed four years earlier when I had soloed for the first time), and how hard it was to get it to descend at that much lighter weight. She rambled on and on, and I just listened and smiled as the light began to fade into dusk. She was on cloud 9, I was on cloud 10.
We were now faced with a dilemma of epic proportions. In the world of aviation, when a student completes their initial solo flight, a time-honored event takes place. The instructor “clips” a piece of the student’s shirt tail, inscribes it with the date of the solo flight, and then proudly displays it somewhere in the Operations area of the flight school. Eventually, the student takes possession of said clipped garment and attaches it to their logbook (as I did…see picture). We, however, had an ”issue”, for Nancy wasn’t wearing a shirt (or blouse as it were). Her attire for the day consisted of a pair of shorts and a halter top (it was, after all, the 1970s). As I stood in the office pondering the situation, she arrived at the answer, smiled, and excused herself for a few minutes. The next day as the Operations Office for the Southeastern Oklahoma State University flight school opened, on the “Solo Board”, amongst all the shirt-tail clippings, was pinned a pair of rather frilly “unmentionables” with her name, date, and “First Solo” printed across the derriere. Problem solved.
Two addendums to this tale. One involves Nancy, and the other concerns yours truly.
Nancy was to continue in her flight training, and eventually work for one of the premier airlines in the United States. Braniff International was a force to be reckoned with after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, for it grew from a rather small “Mom and Pop” hometown Dallas airline to a worldwide jewel in the airline crown (a terrific book titled “Flying Colors” chronicles it’s rise, and unfortunately, it’s fall into bankruptcy). Sadly, Nancy would not live more than a few years past her college days, and truth be told, I know very little about her demise, other than its occurrence.
The last piece of this puzzle concerns the fact that on that calm, peaceful October evening, those many years ago, a young woman in her early twenties flew an air machine by herself for the very first time, while a young Flight Instructor (also in his early twenties) was suffering through more than a few anxious moments. You see, he was watching the first student he had ever “signed off” to solo prove that his judgment of her abilities was correct. She made five circuits around an Oklahoma airport that ended in three landings, and by doing so, became a life-long member of a rather exclusive club. She also produced a few dozen (future) grey hairs on this young man’s head.
I would go on to send dozens of other young men and women into the sky for their initial solo flights, but their stories are blurred in my memory while her story remains crystal clear.
So, what does that tale have to do with the moronic nonsense of “wokeness” that we find ourselves being force-fed daily? Exactly everything. I give you the titles of two recent “news” pieces that may “feel” all warm and wonderful to a certain segment of humanity, but in reality, they display monumental idiocy and a complete lack of knowledge with regard to aviation:
- New York Times article: “The End of the All-Male, All-White Cockpit”.
- From United Airlines: “50% of our pilots will be women of color over the next decade.”
One of these is patently false, and the other is patently stupid.
Since the infant days of my personal aviation journey, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing cockpits with pilots of all shapes and sizes….AND RACES AND SEXES. The vast majority of those pilots have not only been amazing aviators, but they’ve also been just downright good people.
Let me start by making the following comment on the first of the above “woke” statements… there is no such thing as an “All-Male, All-White Cockpit” …. let me say that again, there is no such thing as an “All-Male, All-White Cockpit”.
I’ll concede the fact that in the years following that fateful morning, in the third year of an infant century, when two bicycle mechanics coaxed a powered aircraft a few hundred feet into the air (and the world began this crazy experiment known as “aviation”), the majority of cockpits were populated with 1) men and 2) Caucasian men…but so what? I’ll say it again…so what?
If we are to comment on a by-gone slice of history, then we owe it to that very history to use a thing called “perspective”. The world of the early 20th century was (mostly) owned, operated, governed, and ruled by men. It’s not a political statement, it’s most certainly not a “judgment”, it is simply just a truth.
So, the fact that a scant 8 years later, Harriet Quimby became the first licensed woman pilot in the United States, was nothing short of amazing. The very accomplishment was as unusual as it was important. A year later, she continued to shock the world when she successfully crossed the English Channel from Dover to Hardolot, France. Did she fight to overcome the prejudices of her time? Of course, she did. However, using that horrible thing known as “perspective” (again, required when gazing into the rear-view mirror of time), we would find ourselves in a world we simply would not recognize. This place would be so radically different than our current existence, that I’m sure few of us would have the power to comprehend it. Measuring that parcel of time with the yardstick of our current world, displays a gross lack of intellectual honesty, and is a fool’s errand to be sure.
As noted, women have contributed to the success of aviation almost since its inception. After Ms. Quimby, history gives us many examples of women altering the course of human flight. Amelia Earhart is clearly the most famous, but the list goes on…a scant two dozen are listed here:
One notable name that caught my eye on that list, is indeed a legend in American aviation. I would hazard a guess that 90% of the pilots of my generation (I soloed in 1973) are familiar with her and her incredible accomplishments. In the year 1929, (before she became the first woman to break the sound barrier …and throughout her flying career, shatter almost every altitude, speed, and distance record), Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and 98 other female pilots formed a group that is as strong today, as they’ve ever been. They are called “The 99’s”, and most of the women I’ve flown with throughout my life as a pilot have belonged to this amazing organization. To quote their website ( https://www.ninety-nines.org/ ): “Today Ninety-Nines are professional pilots for airlines, industry and government; we are pilots who teach and pilots who fly for pleasure; we are pilots who are technicians and mechanics. But first and foremost, we are women who love to fly!”
A few years after forming the “99’s”, Ms. Cochran helped form a group of women pilots that history paints with immense importance. Most scholars of the Second World War agree that without this group, our victory, and hence, the future of the free world, would have been in dire jeopardy. They came from all corners of the country and banded together to form a collection of women pilots that specialized in ferrying, training, and testing the most advanced war-fighting aircraft the world had ever seen. They became known as the “Women Airforce Service Pilots” (or simply “WASPs”), and they were nothing short of incredible.
They sacrificed their worldly life for a life in the clouds. They worked long hours in the blazing-hot skies over Texas, training to fly those complicated and (in some cases) dangerous machines, and become proficient enough to teach others to fly them. When their training was complete, they would log many long hours flying them to distant corners of the world, and when stateside, they would teach their male counterparts to safely operate those very types of machines.
Between the years 1942 to 1944, the 1,078 members of the “WASPs” substantially contributed to the war effort by ferrying more than 12,000 aircraft over 1 million miles. Sadly, thirty-eight of these incredible young women did not survive to see the victory that they had dedicated their lives to achieve. They perished on dark stormy nights, and they died under bright blue skies; they risked everything because they loved their country and because they simply loved to fly.
History was to finally give them the status they so richly deserved, for, in 1977, Public Law 95-202 bestowed them official “veteran” status. Thirty-two years later they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, one of the highest civilian honors that can be awarded by Congress. Without question, they blazed a path that many young women have followed, not only in the world of civilian aviation but in the cockpits of military aircraft of all branches.
Thankfully, their accomplishments have been etched permanently into the cloth of history with the 2005 opening of the “National WASP WWII Museum” in Sweetwater, Texas. I’ve been a contributor since its early days, and someday I hope to cross it off my “bucket list” of places to stand in reverence and feebly attempt to connect with the past and understand what it must’ve been like to be that brave.
So, the absurd title, “The End of the All Male, All White Cockpit”, is pure nonsense to be sure. The “woke” are nothing if they’re not full of ignorance of the past. And, shamefully, they are chock full of insults toward people undeserving of their misbegotten ignorance.
As for the second example of “wokeness”, I shuddered when it was flashed across my television screen.
- From United Airlines: “50% of our pilots will be women of color over the next decade.”
Sounds wonderful, right? It’s malfeasance, bordering on criminality…let me explain.
The level of idiocy with regards to this statement, (almost) left me speechless. A litany of reasons caused this feeling of shock, not least of which is that it was uttered by people that absolutely should know better. They are (supposed) executive leaders in the very industry I spent 37 years of my life attempting to excel within, and to make such a blatantly stupid statement is almost beyond belief. Do they feel the pressure of “bending the knee” to the woke so intently, that they can readily sacrifice their integrity to placate a group bent on social engineering? Has their pledge of safety to the customer been subjugated to a fear of being “canceled”? If so, then hell has a very special place for that ilk of executive. If they are indeed serious about that nonsense, then remind me to never ride on that line again…ever. Several of my good friends at the regional airline took a job with that (once) proud airline, and I can assure you that they recoiled as much as I did when they heard of this nonsense.
Why not utter, “50% of our pilots will be near-sighted, high cholesterol, professional bowlers over the next decade.” It makes just as much sense…
As mentioned earlier, I’ve shared cockpits of countless air machines with folks of virtually ALL racial and ethnic backgrounds; both women and men. I’ve had the pleasure to know them as both aviators, and also, as just plain people. They’ve run the gamut of skill with an air vehicle from excellent to lacking, and they’ve been folks that I considered a joy and an honor to know, and a scant few were just not my “cup of tea”. The one constant among all of them was one thing…they were human. They came with all the strengths (and weaknesses) that we as a species possess. A very important (in this context, THE most important) sub-sect of that “human constant” was the following: their skill as a pilot had nothing…I’ll say it again…nothing to do with their gender and/or their race. Nadda, zip, zilch…they could either fly the machine competently, or they could not…it’s really that simple.
One of my favorite First Officers at the regional airline (and a stellar aviator to boot) was a young man from the southside of Chicago. He grew up in poverty but realized that to succeed in life, he needed to educate himself, so he made sacrifices in his personal life, studied hard, became a member of the Chicago Police Department; and eventually, he became a pilot. When his name would appear with mine on the day’s crew assignment sheet, I knew two things were about to happen. One, we would have a great day together, for our personalities fit as a hand and glove, and two, I would be sharing the cockpit with a very accomplished aviator. The airplane didn’t care that he and I had skin colors that were not the same…and neither did I. He became a personal friend, and we spent time together living life as two young, single men would do. Shortly before I left for a job with Northwest Orient Airlines, he left the regional airline to take a job flying large jets for a competitor. Our paths diverged at that point, and I sincerely hope he went on to have a happy life and a long and wonderful career at his chosen airline.
She was short of stature but tall in character, and I liked flying with her very much. The skill in which she flew the big Boeings was fun to watch, and her “large and in charge” (when needed) personality was just as enjoyable to witness. One story stands out among many.
On this particular morning, we had a gentleman from the FAA riding our cockpit jump-seat giving us a “line check” from Anchorage back to our home base of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Some pilots bristle when having the “feds” peer over your shoulder, hawking your every move while flying a segment, but truth be told, I can’t recall ever having an issue when they were in my cockpit. The fact that they did possess the power to “clip your wings” and ground you, intimidated some, but I just saw them as a person doing their job, and I tried to be as cordial to them as I could, and fly the machine exactly like I did every other day at the airline.
When “Mr. FAA” entered the cockpit and introduced himself (displaying his credentials and FAA badge), I gladly shook his hand and gave him my version of a proper salutation. She, however, possessed a different opinion of his chosen profession, and refused to shake his hand with the statement, “I’m sorry, but I don’t like the FAA…it’s not personal, but I won’t shake your hand.” LOL! She turned back to immerse herself in her pre-takeoff duties, and his look toward me was a mixture of shock and disbelief. I simply smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and turned back to the duties that needed my attention before we left the gate.
Later in the flight, when he was out of the cockpit (in the restroom), she looked at me and asked, “Are you mad at me because I wouldn’t shake his hand?” I assured her that I could care less if she shook his hand or not, as long as she did her job as she was trained to do (which she did very well I might add). Her retort was, “I just don’t like the FAA.” I offered that this was America, and she could dislike anything she chose…I for one disliked peaches. No slight against the “peach industry”, I just don’t care for them. Within a few minutes, he returned to the cockpit, and we had an uneventful (albeit a bit quiet) flight into the Twin Cities.
We would go on to crew many flights together over the next several years (mostly in Asia). Side note: she was raised in Japan to missionary parents and spoke fluent Japanese. Thus, I always felt like I had a personal interpreter as my cockpit contemporary. This came in quite handy many times explaining an issue to a ticket agent or one of our maintenance staff. More than once, when we were having a problem with one of the systems on the Boeing, I would explain the problem in detail to the mechanic and they would acknowledge with a rather stern nod, but I could tell they were not truly grasping the issue. She would step in, launch into a litany of her best Japanese, and smiles would break out all around. The (now smiling) vigorous head nodding would begin, and we would ALL be back in our “happy place”. The “language of aviation” is absolute, the ability to communicate it across verbal barriers is most certainly not.
We logged time in sunny skies over vast oceans and on dark, stormy nights amongst the many typhoons that live in Asia during the late summer and Fall months. She will stand out as one of the best pilots I’ve had the joy to share a cockpit with, but I will offer this: I never heard (nor did I ask) about what may have happened in her piloting career that soured her on the FAA. I guess some things are best left unsaid.
One last tale.
Many years ago, I shared a cockpit with a young lady named Tammy. She had graduated from the Air Force Academy, and flown transport aircraft in the military. We had a great four-day trip together, but it began, on a rather interesting note.
Tammy was blessed with lots of hair, and I mean lots. Not sure if she let it loose because in the Air Force, she was required to pin it back, or tie it in a ponytail…I have no idea, and quite frankly, I didn’t care. Picture the 80’s “big hair band” Vixen, OK, maybe somewhere just shy of that was Tammy. While sitting at the gate in Minneapolis making the jet ready for our first departure on the first day of the trip, we had a visitor to the cockpit. It seems a lady boarded the jet, looked into the cockpit, and became quite excited. After getting permission from the Purser, she entered the cockpit, and proceeded to shake Tammy’s hand profusely, and congratulate her on being a pilot…you’d have thought Tammy had just invented the longer-lasting light bulb or something.
As the lady left the cockpit, I could tell that Tammy was miffed…well, more than miffed, she was genuinely pissed off. Paint me confused. When I inquired as to why she was so upset, Tammy let loose with a tirade of “I’m sick and tired of people only seeing a woman pilot in the cockpit…I’m a PILOT damn it…. not a WOMAN pilot.” She ranted and raved a bit more, and when she was done, I gave her my .02 cents worth of opinion. I offered that the lady genuinely meant all the praise thrown her way and that she was indeed a “semi” rare species; being a woman in a predominantly “male thought of” profession. But mostly that she should take the lady’s comments and praise in the flavor in which they were offered.
I guess I actually didn’t give Tammy’s concerns too much thought, but through the prism of time, I’ve grown to agree with her 100%. Are women “rare” in aviation? To a certain extent, yes…but not nearly as rare as most that are not aviators believe, for as mentioned above, I’ve flown with literally hundreds of women in my career.
So, in retrospect, Tammy was spot on, we need to stop looking at the folks in the pointy-end with “gender/race” tinted goggles, and start seeing them as the one thing that they see themselves as: a pilot. From my own experience, I will promise you that in every single case, each one of them has sacrificed thousands of hours working, studying, training, staying in shape (we take an FAA physical every 6 months), and dedicating their lives to (hopefully) one day occupy that seat in the front end of the jet.
The point of the above yarns is this; (again) the air vehicle could care less what race or gender, or any other category the person hanging on to the controls might be pigeon-holed into…that matters NOT ONE SINGLE IOTA. What matters is that the person is competent to safely operate the machine. Tall, short, large, small, left-handed, blond, brunette, brown-eyed, black, white, man, woman, …it simply does not matter, and any sane person understands such.
I’ll say it one last time, the ONLY THING that matters is this: can the person do the job? I’ll offer you this; you better hope they can. If I’m sitting in seat 22A as a passenger on that proverbial “dark, stormy night”, as the pilots are struggling to land a crippled jet on a snow-covered runway, in the mountains with a blistering crosswind, I assure you I will not give a rat’s ass if United has lived up to their nonsensical claim that “50% of our pilots will be women of color over the next decade”, but I WILL BE VERY CONCERNED if the folks they have hired are competent aviators. I’m going to hazard a guess, that if you’re sitting in seat 22B on that jet, YOU will be too.
So, let’s all wake up and end this “woke” idiocy…it only makes you look foolish and sound even worse. Granted, you may feel all “warm and fuzzy” when you’re talking about gender/race quotas with respect to your accountant, or baker, or barista, but in the life and death world of aviation, there’s no room for this insanity. If, however, you continue to cling to the importance of gender and race when it comes to piloting flying machines, then I’m afraid the miracle of aviation is lost on you. The next time you need to get from New York to Paris, I humbly suggest you take an Uber…it’s probably more your gig.
’till next time…