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The 21st Century's Answer To the Wright Brothers

Father and Daughter Team Up in 737 Cockpit

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2003; Page A01

PHOENIX -- Nicole Lewis was at the controls: focused, methodical, bringing the Boeing 737 in for a landing. The rookie Southwest Airlines pilot, barely 26 years old, pulled the nose down and aimed for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on a bright morning last year.

In the seat next to her, the captain, 52, noted her speed -- 500 mph, too fast for this late in the process -- and, as he recalls it, mentally flashed through his options: Take over? Speak up and tell her she was going too fast? Or give her another few seconds to correct it herself?


Southwest Airlines pilot Mike Lewis and daughter Nicole, 27, are the only father-daughter team working for a major carrier, according to the Air Line Pilots Association. (Tom Story - For The Washington Post)

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If he spoke too soon, he knew, he was likely to hear about it from this young co-pilot.

For the rest of his life.

The captain, Mike Lewis, is Nicole's father. According to the Air Line Pilots Association, they are the only father-daughter pilot crew at a major airline.

The Lewises stand out for another reason: They are among the 2 percent of the nation's pilots who are African American. Nicole is in another exclusive group: Only 3 percent are women. If you count her youth, you're down to an infinitesimal proportion of the people at the controls of U.S. aircraft.

How she was able to succeed -- even excel -- in an industry dominated by middle-aged white men shows how much American aviation has changed since the 1963 Supreme Court decision that opened the cockpit to blacks. Why there are so few others like her is a more complex story, but one that Nicole Lewis attributes to factors other than discrimination. Dealing with management, she said, she has always gotten a fair shake. As for passengers, her race and sex aren't really an issue.

"People see my age first," she said. "I don't think they care that much that I'm a woman or a black woman. They say, 'Oh, my God, how old is she?' "

Life of a Pilot

A pilot's life is a lot of waiting -- for weather to clear, for a slot on the runway, for the aircraft to arrive -- punctuated by brief periods of intense activity and concentration when lives ride on split-second decisions. Pilots spend nights away from home and family, have erratic sleep schedules, and work under the threat of terrorism. But talk to any pilot and the main thing that comes across is a passion for flight. Most never considered doing anything else for a living.

Marlon Green, the man whose years-long legal battle opened the cockpit to blacks, envisioned this life for himself. Remembering it now, 40 years later, from retirement in Miami, he reflects on his historic fight without a trace of anger.


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