SIX YEARS AGO Barbara Garrett, a pilot for Eastern Airlines, was making a routine check of her airplane when a Miami airport security guard grabbed her away from the plane for questioning.
Garrett tried to convince him she was just doing her job. The guard called another employe at security headquarters and asked if there were any female pilots flying out of Miami for Eastern. He said he had never heard of any. The guard was convinced Garrett was trying to put a bomb on the plane. He started swearing at her. Garrett ran to the plane and locked the door, but the man ran after her and began to beat on the cabin door. Finally, the captain came out on the field and asked the guard what he was doing.
"There's a woman in there who's dressed up as a pilot," the guard said. The captain was furious. "That isn't a woman. It's our flight engineer."
Garrett laughs forgivingly when she tells this story. There were only three women who qualified as commercial pilots when Garrett began as commercial pilots when Garrett began flying for Eastern Airlines - she's the company's first (and still only) female pilot.
Out of the 45,000 American pilots in the industry only 110 are women, and less than a dozen are flying for European airlines.
Although entering into a traditionally all-male profession has not been easy for some, few will admit to any harassment or acceptance difficulties from male workers. After being subjected to more than a half-dozen interviews, these women apparently have learned to speak in the modulated tones of a public relations officer. Polite stories about their rise to the skies are rehearsed, and their tales about company loyalty verge on evangelism. Most say their company is the finest and the standards the highest.
One man who flies for Delata (and refused to give his name) explained that theirs is a business where you keep your nose clean and you do what the company asks. You especially don't complain to the press. He did say that even though the men pilots don't slander their female co-workers when flying, most would rather not fly with a woman. He added that being a pilot calls for and attracts a very powerful, if not macho, personality.
The women pilots interviewed were more committed than forceful, and more hesitant than bold. They are still trying out their wings with the media.
Terry Reinhart, a pilot for Western Airlines (now on maternity leave of absence), explained in a recent interview that the cockpit is one place where sexuality is no substitute for professionalism. "There is no way you're going to fool people because you're a woman. In the long run, you've got to be able to do the job. We all had to go through the same physical and psychological tests as the men."
Cindy Rucker, a flight engineer for Western Airlines, is aware of some resentment, but relies on her sense of humor and "well-developed survival" tactics to balance her temper. Rucker left home at 15, supported herself as a rock musician through high school and college, and at 22 opened an extremely successful advertising agency in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Rucker had learned to fly.
"I wanted to by a plane for the company. So I wrote a hot check for $7,000, bought the plane and went out to find a loan to cover the check," she said.
By 1976 Rucker had given up her advertising business to fly full-time. "All my friends threw up their hands in dismay. They couldn't understand giving up a successful business at 28 years old to become an airline pilot. I spent all my money buying air time and getting experience. It got so bad that I had to 'steal' my own airplane to keep it from being repossessed," Rucker says.
But within the year, after almost 3,000 hours in the air, Rucker was hired by Western Airlines as a second officer on a Boeing 727. "Western has some of the toughest requirements in the business and I didn't want to go after a company that would give me a gift . . . Resentment comes from airlines that make exceptions for women," remarked Rucker.
One of Piedmont's copilots, Denise Blankenship, isn't interested in questions concerning sexual discrimination. "You can train an orangutan to fly an airplane. It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman. It is basically common sense. . . I have never experienced any rudeness from any of the captains or passengers. Once they see you mean business, that you are going to fly that airplane, they leave you alone."
Sandra Simmons, a first officer and first female pilot for Braniff, agrees, but does admit to some resentment that she and Blankenship feel is deserved. To satisfy the government and fill quotas some women have been hired with fewer flying hours. They both feel making exceptions can be detrimental to the women and upsetting especially for men who have had military experience and extensive flight logs.
Though women may not have combat military experience, they have taken unfeminine jobs to build up enough hours to qualify for commercial airlines. "Once when I was flying a Cherokee Arrow I got a very strange passenger. It was a corpse," recalled Blankenship. "The plane was so small that they put his head in the co-pilot's seat and threw a sheet over it. I had to fly that way for three hours."
Like many of the women, Blankenship came from an airplane family. Her father flies for Eastern. But as an only child she wasn't exactly interested in following in daddy's footsteps. "I really started flying out of boredom," she said modestly. But once bit, Blankenship couldn't stop flying.
While still in high school she learned to fly on a series of single and twin-engine planes her father owned. To gather experience and hours she became a flight instructor, ferried new airplanes, dusted crops and eventually went to Tifton Airport in rural southern Georgia as "chief flunkie, instructor, airport bum, pilot and airport manager."
To compete with the men, however, it is not just a question of who has amassed the most hours. "Back when they really neeeded pilots, in the early 1960's, they were hiringpeople with 500 hours. So how do you equate qualifications?" asked Simmons. "It isn't just flight time. It's whether you can get along in the cockpit. You get somebody who thinks they should be a captain right away, who spends all their time bitching about having to work as a flight engineer, then you're going to have an inefficient crew," she said.
"Neither Braniff nor the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) can put you on a plane and say 'just go fly because you're a little girl.' You get strong reactions (being a woman pilot) from people all the time. This is the beginning of a new era and you can't expect things to be perfect. I can't get angry at some man if he makes some comment about a woman flying a plane. I had a guy get upset when we had to return to the airport in Denver because of malfunction on one engine. He was upset because he missed his meeting and said, 'This is what happens when you put a woman in the cockpit.' I understand this because he was in a situation where someone wlse was in control. He couldn't work the equipment so he was angry and afraid because he couldn't take over."
Claudia Jones began flying for Continental Airlines three years ago, but hadn't thought about being an airline pilot until she went into show business. "I used to have a musical variety show that played Las Vegas and I played about 19 instruments. We kept missing planes and the airlines couldn't handle so many instruments. So I thought the best thing to do was get out own plane - a Piper Cub."
Jones gathered flying hours chauffeuring the act around the country and eventually qualified for the necessary ratings to apply for a commercial airline - commercial license, instrument rating, flight instructor, airline transport rating and even a helicopter license.
When asked if she has ever experienced resentment from male workers or passengers, Jones replied, "This is the best job in the world and I really can't say I have ever had a problem with any of the men." Charlotte Wall, Southern Airways' only female pilot agreed good-humoredly: "Passengers always make comments but they are usually favorable."
Jill Brown, the first black woman to qualify as a pilot for a major airline, Texas International, wasn't quite so content. According to an Ebony magazine interview, Brown joined the Navy after college. "Actually, the only reason I went into the Navy was so I could get enough hours to qualify for one of the big airlines," Brown said in the interview.
After six months she left the Navy. "The problem was I just didn't know how to keep my shut, and in the military you have to keep your mouth shut at all times," she said. After teaching school in Baltimore and flying for a commuter airline in North Carolina, Brown was accepted by TI with 1,2000 hours (1,500 hours being the usual minimum) in a small twin-engine plane - a 15-seater Beechcraft 99. Within two years she resigned. Neither Texas International nor Brown was willing to comment why.
Col. Spann Watson of the FAA, who knew Brown, was willing to comment. "This thing indicates a setup, a rat. It is not normal for a person to go from a conventional airplane to a high-performance jet with the kind of time they give them for transition. It is a hazardous gamble to hire someone from a small plane. If she had 16 or so years of flying it would be different. I don't know if TI shepherded her through or if they just let her fend for herself."
Almost all the women pilots who had to fight their way into commercial airlines are disturbed by any kind of special help or extra training just to fill hiring quotas. They emphasize the importance of being the best pilot they can be - not a female pilot and not a celebrated individual. "I haven't done anything special being an airplane pilot. It is just history that makes us unique," said Rucker.
Because women have been involved in a commercial flying only since the early '70s, most haven't enough seniority to become captains. (Promotion from flight engineer, or second officer, to copilot, or first officer to captain is on a first-come first-served basis.) Some of the flight engineers who are usually qualified pilots find the job of monitoring the electrical systems in the plane boring. But all are enthusiastic about advancement in the future.
"The future for women at Eastern is good if they have the training. We aren't saying we want the first 50 women that come down the pike, but . . . we haven't had an active hiring rate until recently because so many people were furloughed in '73 and '74 when the company was almost bankrupt," said June Farrell, regional public relations manager for Eastern, after being reminded that Eastern employs only one woman pilot. "We had to wait until we could put all these people back on. We want the best people. It doesn't matter what they are," she said.
"There is a quota that we have to fill and we are makin an obvious effort to improve our standing," explained Jim Linse, public relations manager for United Airlines in Washington. "We now have 25 women pilots and five more in training. We have not lowered our standards for men or Martians, but we are taking affirmative action. The future for women at United is excellent. We'll never go back to where we were," added Linse, referring to a discrimination suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against United a few years ago.
"We are beginning a period where a lot of men who came out of World War II into commercial flying are retiring, so women pilots are going to progress very rapidly in the next five to eight years," Linse predicted.
It is happening already. Last month North Central Airlines announved the first all-female flight crew to pilot a schelduled U.S. commercial jet. The crew, captain Barbara Wiley and first officer Ramona Larson, flew the Convair 580 propjet from Chicago to Kalamazoo without interruption - until they landed and were bombarded by another round of reporters' questions. CAPTION: Picture 1, Piedmont copilot Denise Blankenship; Picture 2, Continental Airlines pilot Claudia Jones; Picture 3, Western Airlines flight engineer Cindy Rucker.