When Rita Slemp walks through National Airport dressed for work, blase businessmen drop their newspapers. Traveling companions look at each other and say without words: "Did I see what I think I saw?" Others aren't so subtle. One middle- aged man turns to another and says, loudly, "Uh-oh."
Although she is better known by her nickname, Roxi, and could pass for a college student, the short blond 30-year old in the black pants, white shirt, black tie, black jacket with epaulets, gold wings, and visored hat with gold trim, is unmistakably an airline pilot -- one of only 140 women in the Air Line Pilots Association. The association's male membership is more than 33,000. Slemp's employer, USAir, has only 22 women pilots among its 1,700 pilots, but that is more women pilots than any other major airline.
None of those statistics would have pleased aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart were she still alive. In 1932 Earhart wrote: "Some day, I dare say, women can be flyers and yet not be regarded as curiosities."
Not yet, Amelia. Last month, after Slemp had landed a DC9 at Tampa, a young man from back in the passenger compartment retrieved his fishing rod from the storage bin then peered into the cockpit and said: "Where's our female pilot? Hey, lady, good job." A mother on the same flight saw Slemp in the cockpit, turned the head of her young son and announced excitedly, "Look, a woman pilot."
Slemp isn't certain she'll ever be an unremarkable sight in the cockpit: "We're definitely over the hump, but it may never be completely integrated." Growing up in Tulsa, Slemp watched TV reruns of "Sky King." "He had a neice named Penny who was a teen-ager. He had an airplane. I thought it was so cool," she says. "The family went around and rescued people. That's the first thing that made me think I wanted to be a pilot."
Recently Slemp flipped on a TV to find her equivalent of Proust's madeleine: an episode of "Sky King" in which Uncle Sky was teaching Penny how to fly. "It was terrible!" she says. "I couldn't believe I ever liked it."
In 1976, the first year the Air Force accepted women for pilot training, Slemp, then a 21-year-old student at the University of Oklahoma, joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard. Women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft, so for four years she tried to transfer to a Guard unit in another state that flew the 300,000-pound mid- air gas stations called KC-135 tankers. In 1980 she was accepted into the Arkansas Air National Guard, then was sent to Air Force flight training at Lubbock, Texas.
Her mother Harriett says she never tried to discourage her daughter from flying. "I always let her do just about what she pleased. She was going to do it anyway." Slemp had been a skydiver in college, and her mother was glad she "decided to fly in airplanes and not jump out of them." Slemp, who is single, lives on Capitol Hill. Each working day she starts out at National Airport, USAir's headquarters and, as her flying schedule requires, may land back in Washington several times a day, which she admits is a test of skill.
"People ask me all the time what airport I think is the worst. I think it's National . . . There's the noise abatement, the bridges, the USA Today building it's the color of the sky on a cloudy day . . . the White House, you can't fly over that because Reagan says he has SAM missles in the basement . . . You don't get complacent flying in and out of National."
Recently Slemp and captain Dennis Hoffman, 44, a 21-year USAir veteran, started on a Monday afternoon flying a light two-day schedule: Washington to Hartford, to Philadelphia, to Clveland, to Indianapolis, where they spent the night. The next day was Dayton, then Washington, then Tampa, then back to Washington.
Hoffman and Slemp had shared a cockpit only once before. "Roxi was the first girl I've ever flown with," he said. "I was more aware that she was there than I would be with a man, but there was no problem. It had to happen. It seems foolish not to use everyone's talent. She loves the job, you can tell."
Slemp's duties begin with paperwork. She fills out the flight plan, giving the expected altitude, airspeed, fuel consumption, and alternate (in case of emergency or bad weather) airports. She also keeps the crew's paylog, and, in a small maroon notebook, her personal flight log. "There's a saying in the Air Force," she says, "that when the paper equals the weight of the airplane, you're ready to take off."
Next she inspects the plane, which has just arrived from Columbus. She pulls out a pair of earplugs she ays keeps in a pocket and checks the tires, the hydraulic lines, moves the ailerons, tests the lights and the lock on the "Cooper" door. The door is named after infamous sky- jacker D.B. Cooper, who parachuted out such a door in 1971.
Hoffman and Slemp have been at the airport since 2:30. At 3:15 they are in the cramped cockpit.
They test their emergency oxygen masks, buckle themselves in, put on actual aviator sunglasses, and go through their pre-flight checklist. Hoffman flys the first leg to Hartford, with Slemp at the radio. During the takeoff, she focuses on the airspeed indicator, calling out critical speed checkpoints as the DC9 charges down National's short runway. This is the trickiest moment of the flight, but neither piolot nor copilot shows the slightest tension. William Leefe, vice president of flying for USAir, says the company gets about 50 applications a day for pilot jobs. USAir has 20,000 applications on file. Leefe says most applicants meet minimum requirements, including: 2,000 hours of flying time, a first- class physical with no waivers; two years of college; and a commercial, multi-engine FAA license with instrument rating. Last year the company hired 206 pilots. USAir does not specifically seek women applicants.
Leefe says airlines look for a certain personality type -- not the romantic daredevil longing to soar above earthly constraints. "The first thing we're looking for is a stable, mature individual." He finds an analogy in another profession: "An accountant is a good fit." Say again?
"An accountant works with figures and is a methodical person," he explains.
After 18 months of applying to airlines, Slemp got a telegram from USAir in 1983. At the company's Pittsburgh facility, she was tested for two days. The first step was a "flight" on the simulator. She did a routine take off, some holding patterns, and a landing. Then she was inte viewed.
"We talk with them for a while, see if they're comfortable with us. We just ask some general questions about flying," Leefe says. "If it's a female, we always ask: How does your husband feel about your flying, being away from home."
You ask what?
"We ask the males the same thing," Leefe adds quickly. "Some wives perceive the job as spending overnights with beautiful flight attendants. They forget some flight attendants are almost grandmothers, and there are as many men."
After four-hours of psychological tests, Slemp was given a tough physical: EKG, glucose tolerance, blood chemistry, eyes and hearing. Pilots must pass yearly physicals and simulator checks. Captains are checked twice a year.
Slemp is a reserve pilot, which means she is on call 20 days a month. At USAir pilots fly no more than 85 hours a month. And by that the airline means 'fly.' At least twice as many hours are spent on the ground between flights.
After a year and a half of flying, Slemp makes about $35,000. The average USAir co-pilot with five to seven years experience earns $60,000 a year. A captain with 15 years experience makes $110,000. Half of all commercial airline pilots are trained free by a fraternity made famous in countless movies, and in the book "The Right Stuff" (Slemp once received four copies of it for Christmas): military aviation. The fraternity has been coed since 1976. Slemp was one of two women in her flight training class of 100. Both women were graduated; 35 men were not.
Although she hasn't seen the movie, Slemp's description of pilot training sounds like "An Officer and a Gentleman" without the sex scenes. "Everyone who's been through pilot training says it's the best and worst year of your life," Slemp says.
The grueling 12-hour days were divided between flying, classroom work, and studying. Slemp loved the training planes: "The T-38 is the coolest airplane, it's so beautiful. You do stuff you wouldn't believe: aerobatics, aerobatic formations . . . You feel so special."
Classroom maneuvers were less thrilling. During "stand up E.P" (emergency procedures), a student is called on to explain his or her way out of disaster. For example, Slemp recalls, the instructor might say: " 'You're flying at a certain altitude when you hear a bang and you see your left engine instruments are winding down to zero.' Everyone is thinking, 'Not me, don't call on me!' Then the instructor says, 'Lieutenant Slemp.' You stand up, and if in the manual there is any boldface about what you should do, you recite that word for word. If you say ANYTHING wrong, the instructor says 'Sit down.' "
One by one, Slemp saw classmates drop out. Some failed too many training flights, some flunked classroom tests, some had a "bad attitude," and some got air sick. "When you're doing aerobatics you're in a helmet and G-suit and oxygen mask. It's very confining," Slemp said. A few in the class "self- initiated" their elimination from training. "That really surprised me," Slemp says, although self-doubts were common. Students wondered if they had the right stuff. "Everybody did. I did every day," she says.
Slemp, who is still a lieutenant in the Guard, now flies out of Andrews Air Force Base four days a month, ferrying military VIPs in a T-39, more commonly known as a corporate jet called the Sabreliner. There, for the first time, Slemp sits in the left-hand seat, in command of a passenger plane. Flying the Northeast routes on USAir leaves one with the impression that the only people who buy airplane tickets are middle-aged salesmen. The trip to Tampa, however, makes USAir seem to be in the business of family reunions. Flight 601 is a planeload of screaming infants and beaming grandparents.
Washington to Tampa is also the only long leg of Slemp's two-day trip. Slemp is at the controls going So Trying to create a mental image of traffic they can't see, the pilots monitor radio talk between other pilots and controllers. On the radio a woman controller is giving instructions to a male pilot. He ends the conversation with, "Good day, young lady."
Slemp laughs and says, "She should say, 'Good day, old man.'"
This morning traffic is not heavy, and Slemp is given a heading straight to the Taylor omni, an electronic lighthouse for aircraft located near the Okefenokee swamp in north central Florida.
As they approach Tampa, a controller tells Slemp to bring the plane down from 20,000 to 12,000 feet. Huge, puffy white clouds are just below.
As the plane slides through the cloud layer, there is some chop. Slemp switches off the autopilot. The controller tells her to descend to 6,000 feet. The plane breaks through the clouds and the pilots can see palm trees. After being told to make a sharp bank, Slemp spots a runway below. The plane is coming up on MacDill Air Force Base, one of nearly a dozen airports in the Tampa-St. Petersburgh area.
"Is that it?" Slemp asks Hoffman dubiously.
"That's the Air Force Base," he says.
"That's what I thought," she says, scanning the ground.
"It's just past the bridge, " he says, pointing straight ahead.
Out of the maze of cross- hatching below -- roads, parking lots, other airports, flat shopping center roofs -- appear three narrow strips of intersecting concrete, Tampa International Airport.
"I see it," she says.
The plane, traveling at about 145 miles per hour, feels suspended, drifting over traffic on the bridge, then over the thin beach, always dropping. Over the runway there is a thunk -- contact. Flight 601 is seven minutes late.
The families in the cabin gather their beachwear and babies. A woman about 18 leaves the plane crying hysterically. Flight attendant James Myers runs after her. It turns out a bad cold gave her severe ear pain during the landing.
Slemp says later that air traffic controllers kept the plane at a high altitude. "We had to come in pretty steep to land. That's why the lady cried. You don't want to do that. He kept us up for some reason . . . We had to come down at more than an optimum rate. You don't question everything they do. They're busy." Slemp has what airlines want from pilots: she is imperturbable. But she is also human. She believes that piloting a DC9 is safe, but she also knows that when something does go wrong in a modern jet, it can be very, very wrong. USAir, like other airlines, does not allow its pilots to forget. Pilots must deal with horrifying situtions in simulator checks and six times a year USAir issues a publication called Flight Crew View, which discusses weather dangers, aircraft inspections and pilot errors.
Slemp says the major accidents of recent years -- Air Florida's Flight 90 crash in 1982 in Washington which killed 81 people, and a Pan Am flight outof New Orleans in 1982 which killed 153 -- are frequently on pilots' minds.
She often thinks of Air Florida's dive across the 14th Street bridge into the Potomac. "When I drive over the bridge, I think about the people who were on it and I think, don't hit me," she says. "When you're flying you also see it from the other end. You look at the bridge and you think: Don't hit that."
Slemp's own difficult time in the cockpit came when she was with a commuter airline called Skyways, flying from Hot Springs to Little Rock. Just after take-off the cockpit began filling with a thick mist.
Normal procedure is to protect the captain. He told Slemp to fly the plane while he put on his oxygen mask and goggles. Looking back at his co-pilot, he thought she was covered in blood.
Instead she was drenched in red hydraulic fluid which had spewed from a guage. They turned the plane around, fluid spurting all the while, manually cranked down the landing gear andsettled smoothly onto the runway.
"After the pilot figured I wasn't covered with blood, all we were thinking about was what we had to do to get the plane down," Slemp recalls. "We weren't scared at all. When something like that happens, there's no panic. It's just: Do this, do this."
Once the emergency had passed, her sang-froid dissipated. "When we got on the ground, I started shaking." She pauses. "But not so much."