The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Sully’ was just a hero. Why label the Southwest captain a ‘female pilot’?

The women who fly are proud of Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, but sorry that her sex must be pointed out.

Tammie Jo Shults has been hailed a hero for safely landing the Southwest plane that lost an engine on April 17. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
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A feeling of pride swept through the small community of female pilots Wednesday as word spread that the captain who had safely landed Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 after an engine blew out in midair the day before was a woman. But disappointment tempered that sentiment: Virtually all news coverage of the incident put the word “female” before “pilot.” As a private pilot, aircraft owner and airplane racer, I shared both the pride and the disappointment.

Why not call the hero captain simply a pilot? Was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — to whom Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was aptly compared — referred to as a “male pilot” after landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River?

The story of the pilot who calmly landed the Southwest Airlines flight

And why the surprise that a former Navy fighter pilot and seasoned airline captain, as Shults is, could handle an emergency situation calmly and competently?

Part of it could be the numbers: In 1960, there were 25 female air transport pilots — licensed to fly for the airlines — in the United States; in 2016, there were 6,888, a huge increase, but still only 4.4 percent of the U.S. airline pilot population. Overall, of nearly 600,000 pilots licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, approximately 39,000 are women. That’s around 6 percent, and that proportion has held steady for decades.

But lack of exposure goes only so far as an explanation. Women have been flying for more than a century, and flying professionally for nearly as long: first for airplane manufacturers and in airshows, then for the airlines, the military and the space program. The first licensed female pilot in the United States, Harriet Quimby, received her certificate in 1911. The first woman pilot to fly for a commercial airline, Helen Richey, was hired in 1934.

Even someone who’s never personally seen a female pilot should be able to entertain the notion that there are fliers who don’t happen to be men.

The all-too-common refusal to recognize that a woman might be a pilot, and the frequent assumption of incompetence in female captains and first officers who have worked hard, trained hard and achieved positions of responsibility — taking lives in their hands every time they go to work — reeks of something else.

Consider these scenarios, the first of which happened to me, the second to a friend and the third and fourth to women who have posted about the incidents on Facebook:

The pilot who suggests that the woman with her plane parked nearby should take a “pinch hitter” course so she can learn to land it.

The woman who taxis her plane up to the fuel pump and is greeted by a line guy blankly looking around and asking, “Where’s the pilot?”

The commercial pilot who goes to an aviation conference and is ignored by the airplane salesman passing out brochures to all the male pilots in the crowd, though she may well be the most experienced flier of the lot.

The air transport pilot who is repeatedly mistaken for a flight attendant, or, if she is recognized for what she is, has to listen to passengers grumble within earshot — and sometimes to her face — that they don’t like flying with a woman in the cockpit.

The Boeing Pilot Outlook 2017-2036 — the most recent edition of the manufacturer’s annual report, which focused on the urgent need for air transport pilots — projects that to meet demand, North America will require 117,000 airline pilots. Based on worldwide demand, a new pilot needs to be created every 15 minutes for the next 20 years. Including more women in the applicant pool could double the number of potential hires, easing the looming shortage and making female pilots that much less of a novelty. But neither will happen if half the population is continually discouraged from even trying.

Maybe the evident piloting skill and professional calm that Shults exhibited will change that dynamic. After all, here is a woman who wasn’t allowed to train as an Air Force pilot, so she applied to aviation officer candidate school in the Navy instead, then spent a year searching for a recruiter who was willing to process her application and had to break barriers within the military to become one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots.

She’s been facing down those unjust, sexist stereotypes her entire adult life. Maybe she’s just the person to dispel them.