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Women with wings: Female pilots still rare in air

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Updated: September 18, 2014 6:03AM

A trip Jann Waldhauser took as a child put her on a career route not often traveled by women.

“I flew to California when I was 8 on a TWA flight and thought, ‘Wow, what a great job; these people get paid to fly around,’ ” Waldhauser thought of the pilots.

On the flight, her mom read to her an article about one of the first female pilots at TWA; it was in a magazine she pulled from the seatback pocket.

“I said, ‘Girls can fly planes?’ She told me girls can do anything they want to do,” Waldhauser recalled.

She decided then and there she wanted to be a pilot.

Today Waldhauser, 40, is a first officer with Chicago-based United Airlines flying Boeing 737s. That makes her among the 4 percent of female pilots out of nearly 150,000 pilots certified to fly commercial airplanes in the U.S., according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. Waldhauser has been a commercial pilot for more than 15 years and worked for several airlines, including Northwest Airlines.

“Flying is the best job on the planet,” she said. “You go to work. You get to do what you love. You get to go somewhere new every day. The view of the office changes.”

For Lauren Metz, who is a first officer for a major airline and also based out of Chicago, the rewards are “the enjoyment of operating and mastering a complicated piece of advanced equipment . . . bringing people safely to see their loved ones and having the opportunity to manage a team of people and solve problems as your own boss,” she said. “Aviation is never dull or stagnant.”

But it hasn’t been a turbulence-free ride for women in the male-dominated field.

Kathy McCullough, who worked as a pilot for commercial airlines, including flying Boeing 747s for Northwest Airlines, said during her tenure, on flights to Korea, male airline mechanics there would not recognize her authority.

“They would ask my co-pilot questions, which I would answer and the co-pilot would repeat,” she said.

She also once caught a fellow male pilot trying to sabotage her panel just to see if she would catch it during the pre-flight check, she said.

Meanwhile, American Airlines pilot Susan Warren, who became a commercial pilot in 1996, shared this experience from early in her career:

“When I was flying for a commuter, we had two female pilots flying the airplane, and we had a passenger that refused to get on the airplane because they were concerned that two female pilots were flying the airplane,” she said.

The environment has improved considerably since then, she added.

But women continue to face the challenge of trying to successfully balance work and family in a job where missing holidays and other special events often is the norm, pilots said.

Waldhauser, who is engaged and has no children, says some women leave the job after starting a family.

That’s because the job of a pilot is not flexible enough, McCullough said.

Pilots often start at low-paid positions with smaller carriers where they can work for years building seniority before they can access the better schedules, equipment and routes, and when they move on to higher-paying jobs at the major airlines, the seniority clock starts all over, pilots noted.

Warren, a first officer, said she opted not to pursue a captain ranking or work on the biggest planes. Instead, she chose to work as a high-seniority pilot flying Boeing MD-80 and 737 airplanes, which enables her to have a more family-friendly schedule.

Job sharing, shorter schedules and longer leave periods would help attract and keep more women in the career, McCullough said.

Despite the challenges, the pilots said they love their careers, and one noted it has given her the opportunity to travel with her children and broaden their horizons.

It’s important to get “more education out to a younger group of people . . . at [the] high school or junior high level, to [make girls] aware that it is a career possibility and an awesome career possibility,” said Waldhauser, who has spoken at high school career days and is a member of Women in Aviation International, which is working to attract more women to the industry.

Each year in the city where Women in Aviation holds its annual convention, it hosts a one-day program for girls ages 10 to 17 to learn about aviation careers, said Peggy Chabrian, president of the Ohio-based nonprofit. She launched it in Cahokia, Illinois at Parks College in 1990. Women in Aviation is planning to expand the girls program in 2015 to all 85 cities internationally where it has chapters, including Chicago.

The career should be on the radar of more women, female pilots said.

It’s a job with a wide pay range. While the Labor Department notes the median salary nationally is about $98,000, starting salary for a first officer working for a regional airline ranges from $15,000 to $30,000, and at a major national airline ranges from $35,000 to $60,000, according to the Air Line Pilots Association. For a high-seniority captain working on the largest equipment at a major airline, pay ranges from $240,000 to $280,000.


Twitter: @KnowlesFran

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