Imagine this scenario: A customer arrives at the airport to be checked out in an aircraft. There are two people behind the counter. One is an attractive young woman. She’s cheerful, upbeat, and has a good command of the paperwork required to release the aircraft. The other is a slightly disheveled man in his mid-50s. Graying, balding, he’s quiet, maybe even a bit gruff. The customer finds this a bit off-putting, but understandable since anyone who spends the bulk of their day in a cockpit with student pilots at the controls is likely to be a bit disheveled and grumpy now and then.
As the young lady walks the customer to the airplane, the older gentleman follows a step or two behind, wandering onto the ramp with no obvious ambition steering him to the cockpit.
The young woman removes the cowl plugs and pitot cover. She stows them away, then recovers the fuel sample container, all the while talking about the airplane, its characteristics, and where your flight will take you today. The older man meanders about 20′ away, only occasionally looking up from the ramp in front of the airplane.
This is where the customer sticks his or her foot deeply into their maw and cements it there with purpose. “Pardon me,” they say to the young woman demonstrating the walk-around inspection, “but shouldn’t the pilot be showing me this?” They point to the fellow roaming the ramp.
“I am the pilot,” she replies, somewhat surprised the customer hadn’t been able to differentiate between the instructor pilot who has the keys to the airplane, a thorough command of its characteristics, and V speeds, and the lineman doing a FOD walk on the ramp.
Make no mistake, this happens. Unfortunately, it happens a lot. It’s one of the primary complaints of some of the most proficient, best pilots I know. They’re professionals, they’re accomplished, sometimes they’re even in uniform and yet customers still assume they’re front desk staff, not pilots. This, even though the young woman has greeted them, explained which aircraft they’ll be flying, introduced them to the aircraft, and begun the pre-flight walk-around inspection.
I’ve seen my friend Genesah Duffy referred to disparagingly on social media because she’s female and has tattoos.
But her talent doesn’t shine through for a disquieting number of us. Her gender does. And so, this commercial pilot with land and sea ratings, and a helicopter ticket, has to put up with the disappointment of being publicly ridiculed by lesser credentialed cretins because she doesn’t fit the stereotype in their mind.
Genesah flies and demonstrates the ICON A5 for a living. She’s their chief pilot on the East coast. My friend has flown with the rich and famous, and she’s flown with elated potential owners who are experiencing the A5 for the first time. She is, in a word, impressive.
After suffering the indignity of the insults she has to endure, I imagine she has an expression running through her head that’s modeled on Steve Martin’s “Excuse me” routine. But I’m sure I’m wrong. It’s hard to believe that sort of disrespect is anything but soul wrenching.
She’s not alone in that regard, either.
I recently checked-out in a C-172 with an instructor I’ve never flown with before, although I’ve known her for some time. Gabby Gress worked line-service at my home base airport when we met. She was working her way through her commercial and CFI tickets then. I always found her to be bright, capable, and hard working. Fueling aircraft in the Florida summer sun requires some drive. Gabby has that. No doubt.
She’s nearly a foot shorter than I am and weighs in at close to half my tonnage. If you were measuring by the old stereotype, it would be easy to dismiss her based on appearance alone. You would be wrong, though. Very much so. She grew up on a grass strip in Delaware. Aviation has been part of her life since her earliest days.
In fact, this diminutive powerhouse of a woman actually holds a world-record in aviation. She soloed a C-152, a C-172, and a Robinson R-22 on the same day. That day happens to have been her 14th birthday. In Canada, things like that can happen. I was more than a decade older when I soloed, and I did it in just one airplane, not two airplanes and a helicopter.
My check-out went great. Gabby is one of the most thorough CFIs I’ve ever flown with. She ran me through my paces like a pro. Slow flight, power-off stall, power-on stall, steep turns, hood work, and even an emergency descent due to a simulated wing fire. Pattern work included landings that simulated short field, soft field, as well as a no flap landing. She simulated an engine out. And we did a variety of takeoff scenarios as well.
She didn’t sleep-walk through the check out because we know each other, or because I was checking out in a docile airplane that she knew I could handle. She did her job like a true pro, impressing the heck out of me in the process.
And yet she tells me people sometimes ask her, “Why don’t you just become a stewardess?” They apparently think her interest in aviation is rooted in a desire to marry a pilot, not because she actually loves to fly.
Genesah and Gabby both tell me things are getting a bit better for women in aviation.
“They’re not as rude,” says Gabby of the people and the comments she encounters.
They’re still disparaging, unfortunately, but not as much as they once were.
I’d like to think the rest of us could do better than that.
“Aviation is a 100% viable career for a woman,” Genesah explained to me. “But it’s only going to get better if we keep promoting it.”
I can commit to that. One of aviation’s great appeals to me has always been that it’s a meritocracy. If you can do it, do it. Considering we’ve intentionally or unintentionally excluded a slew of talented, capable, enthusiastic potential pilots in the past — and that most of us would like to see the pilot population grow — I say we welcome women with open doors, high-quality service, and a real dedication to helping them achieve the dream of becoming a pilot.
If you’re very lucky, you might get to fly with pilots as qualified and accomplished as my friends Genesah and Gabby. I certainly hope so. I’ll continue to do it every chance I get.