We’re at dinner with friends. They ask us what we do. I let Adam go first. He tells them he is an airline pilot. Their eyes light up, and the next thirty minutes consist of a series of questions for Adam and a series of exclamations directed at me regarding how fantastic it must be to be married to a PILOT! I sink a little further down in my seat and drift off to another place. This is how the conversation always goes. I wonder if there’s room for me.
A few times when I am without Adam I decide to be bold when someone asks what I do. I say, “well actually I own a skincare business, and I’m trying to finish my flight training.” “Oh cool! You want to fly too?” “Well….I already do. I am a licensed pilot.” They are always confused and then say….
“Isn’t that what your husband does?”
At the age of 14 the world was my oyster and taking flight felt easy. I wasn’t aware of the forces that would eventually come after me and try to suppress my independence and confidence. I did not question my ability to fly back then.
When I look in the mirror now, I do. I want so badly to become the woman I used to be confident I would be. Some combination of my experiences since then has resulted in this paralyzed version of myself who has become someone else’s shadow. Many people in my life haven’t noticed. That isn’t meant to shame but rather to bring light to the idea that perhaps we participate more than we think in the perpetuation of “female” societal roles and sexism. Most have simply assumed or accepted that I am now Adam’s wife. They’re satisfied with that. The few who have noticed my transcendence from bright light to shadow have been the warriors fighting for the truest version of myself, and forever I am not indebted, because they would never want such a thing, but deeply grateful.
My first instructor in high school loved me dearly but didn’t take me seriously.
We flew around in a plane that wasn’t properly maintained and always wondered why I had headaches after flying. I assumed it was my problem, because I trusted him. I failed my first check ride by not knowing the answers to the questions that he had crossed off on my study list. Several weeks later I failed my second check ride hours after my instructor confirmed that he had made sure that the airplane’s airworthiness documents were inside. When the examiner and I walked out to the airplane to begin my exam, I immediately went to show the examiner that all of the legal documents were present and up to date. When I noticed that the airworthiness document was missing, I turned to my instructor. He furiously searched his bags and the airplane. He had left the document at the airport. I trusted him.
When I got back to the airport we had flown out of, I walked into my mother’s arms furiously sobbing at the realization that these failures, though they can be perfectly and causally explained, would forever feel like and be perceived as MY failures. There’s no place in an airline interview to share this. These “failures” will be linked to my name forever. As someone who thought of the world as a really good place with really good people, this nearly destroyed me. This instructor had been a family friend, and we were all shocked and disappointed.
When we landed, (we flew from the check ride in Tennessee back to the airport in Winston-Salem where I was going to college), my dad and I walked into the flight school there and shook hands with the man I would fall in love with. He was impressive at first. It became clear later on that our relationship and my agenda as a student pilot would not be kept separate nor prioritized. After he distracted me and tricked me into thinking I was loved, he told me that I wasn’t serious enough to ever make an airline pilot. I believed him. He didn’t teach me much and gave me bad advice. Hindsight is most definitely 20/20. He ended up disappearing without any explanation and leaving me even further behind. This also destroyed me. I had seen the best in him despite the bright yellow warning signs all around me, and my heart was broken to find yet again the world untrustworthy.
Several months later I meet a female pilot at the local air show who is about to become an instructor at my flight school. I am hesitant and unsure. It would be so much easier to just walk away and conclude that it wasn’t in the cards for me. We are surely meant to find each other, and thankfully soon after we do I find the courage to get back in the airplane.
After months of being gone, I walk back into the flight school, and all eyes are on me. Everyone there believes in me and sees the light that comes from within me when I am in the sky. They also knew all along that exactly what had happened would happen. They were right to know that I wouldn’t have listened. They are hoping I won’t shatter in front of them, but they aren’t sure, and neither am I. Finally the receptionist looks me in the eye and says, “what happened?” “He broke my heart.” With compassion, she says, “I know.” Somehow that minuscule conversation, that small moment that finally broke the silence, is a huge step in healing. It takes months of forcing myself to get out of the car and walk inside until one day I am ok and it no longer matters.
My new instructor Katie values my story and teaches with compassion and kindness. She believes in me. She sees my pain and still sees me as strong. This combination of acknowledging scars and grief while also fully empowering and believing in me is truly what facilitates my “second chance.”
Why are women weak if they have feelings? Why do I need to swallow my emotions if I want a fair chance against the men of this world? That in itself is sexism, not progress, isn’t it?
I show up for my private pilot check ride. Katie believes in me whole-heartedly. I’m not sure, and I am sweating profusely. The examiner walks in. He is a friend and mentor of my ex-boyfriend/instructor. He brings this up immediately and wants to talk about our breakup before the oral begins. At first I thought that this was thoughtful of him to be so concerned. I later realized what it truly was. It was a distraction and it was an abuse of power.
Unless we shine light on moments of abuse of power, particularly of men in power, change will never come.
This day was extremely frightening as I had already failed this exam twice. I wondered if I would ever get a fair chance to prove myself. Despite the initial curveball, I passed, and there are no words to describe what it finally feels like to prove to yourself that you can do something.
Halfway through sophomore year of college, I have finally found my rhythm again. I am on my way to completing my instrument rating, and I have decided that I want to be a professional pilot. It is a challenging balance of flight school and college, but I manage to make it work, and I love every second of it.
I go home for the weekend and am told that the flight school finances I was promised have been cut off. As painful as it still is, I don’t think that it serves me to name this person. This is right before my Instrument Check ride.
I show up for my check ride with the same examiner. This is it. After this I have absolutely no money left. If I don’t finish the instrument rating now, I may never finish. It’s clear that examiner doesn’t take me seriously. He takes the entire day and takes his sweet time chatting with everyone who comes through the flight school. Many hours later when it’s time to go to the airplane, he tells me which airport we are going to. I take a few minutes to load charts and prepare and plan.
As we are walking out to the airplane, he says, “you know what, let’s go somewhere else actually.” I have no time to prepare. We get in the airplane and takeoff.
It’s time to do a hold. The air traffic controller clears me to a certain altitude and I read back the wrong altitude. He responds with a confirmation rather than a correction. I fail my check ride.
I show up for a second attempt several days later and hand the examiner his second check. I complete my check ride, and on our way to the back room where my oral had been completed, the examiner asks both of my instructors to follow. He spends the next 45 minutes tearing into them in front me and telling them that they are incompetent and that I don’t deserve the rating he is giving me.
Two years later I find a flight school in Washington where we have moved. I am very excited. This is the first time that I am getting back in the airplane after marrying an airline pilot. I am attempting to emerge from the shadows! I walk up to the front desk and explain that I need a competent and fair instructor. I have put up with enough and need the best person they have. He assures me that everyone is equally great. (That’s impossible) Small talk ensues, and everyone has a million questions for Adam after finding out that he is an airline pilot.
I am genuinely happy for him in this moment and think that surely we can both do what we love. There’s enough room for both of us right?
I am assigned to an instructor. He is extremely kind but very new. I am his first student who is trying to complete a commercial rating. We get up in the air and begin practicing maneuvers. My husband is in the back seat. My instructor is unable to explain how to do the maneuvers. My husband steps in and explains them to me. I am not angry. I have compassion for my instructor. He is kind and fair, and that means a lot. I do at the same time have a bad feeling that this is going to be a problem. Several weeks go by, and Adam continues to assist my instructor. Both of us are beginning to wonder if this is going to end badly.
I show up to the airport to be checked out in one of the flight school’s airplanes so that I can take it to do my long cross country trip. I am planning to take Adam with me. We have talked for hours about where we will go. We think we’ll fly north and then fly back down along the coast. I am so excited! I specifically request to do this checkout with my instructor. The office decides otherwise and puts me with someone else without notice. I try to be positive and patient. The assigned instructor and I go upstairs to his office to discuss the flight. We have the airplane for two hours. This instructor is extremely friendly and a retired veteran. He tells me stories for the next hour and fifteen minutes, and I try to be polite. When we go down to the airplane, we have 45 minutes remaining. I do the pre-flight and fueling as fast as I can. We get in the airplane with 20 minutes left. Someone has reserved the plane after us. We takeoff, and the instructor says, “ok we’ve got time for one landing. Make it a good one.” I smile and swallow the lump in my throat.
We take off and fly just far enough away to turn around and set up to come back in to land. We land, park the airplane, and walk inside.
In case you don’t have any experience flying at a flight school, this is extremely unprofessional and not at all how a checkout is supposed to go.
I am silently coaching myself to keep my mouth shut and not make this situation worse. The instructor informs the office staff that I am approved to fly the airplane. I pay and leave, trying to understand what the heck just happened. I go home and process this with my husband, and he too is very confused, but we decide to just move on and take note of the incompetence. A couple days later this instructor emails me and says that he has changed his mind and will need me to come back for another lesson. I respond that I cannot afford to waste more money on a joy flight, and that if I have to come back to do this again I shouldn’t have to pay for it. He never responds.
A few days later I call the flight school and ask to speak to the chief instructor. I explain what happened during my checkout and that I am happy to come back to re-do it but that I don’t think it would be fair to make me pay for it yet again. He says he isn’t going to give me any handouts, and if that’s what I’m looking for I should go elsewhere. I remain calm and try to explain to him why I should not be expected to pay this instructor for telling me stories for over an hour and for having horrible time management. The chief instructor responds that his stories aren’t a waste of my money and if I cannot appreciate all that this instructor has to teach me then I should find another flight school. I respond to the absurdity that now ensues and ask him to please be a decent and reasonable human and do the right thing. With everything in me I am hoping in this split second before he responds that he will prove me wrong about what I have experienced from men in aviation. At this point I am in tears and speechless. He fills the silence by saying, “you really shouldn’t need your husband to go with you on your cross country. You should be able to do it yourself, and if you can’t, then maybe you’re not as competent as you think and you will just have to continue coming back for flight lessons until you are.” I ask to speak to his supervisor. He informs me that his supervisor has been listening to the entire conversation and shaking his head in agreement with everything he has said to me. I hang up. This experience was at Pearson Air Field in Vancouver, Washington. If I left them anonymous, I would be perpetuating their horrible behavior, and I refuse to do that.
My instructor calls the same day and apologizes for these men. He hints that he needs no explanation because he is aware of how awful they are. He begs me to not give up on behalf of sexist men and to finish elsewhere. I return to my friend’s house in North Carolina where I am staying and cry for hours. I am done. I can’t do this anymore. Why does this keep happening? Are there truly no decent people left in the world who won’t take my money and take advantage of me………..Who won’t make this about my airline pilot husband???
Family members beg me to try again. I don’t participate in the conversation. It’s not in the cards for me. I’ll just be the housewife.
Seven months later I decide that I will apply for a few scholarships. I ask my beloved female instructors from NC to write letters of recommendation for me, and I am stunned when I open their letters. Who is this girl they are talking about? It can’t be me. In terms of my identity as a pilot, I have not felt valued in a really long time. Regardless of the outcome of the scholarships, I need to hear who I am and what I am capable of. I need to be reminded.
Adam and I pick a day to go look at flight schools. He tells me to grab my logbook, and I tell him to stay silent. No one is going to know what he does this time. This is for me. This is my one day. He agrees.
We walk into the first school. It seems nice. The airplanes are nice. There are no instructors available, but I take a few cards and hesitantly try to remain optimistic. I wonder if I can really do this. I am reminded of where this “paralysis” that I feel comes from and why it has been so easy to slide from the light into the shadows. I am suddenly re-living the past 8 years.
We go to the next flight school, and I explain to the assistant chief instructor that I am looking for a place where I can finish my training and instruct. He tells me that they are relocating all of their fixed wing instruction and asks me if I am interested in moving three hours away or to Vegas. If you know how many flight schools are in this area and also what an instructor job would pay, you know that this is a hilarious proposition to move FOR a flight instructor position. Adam immediately answers that we won’t be relocating, and I try to hold my giggles in. We get a good laugh in on our way to our final stop.
We walk inside and I explain that I would like to finish my commercial rating and am hoping to talk to someone about that. The guy to the left of the owner points to another man talking to someone else and says, “that’s your guy.” The owner does not acknowledge me nor does the man who has been designated as the person I speak to. We stand there awkwardly waiting. Eventually the designated man comes over and invites us to take a seat. I explain to him that I need to finish my commercial rating. I also share that I have had a few frustrating experiences and want to make sure that I am going to have a fair and productive experience. I inform him that as a female I expect to be treated fairly and will not tolerate anything else. He says, “you know, all the problems of the world…..they really don’t exist in aviation. Sexism in the real world….it isn’t in the cockpit.”
God truly works miracles, because I did indeed manage to restrain myself and ONLY say to him, “well, I could show you some articles sometime to prove you wrong.” He smiled and continued talking about himself.
This conversation quickly becomes a series of recommendations for what I should do in order to be hired by an airline. I go ahead and silently grant Adam permission to blow his cover because I am not sure I could keep my mouth shut at the rate this conversation is going. Adam never says a word. The instructor tells me that if I really want to get a leg up (and find a solution to this problem I am having in my aviation journey) I should just get better at systems. He says that boys know systems better than girls because they grow up learning about them in school, and if I would just learn it as well as boys, then that would be really impressive. He then talks about a female pilot he knows who flies B-17 airplanes. He says she doesn’t even know systems that well / as well as boys do, but she knows the flow for her specific airplane, so it doesn’t matter!
Well thank God! If I just memorize the flow for my airplane, I don’t have to be as smart as boys to make it as an airline pilot.
He continues for quite a while until I stop him and try to confirm that I no longer need to do all of my commercial training in the Arrow (a more expensive plane) because the test standards have been changed. He says, “no you still need to do all of your commercial training in the Arrow. The airlines want you to have it. Trust me, they’ll be really impressed with more Arrow time.”
This is simply not true.
He then tells us that he could have been a captain “right out of the gate” for Horizon, but he just loves instructing too much. I find this particularly interesting because yet again it’s simply not true, but I remain silent and continue switching between head nods and smiles. He says, “yeah they’re giving out $20,000 bonuses right now and used to give out $40,000!” He looks to us for a reaction. (Adam works for Horizon and indeed received this bonus already.) In this moment I am extremely conflicted between my need to bust out laughing and also my fury with this man’s indignation to assume our ignorance and our desire for his advice.
Adam nor I have said a word in a really long time, and he isn’t catching on. His daughter calls asking when he is going to pick her up. When he hangs up the phone I encourage him to go get her. He says she is fine and keeps talking. I try to wrap things up and figure out why this man was chosen to represent the flight school to a prospective student. I ask him about next steps and if he would be my instructor. He tells me this is just an old school flight school, and everyone is great. I keep asking specific questions thinking surely he will have to answer them eventually. He answers none of them and continues talking about himself.
The chief instructor comes downstairs, and he points her out and says, “we have women who work here if that’s what you’re worried about.”
As if the very existence of a woman working at a flight school is the solution and noteworthy. It should be the norm.
I stand up and thank him for his time. We get in the car and Adam is beyond amused with the situation. I sit in silence. It isn’t funny. It is beyond frustrating. Every word that just came out of this man’s mouth tells me that after all of the progress that we have made, we still have a very long way to go.
Will women ever have an equal chance? Will we ever be respected and appreciated as if we were men?
My intention in sharing these experiences is to shine light on the very behaviors that are perpetuating sexism.
Did I ask for his advice? Did he know enough about me to judge my experience and knowledge. I asked him questions. He didn’t answer them. Instead he talked about himself and offered unsolicited advice. Why is it that what he had to say was more valuable than what I had to say?
He will never know that an airline pilot was sitting across the table from him. He never asked who Adam was or why he was there. He assumed instead that it would be our privilege to simply hear him speak.
I would never share these stories in an interview or a professional setting. Fair or not- this kind of truth isn’t what a professional is looking for. I will have to find a way to take responsibility for all that has been my fault and all that has not, but I believe that in this setting and in conversation surrounding ways that we might make the world a better place, it is worthwhile and appropriate to explore where it is healthy to accept responsibility and where it is healthy to emphatically NOT.
I believe that there is a time to shine light on and question patterns of behavior and also a time to take full responsibility and find a way to grow from these experiences. I am choosing the first right now, because if I am ever going to finish this journey, it’s important that those who are a part of my life understand where I come from.
I am more than the Wife of a pilot.
Once I click “Publish,” I will no longer have the option to remain in the shadows. I am going to finish, and shining light on why it’s been so hard is going to help me get there.
It’s important to note that my husband has never wanted me to live in the shadows. However, as a woman, unless you fight against it, it tends to naturally occur. These words are me fighting against it.
May the world someday become a place where women are assumed and expected to be all that we currently assume of the men of the world.