When I was nine years old, I brought home the results of my state school testing that revealed I had a strong “mechanical aptitude”. Since this was the 1970s, my mom looked at it and said, “Oh great. What are you going to do with that? I guess you can pump gas at the gas station or maybe be Amelia Earhart, but why would you want to disappear into the Pacific Ocean?” Since Amelia was the only female aviation icon we knew of, it really wasn’t an inspiration to be like her.
It’s not my mom’s fault. Her perception of raising a girl in the ‘70s did not include the thought of encouraging her to try those things that had once been reserved for men. It takes a pure, clarifying leap of faith to change your perspective and as you jump, you won’t even realize you’re doing it until you land. So, the perspective I had of myself is that I never wanted to be a pilot. The thought never even entered my mind, until one day, ten years later, my perception shifted by accident.
I was working two jobs to get through college to be a journalist and still wasn’t making ends meet, so I was looking for another job that would fit into my schedule. My job washing laundry in the basement of a hotel was changing hours and I was grateful that I had to give it up. Since airports have long hours, I found a job working the front desk of a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) at a little field called Flying Cloud Airport. I took the job simply because it fit into my existing work and school schedule, but it accidentally changed my life.
After the “suits” went home and the sun set below the runways, the airport would get quiet—which is the perfect setting for telling stories. The line guys I worked with were all taking flying lessons and it’s all they talked about. I would sit for hours listening to their stories and adventures of learning, bad landings and weather testing their aptitude, but I never thought about being a pilot like them. Chicks don’t fly (but, then again, neither do roosters).
Then one day, after months of working at the airport, learning the business, and helping the other guys study for their written pilots exams (and helping explain the answers to them), I inadvertently pictured myself flying an airplane. In that flash of a moment, I had a warm rush of realization that I could do it. It was a simple shift in perspective from a detached observer to the idea of an active participant, and the belief that if they could do it, so could I.
I signed up for ground school and never looked back. I became a pilot in every sense of the word. As it turns out, it’s not any harder or easier for a woman to be a pilot, it’s hard for everyone. The hardest part was changing the perception that I was any different from them. I’m not. I was just as focused and passionate about aviation as the next guy. Since I knew I wasn’t any smarter (but figured out I was just as smart), I decided I better work a little harder since it might be hard for others to get used to the idea of a chick in the cockpit.
And I just kept going. On demand charter, 24-hour air ambulance, hazardous materials transport, executive charter, international corporate airplanes and eventually the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner. On the way up, I worked the other side of the cockpit door too and learned the aviation business. I worked in the maintenance and avionics department, I dispatched and got yelled at in crew scheduling, and I paid close attention to the aviation world. It helped keep my perspective during furloughs, two A.M. phone calls and mechanical delays. I have an appreciation for the industry because of my perspective.
And oh, what a view…
From the front desk of an FBO, to the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She is the author of A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT and her articles can be found at Plane & Pilot, Flying.com, Disciples of Flight, NYC Aviation, Contrails, Mentor, General Aviation News, Business Insider and Consumer Affairs. If you want to change her perspective, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org