Just over one in 20 airline pilots worldwide are women. Forty years ago, the proportion was even smaller. Kathy McCullough was a pioneer, joining Northwest Orient Airlines in 1981 as just their fourth female pilot, flying the Boeing 727, 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10. She learned to fly, aged 16, in Gainsville, Florida, and worked as a flight attendant for rock groups while building her hours. She flew a Cessna and Learjet for a coal mining company, and flew for the US Forest Service conducting surveillance of forest fires. She retired as a 747 captain in 2007 and now speaks to teenagers about aviation careers, and has written two books about her experiences. She tells us how it all started and how her career developed from there
My favourite physics teacher was teaching an aviation class. I needed a science elective and chemistry, my friends told me, was like cooking. I didn’t like cooking. The class taught aviation weather, how aircraft engines worked and navigation using charts. In fact, it was everything we needed to pass the private pilot written test.
We did a field trip to the airport at Gainesville. I didn’t have the money to take a ride, so I went inside for a look around. The ladies at the front desk told me they were hiring someone to work weekends. Was I interested? Of course I was. After that for every two hours I worked, I could afford a flight lesson.
I came down with mononucleosis in my final year and couldn’t finish my licence. My mom had saved money for college and, while flying was fun, she wanted me to get a “real” degree so I ended up studying microbiology, that included, you’ve guessed it, three years of chemistry.
When I graduated I did not want to spend my life in a laboratory, and wanted to travel the world. So I started waitressing and used my tip money to build my flying time. My first paying job in aviation was as a flight instructor in Troutdale, near Portland, Oregon. I loved it!
There is something about being a teacher that is so rewarding. Teaching people to do something as complex and fun as flying — watching the thrill and pride when they learn how to do a new maneuver or complete their first flight all my themselves, was what I enjoyed the most. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
One of my students wanted me to fly him to Idaho, but the weather did not look great. He flew home out of Boise for work, while I waited with the plane for the weather to clear. I saw the Forest Service airplanes on the Boise Airport ramp, and talked to one of the pilots. He encouraged me to apply as a pilot. It was an 11-page application that took forever to complete – remember this was 1980; we had typewriters back then. I was also required to break down my flight time to the tenth in every type of airplane I had flown. I updated my time every two weeks until I was hired six months later as an infrared pilot.
Infrared works best at night, when ground temperatures are more even. It is also time sensitive, so after flying a grid over each fire, we would drop our imagery out the bottom of the airplane in a bank canister over an X on the ground. Grids weren’t easy with the technology back then. We had Doppler and Omega systems. The Doppler had to be reset often by flying back over a nearby VOR station, and the Omega was so new that there were only seven satellites we could use to keep it accurate. We flew as low as possible, 1,000-2,000 feet over the ground, to get the clearest images. We had to hand fly all night long… the autopilot could not handle the parameters of five degrees heading, 50 feet altitude (the heat of the fire would pop us up if we weren’t vigilant), and ten knots of airspeed variation.
The USA was burning up in 1980. We flew Kentucky, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and California. California was the worst, and we were only allowed to fly eight hours a shift. Often we would fly eleven, just to save people’s homes. Thanksgiving was just another day, except we had turkey sandwiches and tiny pumpkin pies that were individually wrapped. Northwest hired me at the end of the fire season, because I had been updating my time with them, too. I now had 500 hours of turbo time from flying a Merlin and a King Air.
Of course I experienced prejudice and had to prove myself, but it was also fun to be one of the first women pilots. My initial checkout on the 727 as flight engineer took five and a half hours (normally two) because the instructor wanted to be sure I was safe and could fly his family. I was furious, but what could I do? I was on probation and would have lost my job if I had complained. I didn’t mind having to prove myself because I knew I could do the job. It was harder when I checked out as co-pilot. Apparently the engineer job was more “secretarial” but the co-pilot job was a threat to some pilot’s masculinity. It didn’t matter, until a group of guys decided to clean house and make each check ride an ordeal. I knew I was good pilot, but their campaign to stop me from flying got old after a while. Anyone can fail a check ride, and I never knew what to expect. Luckily, I made it through and eventually became a 747 captain.
I think it is easier to be a female pilot now, but not without the age-old problems. There are still small “gangs” of men who are threatened by smart women.
I would tell anyone interested in being a pilot the same advice I have always given: If you love what you do for a living, you will be much happier in life. Go after your dreams. Covid may slow everything down, but aviation has never been a career for the faint of heart. Yes, I am an optimist at heart.
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