“The Sky’s the Limit!”: Women pilots are slowly taking off

By Eleanor Guerrero
Thursday, June 28, 2018
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Photos by Eleanor Guerrero
Above, girls are rarely in the driver’s seat when it comes to the number of commercial pilots nationally and worldwide. (left to right): Finn and Skyler

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Left, less than 7.5 percent of the pilots are women in the major United States airlines and rate a low 5.18 percent of the pilots worldwide.

More and more women are becoming airborne but not in the numbers they could be. While there is a serious shortage of commercial pilots occurring worldwide, the gender balance does not reflect this urgency.

It’s a good time for women to fly observed Dick Nolan, who runs Red Lodge Flying School along with Ken Whistler up at the airport. He wishes more women would try flying. “The sky’s the limit!” he smiled, on Friday, June 22, about opportunities for young women.

The only girl in a group visiting from the Boys and Girls Club of Carbon County had insisted on taking her turn in the pilot seat of one of their planes.

Less than 7.5 of the pilots in major American airlines are women and about 5.18 worldwide.

Pilot Barbara Daniel, of Red Lodge says, “I'd love to see more women pilots.” She finds the number of female pilots “a staggeringly low percentage.”

It is her passion. “I've always been fascinated by aviation,” says Daniel, “ever since my parents, who immigrated in 1969 to the US from Czechoslovakia, took me on trans-Atlantic flights back to the old country to visit my grandparents.

While I would like to have pursued commercial aviation, my roadblock was that my vision in my right eye didn't meet the more stringent standards necessary for military/commercial aviation.”

Nevertheless, she persevered. “Still being drawn to aviation,” explained Daniel, “I participated in Air Force ROTC while in college and became an Intelligence Officer.  As an Intel Officer, I participated in combat mission planning with F-16, F-15 and A-10 pilots at Spangdahlem Airbase in Germany.”

She still wasn’t flying. That vision never died and her day finally came. “Once I moved to Red Lodge,” said Daniel, “I fulfilled my bucket list dream of obtaining my Private Pilot license and flying for fun.” She discovered Red Lodge Flying School.

“We have a hard time finding instructors,” observed Nolan. He noted, “All the airlines are screaming for pilots.”

Commercial airline manufacturing giants Boeing and Airbus predict a need for as many as 617,000 new pilots by 2035. The greatest demand is largely coming from the Asia-Pacific region.

Retirement is also an issue. According to Pilotcareernews.com, “A shortage of pilots is a genuine problem that’s facing US regional airlines right now, as more captains reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 and following an FAA requirement for first officers to have 1,500 hours total time as a pilot.”

Fewer young people are choosing commercial aviation providing a challenge for regional carriers. Cost can be a major factor. The FAA requires student pilots to be 16 to start their training. They can get their license at 17. Students must fly a minimum of 40 hours to get a private license. flying club students typically have around 60 hours because of the weather and budgets. Because of the flying club’s lower rates, a private license costs approx $7,000 for 40 hours of flying, $10,000 for 60.

Commercial pilot training may cost $40,000 or more than double to reach the 1,500 hours needed. Pilot training in the military would be free, but comes with the prospect of military engagements. Beginning commercial salaries are much lower than experienced pilots.

There are other obstacles. The Asian-Pacific market is pulling in many of the captains from the U.S. and Europe-the ones with 20, 30 years. Major U.S. airlines fly either Boeing or Airbus craft. The specific training required for these aircraft sidelines many pilots who would otherwise have the hours to replace them.

The Red Lodge Flying School has a Cessna 172 for training and also a “higher and faster” model that seats four comfortably.

Nolan said it is a great time for women to become flyers. According to Bloomberg.com, on commercial planes “women make up roughly half of cabin crew, among pilots  that ratio slides to just 5.2 percent. The International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA) say there are about  7,409 women pilots of major airlines worldwide.

The next generation is watching as women attain leadership positions of responsibility and skill. “My daughters think it's pretty cool having a mom that flies a plane!” says Daniel. “I want them to know they can do anything they want to do.  When we go through major airports, we pretend we're driving through Yellowstone and point out any bears (female pilots) to each other.”

Women have been involved with planes from the beginning. Katherine Wright, while not a pilot, was one of the first woman to fly, seated in her brothers’ airplane while in Europe to show it was safe enough for the fairest sex. (She was hugely influential in their success with marketing there and with helping run the business). The first licensed woman pilot in the United States was Harriet Quimby, in 1911.

Locally, the mother of Red Lodge resident Martha Young was one of the pioneering civilian women  pilots, attached to the United States Army Air Forces as WASPs (Women Air Force Service Pilots), but not officially part of the military. Over 1,000 women delivered crucial military aircraft across the country during World War II. They were never permitted to fly in combat. Women pilots at the time included Ann Baumgartner who flew an experimental jet at 350 mph at 35,000 feet, in 1944. Never considered military pilots, they were finally awarded veteran status in 1977. In 2009, its members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.  

Jacqueline Cochran broke the sound barrier in 1953, set speed and altitude records and lobbied for the use of women pilots in the military. Civilian women were flying over the North Pole, around the world, and through the sound barrier but until the '70s, the military resisted having women pilots.

But finally, in 1974, six women earned their Navy wings and became the first Naval aviators. The Army followed suit in 1974 and trained female helicopter pilots.

In 1976, the Air Force admitted women to the pilot training program but the military still kept most of them out of combat.

According to Aviationweek.com , “From 1976 to 1993, women pilots were kept out of the cockpits of combat aircraft - in actual combat. Even though women aviators flew during Panama, Grenada and Desert Storm their presence was ‘excluded’ from combat records.”

In 1993, restrictions were lifted and in 1995, Martha McSally became the first female fighter pilot  to fly in combat. She flew an A-10 Thunderbolt II on a mission in Iraq.

Today, women fly everywhere.

Times may be changing for costs as well. British Airways, JetBlue, EasyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Flybe and many other airlines have announced full- and part sponsored but limited, highly competitive commercial training opportunities. More are acknowledging that help for future pilots is needed. It will be a key topic addressed at the Royal AeroSociety’s International Flight Training Conference 2016, taking place in late September.

Learning to fly locally is a good place to start to see if you like it as a career, or purely for the fun of it, a lifetime of soaring.

“It’s a particularly good environment for women,” said Nolan.

Daniel agrees. “The Red Lodge Flying Club is a valuable resource for anyone interested in obtaining a license.”   

Perhaps the saying around Red Lodge should be, “Fly Local.”


Upcoming Events

  • Monday, September 23, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Now Group meets at the Bridger United Methodist Church, 222 W. Broadway (west entrance of church) Tuesday at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.
  • Friday, September 27, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Rock Creek Group meets Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 p.m. at Calvary Church, 9 N Villard, Red Lodge.
  • Monday, September 30, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.

The Carbon County News

Street Address:

11 N. Broadway, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 970, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Phone: 406-446-2222

Fax: 406-446-2225

Toll-Free: 800-735-8843

Open: Monday-Friday, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.