February 1, 2011
By Jill W. Tallman
Judy Birchler has loved tailwheel aircraft since she learned to fly in an Aeronca Chief 38 years ago. She wanted to know if there were other women who felt the same way. So she set out to create a like-minded community with the Ladies Love Taildraggers website.
When she launched the site in 2009, Birchler expected only to find a few lady taildragger pilots who were interested in $100 hamburger flights. “All the boys get in their airplanes. They fly to breakfast and lunch. They don’t mind me tagging along, but I wanted to go with some women,” she recalled. “I figured there had to be women out there, but I didn’t know anybody. I kept asking everybody, ‘Do you know anybody who has a little Cub or a Champ?’”
She thought she’d find female pilots from the Indianapolis area (her airplane is based at Mount Comfort Airport), and perhaps from nearby Kentucky and Illinois. To date, the site has drawn 125 pilots from all around the nation and Europe as well, and more are registering each week.
“I knew, because it’s the Internet, I would reach other women,” Birchler says. “[But] I had no idea how well it would take off.”
Its mission is straightforward: “To encourage women everywhere to have fun flying taildraggers!” Registrants can share blog posts and photos, upload their contact information to a Google map, or add events to a calendar (2011 is already well-populated with everything from airshows to EAA chapter activities).
How many women pilots fly taildraggers? That’s a good question, and one that Birchler hasn’t been able to answer. The FAA tracks certificated pilots but it doesn’t break them down into such a category. But to make a wild guess, if there were 36,808 active women pilots in 2009—the latest year for which the FAA has data—and 30 percent of them are tailwheel pilots, that adds up to about 11,042.
In the summer of 2010 Birchler hosted a Ladies Love Taildraggers fly-in at Moraine Airpark in Dayton, Ohio. The event attracted 25 participants; 12 flew in and the remainder arrived by car because of dodgy late-summer weather.
“We had awful weather that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It was every extreme—thunderstorms, low ceilings, poor visibility, with brief times when you could get up there and do some fun flying,” Birchler says. She’s planning another fly-in, Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, and hopes that cooler temperatures will prevail. Women pilots of all types of aircraft are welcome. The focus of course will be on conventional-gear airplanes, and if you weren’t a convert before, chances are good you’ll be one when the weekend is over.
Birchler and her husband, Boyd, both learned to fly in a side-by-side 1946 Aeronca Chief. “That was a mistake,” she says, only half-joking. “I love tandem. … You can see out of them so beautifully. You’re just hanging out there.”
She got her certificate at age 19, and flew regularly until she turned 33. She had purchased a one-third share in a 1940 Porterfield, and flew it so often that her two partners were a little annoyed that she was putting so many hours on an antique aircraft. That didn’t faze Birchler, who sold her interest and purchased a 1946 Cessna 140.
Judy Birchler and her Aeronca Champ.
At age 33 Birchler was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. She let her medical lapse because “in those days you just didn’t get a medical anymore.” She went from being a fervent pilot in command to a navigator and co-pilot for her husband. In 2007, however, she returned to flying as a sport pilot and purchased a 1958 Aeronca Champ. “It’s just a perfect airplane for me,” she says of the blue and white airplane she calls her “Happy Champ.” “I want to fly them all, I want a piece of all of them. Whatever it is, I’m just intrigued by them all.”
LadiesLoveTaildraggers.com is open to all women pilots who have an interest in flying tailwheel aircraft, from student on up. Birchler says the website’s participants particularly enjoy sharing photos of each others’ airplanes and progress in learning to fly a taildragger. Meanwhile, she is thrilled to provide a place where women can meet others who prefer flying the airplane with the small wheel in the back. “I’m passionate about it and I love it and there’s nothing I’d rather do when I’m not working,” she says. “I wasn’t sure that everyone else felt that same way, and that has been the remarkable thing. They’ve made a decision that that’s what they love.”
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.
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