May 1, 2013
Photograph by Ryan Ketterman
She just didn’t get it. After snagging her certificate at age 17 and setting a cross-country record flying in the Powder Puff Derby, Angela Masson’s first job was instructor for the Claire Walters Flight Academy in Santa Monica, California, which had a contract to give Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine student pilots their first 40 hours. While her students would go on to fly military jets, Masson was stuck training them as a civilian, logging more than 1,000 hours in single-engine piston airplanes. “Then here comes an ex-student with an A–7,” she says. “These guys knew how to fly because of me, and I was really upset that they were going on to fly with the airlines and the astronauts.” Women, on the other hand, could fly as civilian instructors or charter pilots so long as the aircraft had a piston engine and civilian markings, or they could be stewardesses. The good jobs, the military flying jobs, were closed. So was the airliner cockpit door.
That led her, at 24, to write her Ph.D. dissertation, “Elements of Organizational Discrimination: The Air Force Response to Women as Military Pilots.” After she defended it, the dissertation was presented before Congress during hearings on opening the military academies to women. American Airlines chief Robert Crandall read it, and then things began to happen—at least for Masson.
“I got offered test-pilot school,” she says, “but I had just gotten married and I turned it down. A couple months after that I was hired by American Airlines, then NASA called me and, being the little brat at the time, I said if I’m not going to pilot the shuttle I’m going to wait. Maybe I should have done it—they took [mission specialist] Sally Ride.”
Masson spent more that 30 years with American, seven as a flight engineer, four as co-pilot, and more than 20 years in the captain’s seat. “I was the second woman pilot hired by American Airlines, the second captain, and the first chief pilot,” she says. “I looked at every day as challenge. Weather, mechanical, passengers—if you’re going to have a problem it’ll be one of those.”
At 58, Masson retired as the airline’s most senior female pilot; then, with 20 other women, formed the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Elected president, she stepped down last year. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida, and bought an old Baptist church, where she keeps an aviation library, trophies, and her eight world speed records. She paints (her first show was in Italy, at age 18) and invents, and on weekends you can likely find her at the local airport.
“I have 26 logbooks full of flying,” Masson says. “It’s almost repetition when I look at the flights, but none of them are the same. It’s always a wondrous adventure of the sky, of the sun, stars, and the planets. I never got tired of it.”
Total Time: “I always put 10,000 plus. I don’t know exactly, but I have a lot.”
Favorite Aircraft: “I love all airplanes—if it flies, it’s fun.”
Aircraft owned: Scottish Aviation Bulldog
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