Organization for women airline pilots needed despite advances

International Society of Women Airline Pilots founded in 1978

March 11, 2014

The time was 1978. The place was Las Vegas, where the first meeting of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots was held.

There had been attempts to hire women airline pilots going back to the 1930s, said retired Continental Airlines Capt. Nancy Novaes, chair of the organization and an AOPA member. “Emily Warner was hired by Frontier Airlines in 1973,” making her the first woman airline pilot for a major carrier, she said. Warner was also the first female member of the Air Line Pilots Association.

But the victory was short-lived, because it was around the time of the first gas crisis, and airlines were laying off pilots, said Novaes. “So by 1978, the ladies were feeling isolated, even when they were surrounded by friendly pilots,” she said “Because there were many who were not willing to see women in the cockpit.”

The chance to be able to talk to others who understood the problems of women pilots was a dazzling prospect, said Novaes. “So we wrote to all the airlines, asked them for the names of women pilots, and invited them to meet in Las Vegas,” she said. The organization was then founded by Beverley Bass, who was a first officer for American Air.” Bass eventually became the first female captain for a major airline.

There were 21 women at the first gathering, said Novaes. “We’re now at 215 members and growing. We get between 20 and 30 new members when we come to conferences [like Women in Aviation],” she said. “We also have our own conference, during the second week in May, because it’s easier to get vacation for junior pilots.” This year’s convention is in San Antonio, she added.   

The society maintains strict criteria for women to join. Women must serve as a flight crew member and hold a seniority number at an FAR Part 121 or 129 air carrier or International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) equivalent and possesses an air transport pilot (ATP) certificate or ICAO equivalent. They must fly aircraft that weigh more than 40,000 pounds or 18,000 kilograms flown on the certificate of an FAR Part 121 or 129 air carrier.

There are no official numbers on how many female airline pilots there are, said Novaes, but she estimated they make up between seven and 10 percent of the total pilot population in the United States. Worldwide, the statistics are even more dismal, she said.

“I’ve been a member since 1989, when I got my captain’s stripes,” Novaes said. The society offers mentoring, networking, fellowship, and scholarships, including four Boeing 737 type ratings and cash for women who want to be airline pilots, she added.

Despite advances in the industry the society is still needed, said Novaes. “Airlines are much more accepting of women pilots. For the men I flew with in the latter part of my career, it wasn't an issue,” she said. “But at the beginning of my career, they were much less accepting. One guy asked me to sign his logbook because he had never flown with a woman.”

The society offers women pilots the chance to meet with others who share the passion of aviation, said Novaes. Membership is $44 a year, and it’s a bargain, she said.

Benét Wilson

Benét J. Wilson | AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor

AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor Benét J. Wilson joined AOPA in 2011. She is working on her private pilot certificate.