Famous Pilot

Howell-Warner: 1st woman to be hired as a pilot by major U.S. airline

January 17, 2014


Emily Howell Warner says her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, so after graduating from high school she looked into becoming a stewardess.

“But you had to be 21 because they served liquor,” she recalls.

A friend suggested she instead become a pilot; a flight on Frontier sealed her decision. “It was a great flight. We went over the Rocky Mountains in the winter with all the snow,” she says. “On the way back, …  knowing I was curious, they invited me up into the cockpit. I sat in the jump seat between the co-pilot and pilot, and it was fantastic looking out that front window.”

Once back on the ground, the pilot suggested she take lessons if she liked flying that much.

But Howell Warner didn’t just become a pilot. In 1973, she became the first woman hired as a pilot by a major U.S. airline, Frontier. Three years later she earned her captain's wings, also becoming the first woman to do so. Now retired, the Colorado native will be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Ohio in October 2014. In 2001, she was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and her Frontier pilot’s uniform is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Needless to say, the jump from student pilot to commercial pilot wasn’t easy. Howell Warner started flying in 1958 and took a job as a receptionist for Clinton Aviation Co. to pay for her instruction. Slowly, she amassed her private, commercial and flight instructor certificates, as well as instrument and multiengine ratings, and rose to the positions of chief pilot, flight school manager, and FAA pilot examiner.

She did anything and everything to build her hours. She flew airplane parts elsewhere or picked up planes. She instructed other student pilots. At one point, she flew a reporter doing traffic reports.

Meanwhile, equal rights had started in the country, she recalls. However, things were still far from equal.
“I was getting tired of sitting and watching male flight instructors get enough flying time and go off to the airlines,” she says. “I wanted to do that.”

For five years, she applied to various airlines with no luck. Then a friend who worked with Frontier took her under his wing, so to speak, and introduced her to the vice president of flight operations there.

“That got my foot in the door,” she recalls. Still, it took the wife of Frontier’s president to help her get the job. “I walked into the president’s office and he had me sit down when he said, ‘Do you mind if I make a phone call?’” Howell Warner recalls. He talked to his wife, telling her that he had a woman in his office that Frontier was thinking of hiring as a pilot, and he asked for her input. While she couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation, it must have gone well since she got the job.

Her first flight was out of Stapleton International Airport near Denver, and as she taxied out the controller noted history was in the making since the first woman pilot was on the plane, and he welcomed her to the blue skies. Other pilots chipped in their welcome over the radio. “It went on for a few minutes, and then the controller told everyone to get back to work,” she recalls. “I got down to the real business, and the glory was over.”

Although she was officially a pilot, Howell Warner says she at first felt alone since the crew really didn’t take to her. Even the flight attendants weren’t so sure about her. “But once I flew with the second most-senior captain and he accepted me, then I finally became one of the fellas.”

Howell Warner continued to fly with Frontier until they went out of business in 1986. After she flew a short stint with Continental Airlines, United Parcel Service hired her as a B-727 captain. In 1990, she quit UPS to work for the FAA as an aviation safety inspector for the B-737. She also worked as theB-737 aircrew program manager for United Airlines.
She has logged more than 21,000 hours of flying time, and today flies at least once a month in a Cessna 182 and is active in many aviation groups.

Her advice to others thinking of becoming a commercial pilot is to take it one step at a time. “If you are graduating from high school and your parents ask you what you’d like for a graduation present, ask for a few flying lessons,” she says. “You’ll find out quickly if you like it.