In the days before flying buses could haul a person from Washington, D.C., to Denver in three hours, Pat Schroeder’s father flew his light airplane everywhere: business, vacation, you name it. In succession he owned a Bonanza, Apache, and a twin Cessna. And most times someone in the family flew along.
“He felt that we should know what was going on,” Schroeder says. “I was oldest, so I ventured out there first.” She began lessons in a Cessna 120 at age 15. “Dad was always having us fly so it wasn’t quite like starting out brand-new, but it was exciting,” she says. “The thing that freaked me out: I had an instructor who was quite huge, and when he got out of it to let me solo, the weight was so different.”
On that first takeoff, the airplane’s left wing nearly scraped the runway. At least it felt that way. But she performed the requisite three touch and goes and went on to finish her private pilot training.
Schroeder chose the University of Minnesota for college because she could rent Champions from the ROTC for just 10 bucks an hour. Largely because of her pilot certificate, she got a job adjusting aviation losses for an insurance company, American Reliable. It was every low-timer’s dream. Schroeder flew a rental to wherever the loss occurred.
“I flew from Minneapolis to Pipestone, Minnesota,” she says. “When I came in to land, the wind that I was landing into was blowing faster than the airplane flew. It was quite a gusty wind. I wasn’t sure I was going to get that thing in.”
But for her actions that day, Schroeder was nominated for “One of the Most Daring or Heroic Landings in the State.” (For the record, that was an ad-hoc award presented by the pilots hanging around the airport that day.) She also took away a lesson from that event. “I became sensitive to weather,” she says. “You never want to think that you absolutely have to get somewhere, because that kills a lot of people.”
Schroeder was elected to Congress in 1972, one of only 15 women that year. (Nearly 40 years later the number has risen to 74.) Since she flew back to her Denver district every weekend (“It’s really rigorous—the campaign never really ends”), Schroeder began logging most of her air time inside one of those winged buses. As a member of Congress, she became the first female member of the Armed Services Committee. “Part of the reason was I liked to fly,” Schroeder says. “I understood some of that stuff more than other Congress members.”
And because she had that private certificate, she worked closely with AOPA. “They’re always trying to crowd general aviation out of major airports,” she says. “We worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen.” Following the first Iraq war in 1991, Schroeder’s bill allowing women to fly combat aircraft—attached to the military budget—passed the House and Senate. Less than two years later, women were allowed to fly in combat.
After 24 years in office she retired from Congress, became president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers in 1997, and then retired from that job in 2009. Really retired now, she maintains, Schroeder may actually have time to brush the dust off her pilot certificate.