Updated: Jun 26, 2021
It was my first day at my new job as a flight instructor at a college with an aviation program. I myself had graduated from college six months before; I wanted this job so badly I wrote my cover letter instead of studying for final exams. There were seven full-time flight instructors on staff at the time, and the one female instructor invited me to lunch. I envisioned sharing stories of our aviation careers and bonding over burgers and fries.
My hopes plummeted faster than a Beechcraft Skipper in a downdraft when Bianca started the conversation by saying,
“Let me tell you, they don’t like women here,”
referring to my new employer. “They don’t give me many students, “she said, “but the men, they have lots of students.” I was surprised, not because I was oblivious to sexism, but because it seemed inconsistent with what I had experienced during the hiring process.
My first opportunity to fly with Bianca came the next day when the pilot who hired me asked me to fly with her in a motor glider. The Grob G109B has many of the flying characteristics of a traditional engineless glider, but with the added convenience of having an engine so you don’t need to get towed into the air. Bianca had just been certified to fly and teach in the motor glider by my new boss. When I buckled in, I had only flown it one time.
After my first landing, we took off again and Bianca told me to sit back and watch her do the next landing. The motor glider required some finesse because you had to use one hand to move the stick for turning, climbing, or descending, and the other hand to deploy the dive brakes—panels that came out of each wing to destroy lift for a more rapid descent. Pulling back on the stick raised the nose to climb, but pulling back on the lever for the dive brakes made the aircraft descend.
Bianca struggled to coordinate her right hand on the dive brakes and her left hand on the stick, and drifted off to the right side of the runway as we touched down. I felt a bump as the right wheel took out a runway light and Bianca let go of the stick with a loud sigh. Fortunately, I was used to salvaging bad landings from novice pilots, and I managed to get us airborne again as I steered between the next set of runway lights. As we climbed with me at the controls, Bianca said, “Well, I think you get the idea. You can do the next landing.” You bet I will do the next landing, I thought to myself, wondering how she had been approved to be an instructor in the motor glider in the first place.
I avoided flying with Bianca again until some months later when I was asked to evaluate her ability to fly using only the flight instruments, meaning without the visual of looking out the window.
I knew I was chosen for this task because the thinking was that Bianca would not be able to cite gender discrimination as a reason for a poor outcome with me as the evaluator.
As I stepped into the cramped two-seat Cessna-152, I tried to erase the memory of the motor glider careening off the side of the runway. To prevent Bianca from seeing outside, she wore a pair of oversized plastic glasses (foggles) that allowed her to see only the flight instruments—unless she cheated.
Bianca surprised me when she chose to do what was arguably the most challenging type of instrument approach, the NDB, which uses a ground-based non-directional beacon (NDB) that transmits signals to a receiver in the airplane called an automatic direction finder (ADF). What made this choice incomprehensible was there was no ADF equipment in our airplane. There was just an empty hole, approximately the size of a box of Pop Tarts, in the place on the instrument panel where the ADF equipment should have been.
As the controller gave us headings to fly to intercept the course to the runway, I was dumbfounded as to how Bianca would know to make a turn to the runway without the ADF. At some point it became obvious that she was sneaking a peak outside. When I had enough of this charade, I pointed to the hole in the instrument panel and asked her what she was using to navigate.
“Oh,” she said, obviously flustered, “well I just knew it was time to turn.”
Really, I thought. You must be psychic.
When I told my boss what had happened, Bianca was finally terminated. I thought that was the end of the story, and I was glad to have it end because I was livid at Bianca for her lack of flying skills. I had already been turned down for flying jobs because I was told that “the last female pilot that was hired didn’t work out., so…” At the time, I thought pilots like Bianca were to blame because they set a bad example for female pilots, making it harder for me and others to get hired.
Now I realize that my anger was misplaced. I should have realized that by being angry at her, I was perpetuating the fallacy that the flying skills of one female pilot are representative of the population of female pilots.
I didn’t consider how using me to terminate Bianca’s employment perpetuated the notion that female pilots must compete against one another, instead of supporting each other in the face of our shared experiences as a minority in the aviation industry.
Bianca was an unsafe pilot, and that needed to be addressed, but my anger at her revealed more about me, and the system we were working in, than her. She might have been told many times by past instructors that she wasn’t “pilot material” rather than working harder to teach her how to fly. Perhaps she had built up an armor of arrogance and denial to defend herself from valuable critique that may have helped her become a more competent pilot. My anger should have been directed at the real problem--that gender only became an issue because the pilots involved were female.
Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., is a Professor of Aeronautical Science at Southern New Hampshire University, Science Writer, Researcher and Airline Transport Rated Pilot/Instructor. She is an industry expert on human factors in aviation and is a published author.