I was the first pilot to get pregnant at my regional airline. I was fortunate that when I wanted to get pregnant, I was flying day trips out of Boston in a Saab 340. Not only did this facilitate getting pregnant, I had a schedule Monday through Thursday that consisted of just an early morning trip to Albany and Rochester, NY, and back that got me home around noon.
I imagined after the birth, I would return to flying and be home in time to nap with my baby.
There were only four crews at the Boston base, and I could always win the bid for this trip four days a week because my colleagues didn’t like the early show time or that they made less money without the overnight per diem. I envisioned that even breastfeeding would be possible given the short day.
My chief pilot was apologetic when she explained that, given the lack of knowledge about pregnancy and pilots, I needed a doctor to determine how long it was safe to continue flying. I felt lucky I could have this conversation with a chief pilot for whom pregnancy was a possibility, even if she didn’t have children herself.
When I told the obstetrician that I was concerned about flying while feeling so fatigued and nauseous, she said, “Don’t worry about it. That’s why there are two pilots—in case one passes out there is always a backup.” I didn’t know whether to be more alarmed that she thought she needed to explain this to me, or that she thought this was the role of all first officers.
This all became moot two weeks later when the airline was sold and ceased operations with no notice. Even if I hadn’t lost my job, it wasn’t like the airline had provisions in place for pregnant pilots—pregnancy was treated like any illness or injury that might ground you for a few weeks instead of a foreseeable and natural event. Although this was the early 1990’s, things have changed little at many organizations that employ pilots.
Two daughters and some twenty years later, the dean of the school of aeronautics at the college where I was a professor threatened to fire me because I refused to teach an extra class for $800. My male colleague, who had less flight experience and a master’s degree when I had a doctorate, was offered $2500 to teach a similar class.
When I demanded to know why the dean was offering me one-third of the typical pay, he said he knew I was a single mother with one daughter in college, and one with an intellectual disability, who were dependent on me—so he knew I needed the money.
He said he was doing me a favor.
When people ask me why there aren’t more female pilots, I tell them these stories.
I want them to imagine if all the male pilots who are fathers or want to be were told, “We don’t know if you can keep flying while your wife is pregnant,” or “Your baby won’t be able to be breastfed unless you can bid a schedule that makes that work,” or even “We expect you to teach aspiring pilots for a third of your current pay because you’re a father now.” Do you think those men would be eager to enter or stay in this profession?
I’ve often had the opportunity to talk to young aspiring female pilots at a summer ACE Camp. My colleagues who also speak at these events have flown to more exotic destinations than me or have flown a wider variety of intriguing aircraft. I fear I will be uninspiring in these young women’s eyes in comparison.
Yet every year I am approached by a camper who tells me that my story made a difference because I was the only speaker who flew and trained pilots at a major air carrier while also raising two daughters. It’s not just that I’m a mother and a pilot. It’s that many of the other pilots’ stories are accompanied by admonitions that aviation is incompatible with motherhood, or pronouncements that you need to act like the men you will fly with if you want to be accepted in aviation.
Just like we design airplanes to ergonomically accommodate pilots of many sizes, we need to make changes so the profession of flying those airplanes is a more welcoming fit.
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.