My path to getting involved with HERA was as circuitous as the route I navigated on my first solo cross country when I didn’t understand how a VOR worked. Although I knew I wanted to be a professional pilot from the age of fourteen, I would be twice that age and a first officer on a Saab 340 at a regional airline before I started thinking about having babies.
I thought my timing was perfect when I got pregnant because I had enough seniority at our small crew base of Boston to bid a schedule that had me home four days a week by lunchtime after flying four easy legs. My plan was to take a few months off after the baby was born and then return to flying the Saab, content to fly to less exotic locations like Binghamton and White Plains for a few years in return for having a family-friendly schedule.
Instead, I found myself applying for unemployment while conspicuously pregnant when my airline was sold to a company that wanted our airplanes but not the pilots who flew them.
To make matters worse, nearly everyone I knew who was flying for an airline during that time, the early nineties, was either furloughed or trying to find a flying job. Some taught school as substitute teachers, some went into real estate, and some delivered pizzas while waiting for their chance to fly again. I decided to bide my time by having another child, and that is when I was disavowed of the notion that I could dictate the course of my life.
My second daughter was born with a genetic disorder so rare that even the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) had never heard of it. Her prognosis was unknown given that most babies with this condition failed to survive the pregnancy. Motherhood suddenly became all-consuming. I longed to fly professionally again, but Ashley’s health was so precarious that I didn’t feel comfortable being away from home.
When my daughters were ages 4 and 6, I decided to return to school to become a pediatric physical therapist, hoping to be able to help my daughter and other children like her. Physical therapists also are trained in the field of ergonomics, and I wanted to apply those skills to the field of human factors in aviation. It was fulfilling working with newborns who often had disabilities like my own daughter, but after a while, it became difficult to have my professional life mirror my life at home. I longed to fly again.
Then I heard about a major air carrier that was hiring ground instructors. These instructors had secured a 32-hour workweek with full benefits in lieu of a pay increase, and sadly my physical therapy job offered no benefits and paid abysmally. After a few years of teaching initial and recurrent ground school, I applied to be a simulator instructor in the Airbus A320. When I started Airbus ground school and simulator training, the last check ride I had taken was 8 years before in a Cessna-172 with floats for my seaplane rating. Although I had lots of turbine time and experience with what was then new technology -- a glass cockpit, -- I still felt like I was scrambling to get back into the rhythm of flying.
Half of all the pilots hired to be simulator instructors in the past year had been terminated for failing to complete the training, and none of them were caring for children during the day while trying to stay awake for V1 cuts in the simulator at night.
I had no one to turn to for support and was even late getting to my check ride for my type rating because the sitter didn’t show up.
I somehow still completed training in running the simulator in August 2001. By September 14th, I would be furloughed (and soon thereafter terminated) along with half of the training staff. I went back to working with newborns.
A year later I was offered a chance to return to my home state of New Hampshire and to teach at a college with a professional pilot program. This time I went from flying the Airbus, mostly in the simulator, to flying a CAP 10B and motorized gliders. I had to get reacquainted with Part 91 flying again, and I finally got to teach classes in human factors. It was here that I met HERA’s founder, Jessica, and a number of other inspiring female pilots like her.
I often got asked about caring for children while having a career in aviation by both male and female aviation students. I felt bad that my story was less about successful work/life balance and more about sleep deprivation and resilience.
When the college closed its doors, I was fortunate to be able to work on a flight test team that was doing the final testing of a new airborne collision avoidance system. My flying days would soon be over as I became chronically ill from a rare birth defect and subsequently was diagnosed with depression. That’s when I got a call from Jessica, and she told me about HERA.
Even though I can no longer fly, I knew I wanted to help Jessica with her mission to make the skies more accessible for pilots like me who have others depending on them when they land. Although my experience involved breaks from flying due to pregnancy, I know there are pilots and aspiring aviators who are caregivers of a different kind.
There was the student in my summer class on aerodynamics who was ten minutes late every morning. When I took him aside, he revealed that he was responsible for getting his brother to school since his parents both were at work and that not taking my class would delay his graduation from the professional pilot program for up to a year. His parents couldn’t hire help because of all the money they were spending so that their son could realize his dream of flying. We worked it out.
There was the student who came from a country being ravaged by COVID and had to make arrangements for his two siblings to get to safety while trying to fit in flying lessons. And then there was my best friend who was turned down for flying jobs that her husband with less flying experience was offered because the managers didn’t want to hire a woman who might get pregnant. She later had to take care of her husband as he died from cancer while trying to keep her job at the FAA.
I know there are many more stories like these. Thankfully, Jessica was willing to do something about it. So, if some of the time I must remain on the ground can support HERA’s mission, then that is time well spent.
Dr. Shirley Phillips was a professor of aeronautical science and human factors and is an airline transport rated pilot and flight instructor with a type rating on the Airbus A320. She has a MA in science writing from Johns Hopkins University and is currently writing a book about her flying experiences.