My intended career didn’t go as planned. Graduating college in 1984 with a degree in East Asian Studies and Chinese language did not offer many career prospects. I led a couple of tour groups to China that year for a startup company in Manhattan, but at a rate of $40.00 per day, the prospects weren’t the makings for a career. So I needed to go to Plan B, even though Plan B didn’t exist… yet. Then, one day later that year, I sat on the beach contemplating my future when a small plane buzzed overhead. That was it! I recalled a childhood goal I had set for myself to learn to fly, and it immediately became Plan B.
Armed with no knowledge of aviation, I showed up at the local airport and signed up to take flying lessons. It was a leap into a world with few women, but I was welcomed by the flight school and its owner to take full part in what they had to offer. Of course, “full part” meant working for the flight school so that I had some bit of income in those lean years. My new job was to be the official “lineman” (aka “lineperson”) on the airfield—driving the fuel truck and filling small airplanes and corporate jets, keeping the flight school bathroom clean, and scrubbing the bellies of the flight school airplanes. Somehow, though, I did it with a smile on my face knowing I was on my way to becoming an airline pilot.
There were other women I met along the way who had private pilot licenses or even an instrument rating, but few who were aiming to fly for a major airline. My instructors and my mentors were men. If there was a potential gender limitation, it never occurred to me or made me question the viability of my career choice. Instead, I plowed forward earning my private license, instrument flight rating, commercial license, multi-engine rating, etc. I was building my flight hours toward the unspoken goal of three thousand, when major airlines might look at me as potential candidate.
The Path To Pilot
The flying hours were hard-earned as I worked it from different angles – flight instructing, flying night freight, towing banners, towing gliders, flying charter flights, etc. Some of the unscrupulous companies I worked for had me flying malfunctioning airplanes under very questionable conditions but, in my quest, I did what I was told, knowing that behind me there was a line of male pilots ready to take my job at a moment’s notice. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been that way if I’d had confidence in my own worth, but as a young woman in her twenties with little more than defiant determination, I pushed through those years.
In the end, I accumulated the needed hours to apply to the airlines and was hired by Trans World Airlines in 1989. On September 24, 1989, I reported to my assigned training class in St. Louis for the Boeing 727. The training was intense, more so than in college or for my flight licenses and ratings thus far, but, because I was the only woman in my class of about twenty-five, I was more determined than ever to be successful. Actually, not just successful, but top of the class. It was a matter of pride and proving that women were as competent as men in the world of flying airplanes. It was a proud day six weeks later when I graduated with the Flight Engineer-Turbojet rating and a place as second officer in the TWA cockpit.
Fast Forward To The Present
It is a whole different world now for women in aviation, and for aviation in general. The risky jobs I had in my climb up the ladder are fewer. Female crewmembers in their uniforms are a common sight in airports. Sometimes, you’ll even see an all-female flight crew! The bottom line is that it’s a great time for young women to pursue a career in aviation. There is a shortage of pilots, and that is expected to grow in the coming years. So, if you’re interested in taking this path, you’ll find a multitude of opportunities!
This guest post was authored by Beth Ruggiero
Beth Ruggiero York has had a multi-faceted career – airline pilot, Chinese language translator, professional photographer and now, author. Her new book, Flying Alone: A Memoir, takes readers on the wild ride of her pursuit to become an airline pilot in the 1980s. The book comes out on October 14, 2019 and is available on Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Learn more about Beth at www.flyingalone.net.