Thursday, April 29, 2010

Your attitude determines your altitude

My last blog entry talked about Lessons from Amelia, a reflection on how people's attitudes can make a big difference in how they go about their occupation, and, as a result, on how they portray their job to others and, as a result of that, how people perceive the industry. I used the example of Amelia, a waitress I met, who certainly could have projected in what low esteem she thought her job. This would have made dealing with her uncomfortable, but instead she focused on doing things well, maintaining friendly interaction with others and keeping a positive attitude, as opposed to several others I saw in her same position that day.

Likewise, I threw some quotes and facts in there about Amelia Earhart, who is still remembered today for her poise and class as well as her achievements in the early years of aviation. Things have changed greatly for women pilots since Amelia's time due to the trailblazing of Amelia and her contemporaries in the sense that we are not specifically barred from any roles in aviation, though invisible impediments may still exist.

It didn't take long to see results: Amelia's "accomplishments in aviation inspired a generation of female aviators, including the more than 1,000 women pilots of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who ferried military aircraft, towed gliders, flew target practice aircraft, and served as transport pilots during World War II" (but really extends even to later generations).

You can see from this WASP Timeline on the WASP Museum website that it took decades after Glenn Curtiss was issued the first pilot license in 1908 (this was also the first guy to shoot a gun from an airplane, launching the age of aerial warfare) for peoplee to conceive of and implement the idea of Women Air Force Service Pilots. But the effect Amelia and her fellow 99s had on the women that would become WASP was nearly immediate.

1937 July - Pioneer aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappears over the Pacific.

1939 June – The U.S. government establishes the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). The program provides pilot training across the country and allows for one woman to be trained for every ten men.

1940 September 28 – Jackie Cochran writes to Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting the establishment of a women’s flying division of the Army Air Forces.

1941 June – Jackie Cochran becomes the first woman to ferry a bomber across the Atlantic and women are banned from participating in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

1942 March – Jackie Cochran takes 25 American women pilots to Britain to fly with the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

September – Following a proposal submitted by pilot Nancy Harkness Love to the Ferry Command of the Army Air Forces, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, is established. Twenty-five of America’s top women pilots will begin ferrying aircraft throughout the U.S.

September 15 – Jackie Cochran establishes the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) under chief of the Army Air Forces, General Hap Arnold.

November 17 – The first class of 28 recruits from the Women’s Flying Training Detachment reports to the Houston, Texas, municipal airport.

November – The WAFS fly their first mission taking Piper Cubs from LoHaven, Pennsylvania, to Mitchell Field, New

1943 August 5 – The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) merge with Jackie Cochran’s training program to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

September 30 – Representative John Costello of California introduces the WASP militarization bill.

Amelia recognized the trail she was blazing, ""[Women] must pay for everything.... They do get more glory than men for comparable feats. But, also, women get more notoriety when they crash." The WASP, too, that I have read about and had the pleasure to meet have always downplayed their groundbreaking roles. You can read some of their amazing stories on the NPR interactive site, like that of Marcia Courtney Bellassai who modestly states, "We were only doing our duty."

In fact, it may have been easy to forget the legacy of all of these women because of their public decorum (aviatrices such as Pancho Barnes excepted - with no disrespect intended). Have you ever heard the saying, "well-behaved women seldom make history?" [This was in reference to Puritan funeral services, btw.] The word is seldom, not never.

These WASP who may have made a cross country flight without a change of clothes but never without a tube a lipstick represented themselves well despite the cold shoulders or outright hostility from their male pilot contemporaries and even from the general public. And let me just say, I fully suspect that many of these women had a grand old time on their adventures, and I hope they had a lot of fun occasionally stepping out of the strict gender roles that society dictated in their time.

It took until 1977 for the WASP's military service to be recognized and until 2009 for those women to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. However, the very fact that STILL only 6% of licensed pilots are women should remind us that all of us women today with a pilot's license that we are a small minority and, whether or not we like it, we have the responsibility to recognize what we do influences how others will perceive aviation.

I am not saying that we should portray this flying thing as all rainbows and butterflies. Far from it. The truth is that flying is a an achievement in knowledge gained and skills perfected as a result of a lot of hard work. And what job doesn't have a few down-sides? We tend not to value as much those things that come easily. A little struggling makes one a better person.

Amelia herself said "My ambition is to have this wonderful gift produce practical results for the future of commercial flying and for the women who may want to fly tomorrow's planes" and so unbelievably many years later we are still working on these goals. Only THREE percent of ATP rated pilots (those that can fly commercial airliners) are women.

And, so, if we current women pilots want to encourage girls to follow in our flight paths, we must be able to discuss publicly how rewarding we feel what we do is. What a gift it is to be able to FLY. If we don't like what we're doing, we should get out. There. I said it. Just like if Amelia the waitress came to our table with a surly attitude, offering poor customer service and even worse food, we'd wish she had chosen a different career path (or at least another temporary occupation). When as an airline captain people would say it was "cute" that I was a pilot, or ask me why I was sitting so far forward in the airplane, I had to remind myself of a piece of advice that had been offered to me by another female captain, "they just don't know that they would offend us with their comments." I learned to just smile and keep on.

I would have to search high and low to find a woman pilot who couldn't convey some negative stories about being patronized by a male co-pilot or other aviation "professional." Rare is the woman who breezed through her training to become a pilot, to pass checkrides, to perhaps have gotten a career flying gig. At times, these women may even get together and commiserate about their experiences, wishing a pox on the guy in question for saying disparaging remarks about "another empty kitchen" or for treating her as bad or worse as the last (potentially male) pilot who felt the brunt of his egotistical behavior in the cockpit.

But again, this talk is pretty rare, in my experience. Any tales of woe are usually shared over a beer, or during an emotional phone call with a friend. I can tell you quite a few stories in my past, but in the sharing with the public as a representative woman in aviation I would also hope to convey to people a lesson learned from the process. For example, a captain I had flown with recommended me for a contract flying job, forgetting to delete an earlier statement in an email saying "[I] wasn't much to look at, but [I] tried real hard." I must admit I was taken aback by his comment, but on the other hand, for him to specifically think of me to recommend instead of taking the job himself or giving it to a buddy...? Ok, so its not a perfect world, but we've come along way... "baby."

Do you think he would have recommended me if I was unprofessional as he? In other words, do we have to act like these men in question to be accepted by them? Would we even want to? When I was in the military as a cadet too many years ago, I was packing a rucksack with my field gear as a high ranking officer stood nearby. He went over to my commander to let him know that I should have joined the Navy instead for my ability to swear a blue streak fit for a sailor. Like most women new to the military, I adopted the practice of populating my speech with profanity, which didn't serve to make me any better of a soldier in the eyes of my male contemporaries. In fact, I saw many instances where guys would look disapprovingly on a female spewing the same expletives they had. Took me a few years to realize I could still do a "man's" job and still be true to myself as a woman.

And so I recently had the occasion to listen to a woman in a position of some responsibility in the aviation industry tell numerous stories of captains she had flown with in the not so long ago days before crew resource management. Mostly likely these things happened also to men undergoing the same initiation in the airline cockpits of decades passed. Story after story, said with a measure of humor, but all negative and one dubious, were not followed with an, "oh, those were the days, but..." and her point. No, the stories led right into talk of how unprofessional male pilots still were and how crews were so dependent on automation and unable to communicate.

These generalizations greatly disturbed me, because when I try to convey stories of being a woman in a male dominated industry I try to balance the negative with the positive. I can honestly say the positive (both situations and male contemporaries) FAR outweigh the negative. Most people recognize a sense of balance is so important that even guys tell us stories of "the best pilot I ever flew with was a woman." And, ladies, I think many of you know what I'm talking about when I say that I then prepare myself for a story he'll tell about a HORRIBLE woman that he had to fly with. He might even mention a horrible guy, but that depends on how long the flight is.

But we not only have to work with other men, we must also work with women. And so it bothers me more than anything when people sit in public swapping stories with second hand information about a fellow pilot, and ten times as much when I hear a woman say, "Well, I heard that she..." We have no idea how that information was obtained and how biased the retelling was. And so it bothered me that. much. more. when this woman continued with several disparaging stories of women that had gone through their training program. Again, I don't know why this woman chose to swing to an extreme of thinking the more she acted hard, critical and negative, the more her male coworkers would respect her. We women pilots should be mentoring and encouraging our sisters, not publicly criticizing them, to raise the 6% to something closer to 50%. It kind of felt like I was eavesdropping on a locker-room conversation. And I didn't like what I was hearing.

All I knew was that I was embarrassed that she had been given a microphone and was unable to reflect more positively on an aviation career that taken objectively could have been quite impressive. Luckily there were no potential pilots in the room (all were at least private pilots, though they may never go on to commercial aviation careers given those retellings), but there were several men present squirming in their seats. I hope that no one invites someone with such a view of the aviation industry to speak at a career day. She is certainly not the role model to encourage future Girls With Wings to reach their full potential in whatever they may dream!

A lot of the reason I'm writing this is because in my role as a woman in aviation I want to be able to lay things out there on the table and be able to convey MY conclusion that there's nothing else I rather do than be a pilot. The next blog entry is going to discuss some of the points I do try to get across regarding gender differences, but I, too, need to remind myself not to come across as biased against men. And of course, that I am NOT perfect, but I "try real hard."

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