Part 3: In the Cockpit with the First Female Commercial Pilot

This is the third and final post in a series about Bonnie Caputo, the first female pilot for a major US airline. Bonnie is the author of Takeoff!

When Bonnie started flying for American Airlines in 1973, the industry looked a lot different than it does today. Two of the three airlines she’d applied to (Eastern and TWA) have gone out of business, and American no longer offers the New York-to-Albany route she was stuck flying as a starting pilot.

The flying experience has become more agonizing over time, too, according to Bonnie. “Flying used to be a special occasion; passengers would dress nicely, and the service on board was friendlier,” she said. “Of course, it’s not just the airline industry—I never used to see checkout clerks chatting to each other when they could be helping customers, for example, but I see it all the time now in stores and on planes.”

Over the years, planes have gotten bigger and better, allowing for new routes to open that were never previously possible. The 777, which entered service at American soon before Bonnie left, now flies routes like the new Los Angeles-to-Shanghai. And certain piloting jobs, like Bonnie’s first position as “flight engineer,” have mostly gone away as planes themselves have become more sophisticated. 

According to Bonnie, though, there are certain things flying technology hasn’t yet fixed for pilots. “You still have to deal with jet lag. And even worse than jet lag is having to stay up on the red-eyes between North and South America, where you take off late in the evening and have to fly for hours beyond your bedtime. I never figured out a good way around it—I think I just lived in a perpetual state of jet lag,” she said.

Even years after retirement, Bonnie can’t resist the appeal of flying. After decades flying jets for American, Bonnie said, she’s finally getting back in the pilot’s seat of a small propeller plane—the kind of plane she started flying when she was still a teenager. This time, though, she’ll get to fly where and when she wants, and never end up too far from home.

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