Part 2: In the Cockpit With The First Female Commercial Pilot

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

 Bonnie had flown hundreds of charter flights before, but never flown for a major commercial airline.  Although the civil rights movement for women was at its peak when Bonnie was flying, sexism still ran rampant.  Once, she was assigned to fly Ted Williams on a charter flight to visit some orange groves in Wachula, Florida. He was a decorated navy pilot, and when he got on the plane, he was quite surprised to see a woman onboard. “Where’s the pilot?” he asked.

 By contrast, American Airlines had looked beyond her gender in offering her a job in 1973. But like all starting pilots, she was lowest in the “seniority” system, meaning she’d have last pick of which flights she wanted to take.

“For the first few years, I usually ended up as the ‘flight engineer,’ the lowest rank, on a 707 or 727,” Bonnie said. And she’d often end up on the agonizingly early 6 AM flight from JFK to Albany.

The next step up in the cockpit was copilot, and she held that position on most of her flights for another year. Finally, she reached the top position on most flights—pilot—and began to get assigned to the routes she wanted.

“I loved to fly the 757; it felt like a sports car. And when I had a choice, I’d fly internationally, especially to Europe and the Caribbean. The Caribbean was fun because the airports were so small; you knew the ground agents and the Air Traffic Controllers by name. I even played tennis with them in Barbados!”

After Bonnie had children, she oriented her flying schedule towards being home as much as possible. That usually meant picking the flights from JFK to San Francisco or Los Angeles, which let her leave her house at 3 PM, fly to California, stay overnight, and fly back the next morning, getting home just in time for dinner. Bonnie also passed up the chance to learn flying the 777, since she knew it would result in a lot of time away from home.

After 26 years of flying commercially, Bonnie took an early retirement at the age of 50. “I could have been the most senior pilot at the company if I’d stayed until 60,” she said, “but I wanted to be home.”

 Next Week: a look back at changes in the airline industry since Bonnie started flying.

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