In the Cockpit With: The First Female Commercial Pilot

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

Women have been pilots since soon after the Wright brothers invented the airplane. And it was front-page news when Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in 1928. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the major US airlines hired female pilots.

We had a unique chance to interview Bonnie Caputo (née Tiburzi), the first female pilot for a major US airline, and relive some exciting stories with her.

Bonnie grew up around flying as her father was a pilot for SAS and started his own flight school. However, when she first expressed interest in being a pilot herself, her dad demurred.

“He was concerned I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a pilot,” she said. “And while he never said it directly, these were the days when everyone would have expected me to be ‘looking for a good man’ and becoming a secretary or schoolteacher or something similar.”

Eventually she coaxed and cajoled her way into the cockpit with her father as her first flying instructor. She continued lessons after graduating from high school, but landed in Europe as an au pair. Although she was an ocean away from her father and first flight, she could not shake the flight bug, driving her to hone her craft in Europe.

After flying enough hours, she earned her “commercial certification”—the minimum requirement for flying paying passengers. She also built up her “log book,” so she could prove she’d flown enough hours to qualify for the hiring standards of the major airlines.

She first applied to Eastern Air Lines in Florida (now defunct), and as Bonnie recalls, “they made it clear: ‘don’t call us, and we definitely won’t call you.’” TWA (also now defunct) and American Airlines responded with encouraging letters, but let her know they weren’t hiring.

Finally, in 1973, during the midst of national debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, Bonnie received the telegram she’d been waiting for: an invitation from American Airlines to don their wings.

Next Week: A Woman in the Driver’s Seat…