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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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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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…

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