On the Flight Deck: Portrait of a Ferry Pilot
This is my fifth feature in my portrait series 100 Years Strong. Commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, this series of portraits is a celebration of strength, victory and beauty featuring fierce, fearless women in Deep East Texas.
Women have made a significant contribution to aviation since the Wright Brothers’ first 12-second flight in 1903, however there is still much progress to be made. In 1910, Blanche Scott became the first woman to fly in America. Women continued to follow in her footsteps and by 1930 there were 200 women pilots, and by 1935 there were between 700 and 800 licensed women pilots.
Then came World War II, as men went off to war by the millions, women stepped into the civilian and military jobs they left behind. When thousands of male pilots were stationed overseas, the job of ferrying new aircraft from manufacturing plants to U.S. military bases began falling on women. The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was formed. At that time in early 1940s America, many women did not drive, and even if they did, they would have never considered driving across the state line, much less across country—alone. But these women pilots mastered cross-country traveling at the controls of the fastest aircraft we possessed at the time. They ferried new planes long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested newly overhauled planes. And they towed targets to give ground and air gunners training shooting — with live ammunition.
In the years since World War II, many more barriers for women have been brought down and records continue to be broken. By the 1960s there were 12,400 licensed women pilots in the United States (3.6 percent of all pilots.) This number doubled by the end of the decade to nearly 30,000 women, but was still only 4.3 percent of the total pilots. Today, women comprise about 6 percent of pilots in the United States.
Deanna, age 39 is one of those pilots. She is a flight instructor and she also ferries aircraft around the world. Deanna began flying when she was 17 years old.. She is wife and mother of two (Luke, age 13 and Katelyn, age 15). She is very active in her community and a great role model.
Do you have a favorite motivational quote? I have a bunch of motivational quotes I love and refer to often, many written on sticky notes I place in various places around my office, and most reminding me to work hard, do better, and don’t quit. One of my favorites is: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” - Colin Powell
When and why did you begin flying? I started flight lessons between my junior and senior year in high school, when I was old enough to get my license (17 is the minimum age). I had somewhat grown up around airplanes, as my mother held a private pilot certificate and often flew us on her business trips and some family vacations in a small aircraft. When I was 15, my mom and her husband died in a plane crash that she was piloting. Part of my desire to learn to fly was to gain a greater understanding of how that accident occurred, beyond what I was able to read in the official NTSB accident report. After I began my lessons, I absolutely fell in love with all things aviation and decided to pursue a career in the industry.
Did you face any challenges getting into this industry, particularly as a woman? My chosen career path in the aviation industry was as a pilot, although I obtained 2 degrees that would support me in other segments of the industry should I not be able to fly…a Bachelor of Aviation Management from Auburn University and a Master of Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I was blessed with a great support system of family and friends throughout the majority of my training at Auburn University, although women only make up 5-7% of the overall pilot population. Upon graduation, I was quickly hired by a regional airline amidst a growth spurt in the industry then, just as quickly, was furloughed by the events of 9/11. This furlough led me down the path I chose to stay on within the corporate aviation sector and flight instruction. I can’t say I haven’t encountered any resistance due to being a female in a male dominated industry, but I can say I encountered much less than some of my female counterparts. There is still a lot of bias against what is a very small segment of the pilot population, with almost no discernible growth, because of our small numbers. Part of the problem is children often think they can do, or become, what they see and are regularly exposed to…adolescent girls simply don’t get to see female pilots enough to know that is an opportunity for them as well.
Can you tell me more about what you do? My job is varied. I fly mid-size (6-10 passenger), corporate planes for businesses local to my area, as well as work as a flight instructor, teaching people to fly aircraft. Because of the larger planes I fly, I also have the opportunity as a contract pilot to help move similar aircraft all around the world on repositioning flights.
What’s your typical day like? The beauty of my job, and what I love the most, is that there is no “typical” day. My calendar is constantly changing and I have to remain highly flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of those I fly for and challenges the weather may present. The only constant is that my day usually starts with coffee at 5:45a, haha. My work hours vary, based on what kind of flying I am doing that day. If I am flying a corporate client, we typically depart between 7-8am and return in the evening, if it is not an overnight trip. Destinations vary depending on aircraft size and can be all over the United States. If I am conducting flight training, I start the day with trainees around 8-9am and fly up to 8 hours a day and into the night, depending on their training needs. My family and I have adapted to my lifestyle of being on call for others, as I am susceptible to flying any day of the week and on any holiday in the year. We often have to celebrate major holidays on other days, as I am often flying others on those days, and I regularly miss out on big family events like birthdays, graduations, baby births, dedications, etc. Thankfully, I have a supportive family that understands the demands of my job.
Any memorable days? There are certain milestones each pilot reaches that stick in their memory. One is the day you first get to take an aircraft up by yourself, known as the “first solo.” Other memorable days for many pilots include adding new certificates and ratings, reaching a certain number of flight hours, getting to fly an aircraft you’ve always wanted to fly, etc. I’d say 2 of the most memorable days of my flying career definitely included my “first solo” at 17 years old and 9/11/2001, as that day changed the landscape of aviation and the course of my career, just as it was starting at an airline.
What’s the best part of the job? I love the people I get to work with. Unlike airline pilots, I get to know the people I fly for and with and some of them become as close as family. Flight instruction is especially near and dear to me, as I love teaching others what is such a passion for me. Whether it is someone starting from 0 hours and learning to fly, or mentoring someone more experienced in high performance aircraft, I feel like I am making a difference in someone’s life and/or adding to their skillsets to make them better, safer pilots.
Traveling around the world, I’m sure you visit some countries where women do not have the same rights and freedoms as they do in America. What has that experience been like? A female pilot is in the minority and a rare sight in most parts of the world, but in my experience, I am certainly an oddity in the Middle East. I conducted 3 flights through the Middle East and surrounding regions in the past year (landing in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirites, Pakistan, and India), with varying experiences. On one flight I was accompanied by a male co-pilot, who was deferred to at almost every stop. I was, if not completely dismissed, at least mostly unacknowledged in certain exchanges. My subsequent 2 trips through the region, as a solo pilot, proved differently. In full uniform and as the only pilot on board the aircraft, I was treated quite respectfully at all stops and had good conversations with several ground crews about moving aircraft such long distances by myself. The aircraft types I was moving alone are required to have 2 pilots on board in that part of the world. While my gender was unusual, the fact I could fly the plane alone seemed to be more of a talking point. While traveling in other parts of the world where women do not have as much freedom, I try to be respectful and observe local customs as much as possible; for example, I wear a head scarf as a covering for my hair through the Middle Eastern countries in order to make male ground crews and guards more comfortable interacting with me professionally.
How do you juggle ferry flying with marriage and kids? This is one of those questions that never gets asked of male pilots in interviews. It’s interesting how being a female in a male dominated industry lends itself to often being asked this question, as if it’s different for women and mothers than it is for the men and fathers to be away from their families. Both genders have the same challenges when it comes to marriage and being separated from each other for long stretches of time. It takes a great deal of understanding, communication, and a somewhat independent spouse to keep a marriage intact if you are a professional pilot, as evidenced by the nearly 50% divorce rate amongst the demographic. However, I would say that being away from home is slightly different between the genders where kids and parenting are concerned. Society says that women should stay home and tend to the children and it is difficult to step outside of that norm without facing a great deal of guilt from yourself and others that believe you are not fulfilling your role as a mother. At one point or another since having children, both my husband and I have had to travel for work and we have each taken on non-traditional parenting roles as needed to meet the needs of our children. We make it work the best we can by using shared calendars and good communication techniques regarding the kids’ schedules. I am always available to the kids by FaceTime, phone, text, etc during my stops and my family has adapted well to a home where I am gone a lot. My kids are independent for their ages and we taught them to be quite self sufficient in many areas. While we miss each other when apart, the beauty of my job means that when I am home, I get to mentally and physically be home. All of my attention can be focused on the needs of my family until the next trip arises.
What are your long-term goals? The aviation industry is very dynamic and highly subject to economic changes, both within the commercial and private segments. Through 23 years in the industry, my long term goals have changed several times and will likely change several more as the industry continues to change and reshape itself around economic changes, technology improvements, and regulatory changes. For now, I am quite content doing exactly what I am doing, but I do try to keep a finger on the pulse, so to speak, of varying segments of the industry in case a change is needed.
Any advice for young girls who are interested aviation? Do it! Flying airplanes as a career is not for everyone, but learning to fly recreationally is so rewarding. It teaches you a level of decision making and confidence that is hard to attain through most other activities and gives you a skill that can be used across your entire lifetime. It is mentally and sometimes physically challenging, but the rewards and benefits are well earned. I encourage young girls to seek out a mentor who will encourage and uplift them through the process, as it is often a long and challenging one. For those pursuing it as a career, know that it is a path full of ups and downs, long roads, and dead ends, but it is also full of beautiful sunrises, sunsets, and that dream job along the way. It is a rewarding career and worthy of pursuing if it is an interest. I would also encourage them to check out non-flying aspects of the aviation industry as well. There are many supporting segments that keep aircraft flying, including STEM fields in engineering, maintenance, avionics, ground crews, etc. Everyone has a role to play and they are all important.
When not you’re flying, what do you like to do for fun? Myself, my husband, and my kids are all certified scuba divers. When we take family vacations, we love going with our local dive group to different locales (domestically and internationally) to scuba dive. We have also recently taken up indoor rock climbing as a new challenge we can all do together. Because I am gone so much, most of my free “fun” time is spent doing things like this with my family. When I am on the road or alone, I love the challenge of yoga, hiking, or playing golf in my spare time.
I am looking for more fierce, fearless women to participate in this portrait study. If you or someone you know would be interested in sharing your story, please contact me. You can learn more about my project here - https://www.rachelloutportraits.com/19thamendment
View others in this series here: https://www.rachelloutportraits.com/100-years-strong