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Women Pilots Accept No Limits in the Sky


STRATFORD, Conn. — Whenever Julie Gereben flew with her parents in an airliner, she would always go up to the cockpit to watch the pilots. And when the pilot of a small airplane asked her if she wanted to take the controls for a few minutes during a sightseeing flight over Mt. St. Helens, she didn't hesitate.

Susan Karkman realized she wanted to be a pilot while flying in a Piper Cherokee from Poland back to her home in Sweden so she could attend her sister's wedding.

Holly Smith had never even been in an airplane when, after graduating from high school in Dublin, Ga., she decided to become a pilot. "I did not want to work behind a desk and I thought flying would be interesting, a good way to see the world," she says.

Gereben, 24, Karkman, 20, and Smith, 24, are part of aviation's next generation. For the moment, they are flight instructors in Stratford, Ct. But within a few years, they are likely to be flying sophisticated jet aircraft for airlines or major corporations. Assuming, of course, that they survive the hardships and occasional dangers that accompany their entry-level jobs in aviation.

Like interns hoping to become full-fledged medical doctors, flight instructors must work excruciatingly long hours for low pay in a highly stressful environment.

"It takes a lot of belief in yourself and in your abilities," Gereben says. "You have to trust your experience and your training."

If, for example, a student accidentally twists the plane into a spin, the flight instructor is expected to take the controls calmly, stop the spin and get the plane under control again--all before it drills a large hole in the ground.

Or if at an altitude of 3,500 feet a student accidentally kills the engine by pulling back the control for fuel mixture instead of carburetor heat (the two controls are right next to each other in many small airplanes), the flight instructor must gently push the mixture control back to its proper position, restart the engine and politely remind the student to be more careful in the future.

Flight instructors are also responsible for deciding whether a licensed pilot is qualified to fly a certain airplane. This kind of situation can be potentially awkward for young instructors because it requires them to pass judgment on older, more experienced pilots who are paying for the privilege of being checked out in a new airplane.

"You have to put your foot down," says Gereben, "no matter how much anyone is paying."

Smith agrees that self-confidence ranks high on the list of prerequisites for the job. Higher, in fact, than strength, courage, academic ability and reasonably good vision (she admits to wearing contact lenses).

What a good flight instructor really needs is better-than-average hand-eye coordination, inexhaustible patience and a strong instinct for survival.

"Common sense is the big thing," says Karkman, echoing the consensus that there are few things worse than "book smart, plane dumb" pilots.

None of the three women considers herself exceptional. But the statistics tell a different story. In 1991, the latest year for which figures were available, there were 692,095 licensed pilots in the United States. Of that total, 40,931--just under 6%--were women. In the same year, there were 69,209 certified flight instructors. Of the number, 3,629--just above 5%--were women. So the fact that Gereben, Karkman and Smith make up 50% of the teaching staff at the flying service they work for seems in itself remarkable until you talk to the flight school's owner, Peter Reilly.

Like his pilots, Reilly puts a lot of stock in common sense. Hiring women to fill job slots that had been reserved traditionally for men was a decision Reilly based on his years of experience as the director of a human resources department for a major corporation.

"Aviation, like many other activities, is increasingly dependent on knowledge and the ability to direct systems," he says. "The need for physical strength has diminished." If there is any rivalry between the male and female instructors, Reilly says he hasn't noticed it. "As a matter of fact, they all get along very well and they are mutually supportive."

One advantage that women pilots have over their male counterparts shows up in the early stages of flight training, according to Peggy Baty, dean of Parks College in Illinois, the oldest continuously operating aviation college in the United States.

Because they have a lighter touch on the controls and tend not to overuse them, female student pilots often fly more smoothly than do male student pilots, Baty says.

What many people forget, Baty says, is that women have been involved in aviation from its earliest days. The first woman pilot soloed in 1910. During aviation's great barnstorming era in the 1920s and 1930s, women pilots were a common sight. It wasn't until World War II, when the emphasis shifted to combat flying, that women were frozen out of meaningful careers in aviation.

There are now 1,600 women flying "heavy" airplanes--airliners with a gross weight in excess of 90,000 pounds. That represents about 4% of the total number of flight engineers, first officers and captains. Due to industry-wide furloughs and layoffs, it is difficult to provide exact figures on the number of women who have been promoted to captain, says Lori Griffith, statistician for the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

Griffith, who captains a Boeing 737 for USAir, estimated there are between 375 and 425 women captains flying today. That ballpark figure represents less than 1% of the total, she says.

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