BY COLLEEN MCHALE
In what is considered an industry governed by men, women play a valuable part in the aviation industry. The history of women in aviation in the United States dates back to the nineteenth century when Mary Myers became the first woman to solo a hot air balloon in 1880. In 1910 Blanche Stuart Scott became the first American woman to pilot an airplane, without any flying lessons (or the knowledge of the owner of the plane)! Of course, the most famous female pilot is Amelia Earhart, who took her first flight lesson in 1921 and then went on to become one of the world’s most legendary pilots.
Less famous, but no less impressive, are the mother and daughter duo of Gail Keys and Rachel Holmes. Gail is a seasoned pilot with United Airlines and her daughter, Rachel, is a student pilot and a wing walker at The Flying Circus Airshow. I spoke with Gail about her impressive career and about what got her started in aviation at a time when few women were starting professions as commercial pilots. I also spoke with Rachel about her adventurous career as a wing walker and her training as a student pilot.
Raised in a small town in Georgia, Gail’s first career was as a hairdresser, without a plan of one day flying airplanes! It was a boyfriend she later met in the Twin Cities who introduced her to flight, and her path then seemed chosen for her. He himself was a pilot and later encouraged her to train for her own license. After completing the rigorous air training, she earned her pilot’s license in Minneapolis in 1982. She went on to purchase one-fifth of an airplane and built up her flight hours and experience. She flew for a small regional carrier, Piedmont Express, and was later hired by United Airlines in 1989. United moved her up the ranks from flight engineer, to co-pilot and finally to captain. In her twentyninth year at the airline, she explained how seniority determines your quality of life as a pilot. As a busy mother of four children, she wanted a schedule that was flexible and took her away from home and her family as little as possible. She admitted that there were some missed holidays and events, but her schedule also offered amazing perks and benefits. She valued her time at home when she wasn’t working and was able to devote herself completely in that role. When she was flying she would often take her children with her — giving them the gift of travel.
Gail spoke about obtaining her pilot’s license at a time when there were few female pilots, but even today the percentage of women working as commercial pilots is quite low (only approximately 5% of the workforce). She then went on to tell me that although initially she was not accepted by some of her male counterparts, once she proved herself and earned a reputation as a skilled professional, she was fully accepted and has had a great experience flying.
It was easy to understand why her daughter, Rachel, wanted to follow in her mother’s shoes. Rachel was raised in Virginia but has recently settled in Costa Rica. She has an impressive resume as a wing walker, a student pilot, travel photographer and a yoga instructor! She is saving up to complete her final exam in order to obtain her pilot’s license. Rachel explained how the high cost of a pilot’s training is currently the most challenging part of the job. It is not only difficult because it makes flying less accessible but also because the less one flies the harder it becomes to excel consistently.
Her pilot training includes “ground school” where one learns about airspace, weather, equipment, communication and instruments. There are “type hour” requirements which include solo flight, night flight, flying at low speed and “flying under the hood” where one must recover the airplane from an unusual altitude while wearing blinders over their eyes and other exercises. Her training as a wing walker consisted of observation, learning the routines and communicating with the pilots. There was ground training and eventually training in the air.
I spoke with Rachel about any advice she could offer to other young women thinking about a career in aviation. She said that she would encourage women to be outspoken about their dreams, to reach out to people for help to make those dreams come true, to make short and long term goals and to never give up — no matter how much effort and patience it takes.