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A passion for aviation and a can-do attitude doesn’t mean you’ll break sound barriers, but Jeanne Dietrich broke barriers nonetheless.
It’s a familiar ritual. You’ve rushed through the airport, you’re buckled into your seat, and suddenly the crack of static attracts your attention as the loudspeaker comes to life with the captain welcoming you aboard. But how many times in your travels has that been a female’s voice? If you’re like most people, you’re likely to answer rarely, if at all.
It’s still a mystery – 80 years after Helen Richey became the first female commercial airline pilot – that only about 450 women worldwide are airline captains. The reasons are complex and include a lack of awareness on girls’ parts about career options, money needed for training and job realities. Some believe it’s not unusual that women don’t flock in numbers to a stressful, male-dominated job requiring continuous training, long stretches of time away from home and the stress of raising a family “in absentia.” Perhaps in this day and age, one can say the same about men, and it begs the question: What attracts them to the same stressors? Minus, of course, the male-dominated part…
Enter Jeanne Dietrich, who has been there, done that. Currently an Airbus captain with US Airways (which recently merged with American Airlines), she is a shining example of the drive and ambition that it takes to overcome obstacles that are not just limited to the airline industry. Gender issues aside, it’s something she really, really wanted, which is the key to any challenging career. It didn’t hurt that she is one strong cookie with a sense of humor and an inordinate amount of self-esteem.
Her can-do attitude began years ago while traipsing from base to base with her Air Force family. As a little girl, she would accompany her father out onto the flight line, where she would snoop around the magnificent aluminum “forts” and crawl around the weathered, leather seats. Her imagination flourished with the idea of soaring into the sky in a fast machine, getting a bird’s eye view of the earth, playing in the clouds and almost touching the stars at night.
But her exhilaration was tempered when she was reminded that “girls don’t fly.” Little effort was ever made on anyone’s part to encourage her dream. So she did what most stubborn, tenacious and resolute little girls often do. She got mad, and became a force to be reckoned with.
She earned her Aviation Management degree in 1973 from Dallas Baptist University. During her college years, she started taking flying lessons and, in 1975, earned her private, commercial multi-engine and 727 engineer rating. But upon approaching the military and then American Airlines, the same obstacles remained. “We don’t hire female pilots.”
Disgruntled but still driven by her love of flying, she joined Braniff Airlines as a flight attendant in 1971. Still determined to become a pilot, she filled her off hours by piloting for a small freight company who paid her $100 to fly 100 hours per month. The male pilots were paid $600+. But she needed to build up her hours, so she continued to fly for them for 1-1/2 years.
She got married in 1982 and moved to Macon, GA due to her husband’s military transfer. But three months after her husband filed his separation papers with the military, Braniff Airlines went bankrupt. Eventually, she was hired as a flight attendant by Piedmont Airlines. They promised she could apply as a pilot if she remained with them for one year. Once again, she built up her hours by working for another freight company with the unenviable job of transporting explosives to military bases and flying casino owners back and forth to Indian Reservations. She drew the line, however, when told she would have to carry a gun to “protect” the airplane – when on the ground – from the…well, let’s just say those with somewhat organized criminal intent.
After one year, she finally got what she was promised and became a pilot for Piedmont. But whether it was her naivety or idealistic views of finally making it in the big leagues, reality once again raised its ugly head. Dietrich admits, “Men in the crew room wouldn’t talk to or eat with me, much less make eye contact.” Passengers (both male and female) sometimes departed the airplane once witnessing her at the helm. Once airborne, if problems did arise with a malfunction, the male made the announcements so as not to escalate the fear in passengers should they hear a female voice. Mechanics would automatically bypass her and talk to her male counterpart. If jump seating (flying for free – a professional courtesy offered to airline personnel), she was often asked if she was the girlfriend of one of the pilots.
In 1987, the same year Piedmont merged with US Airways, she became pregnant with her first child. Although US Airways had a no-pregnancy fly rule, she had become pregnant while under the Piedmont Contract – which didn’t have the same rule – so she was allowed to continue to work through her seventh month.
Raising a family presented its own challenges. Dietrich says, “It was difficult to miss first days of schools, holidays and birthdays.” But celebrate they did, and flexibility became the keystone to their nontraditional way of life, and their children adapted and flourished.
But she still encourages young women with the same desire to pursue a career in the airlines. More opportunities exist today, and the most important requirement is a desire to fly. One can skip the costs of training as a civilian by flying for the military. Organizations such as ISWAP (International Society for Women Airline Pilots) offer educational resources and scholarships. And as Amy Laboda, editor-in-chief for Aviation for Women magazine recently said, “I can tell you that [female airline pilots] have made tremendous progress, and the reason is because most of the dinosaurs are gone. The men who didn’t want women in the cockpit have mostly retired.”
Dietrich will retire in a few years. When asked what her plans are, she knows one thing for sure. It will involve being outdoors – maybe gardening – surrounded by peace and quiet. Her number one priority? “Not having someone constantly squawking or talking in my ear,” she says with a wink.
Catherine DeCenzo is a freelance writer and Editorial Manager of I AM Modern magazine living in Broadlands, VA. She prefers the glass-half-full, humorous side of life and has an appetite for the irreverent in her personal blog at catclause.wordpress.com