The woman in the Uniform

Linda Wright in front of The Spirit of 76 DC-3 at the Flight Path Museum
Linda Wright in front of The Spirit of 76 DC-3 at the Flight Path Museum. Source: Flight Path Museum / JCD

Brooklyn, mid-eighties; my parents being from different continents than the one we were living on, we traveled to see grand-parents, aunts, uncles and cousins oceans away. I was a pretty terrible kid, once able to walk and talk, I would sneak away from my parents on flights and tell other passengers the wings were on fire. Mischief aside, I knew I wanted to be a pilot, it was one of those expected professions that boys are expected to want to be when they grow up, alongside astronauts and firefighters. 

At the same time that I was discovering my passion for aviation, a woman on the other side of the country was living that passion, with more challenges than I would ever face thanks to her getting an “XX” in the chromosome lottery. 

Here at the Flight Path Museum, one of my responsibilities is to monitor incoming communications from our website. Oftentimes, it’s just spam, but every so often we get a request to donate a noteworthy aviation artifact. A few weeks ago I received an email from Linda Wright asking if we would accept the donation of her Captain’s uniform. She had retired from United Airlines a few years prior and was moving out of state. “Absolutely” we would accept, but I asked for a little more; if she wouldn’t mind taking some photos in the uniform and talking about her path in aviation, to which she agreed.

I am going to jump ahead  in the story to something she said that struck me. “If I had to put up with the things that happened to me in my aviation career, I would never do it again, if somebody said, okay, you need to start over again and go through this again.” 

Like many, Linda got the aviation bug early. Her father was an aerospace engineer, but it was his flights to Los Angeles from Santa Maria where the family lived that created the most aviation interest. She and her mother would drop off her father at the airport and watch his plane take-off. That was the defining moment. After her family moved down to LA, she stayed in Santa Maria to finish high school in the early 70s. 

When it came time to fly down to rejoin her parents, she earned enough money to take the non-stop to LA. The non-stop was boring, she wanted the long local route that went from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara to Oxnard/Ventura and finally LA; whatever it took to grab a few more minutes of sky time in a little Fokker F-27. 

Graduating from high school wasn’t a challenge for Linda, the challenge was trying to figure out what came next, what did she want to do, what was she allowed to do? She once told a teacher that she wanted to be a veterinarian, to which he responded “oh you’re just gonna get married and have kids.” She was struggling, she had started some college courses that she was paying for as a car-hop. Her father didn’t want to pay for her tuition after paying for one sister who didn’t finish. 

Things changed when she found a small flight school in Lompoc, California. In talking with one of the instructors, she learned that once she completed her training she could become an instructor herself, in effect be paid for something she loved doing. At this point, being an airline pilot for a woman was not an option. “They saw something in me”, she was the only female in the class and that “little flight school” was supportive. She trained over two years, climbing each rung: private pilot, commercial pilot, certificated flight instructor, certificated flight instrument instructor. The school allowed her to pay for instruction through lessons she was providing to students, each time building more hours. The career goal was to become an instructor, and build up enough flight hours and then move on to pilot charter aircraft. 

Every so often “somebody would try to make some grief about getting the girl instructor” the chief instructor would reply that “she’s qualified and you can either take a lesson or you can leave.” “I was lucky that I was able to see some men along the way that were supportive like that”, not all were as supportive. 

After Lompoc Linda went to another large flight school in Orange County where she became assistant chief instructor in order to get more jet flight hours. The flight school was very busy with returning Vietnam veterans with GI bill education funding that were being used for flight training. As the assistant chief flight instructor, she trained a lot of the students on propeller aircraft and was also the check-ride examiner. She also obtained a Citation Jet rating with views on moving upward to become a charter pilot on private jets. She started noticing that less qualified instructors with less experience and flight hours were moving to the jet training department, and she was not despite having a jet type rating. She approached a manager, who was also a woman, who told her “our customers would not fly in an airplane if there was a female pilot” despite her training and examining the bulk of the students, “we don’t do it, we don’t allow it”.

Helen Richey was an air-race winning and flight endurance record holder that would become the first commercial airline pilot in the United States in 1934 flying for Central Airlines. After flying for a year there was a requirement to join the pilot’s union which was all male. She was refused access and was forced to resign due to the all-male union rules. After being denied a career in commercial aviation, she teamed up with Amelia Earhart in a transcontinental air race and served with the British Air Transportation Auxiliary during World War II.

By this point the airlines were starting to hire again after not hiring for nearly ten years, and for the first time in forty years, women. Linda was hired by TWA along with four others. She started as a flight engineer though was also trained as a co-pilot on the Boeing 727. For her, TWA was a great place to work, overall she received stellar reviews from captains. The Captains would write reviews after each flight and they were usually excellent, though there was one outlier written by a pilot of the old guard, the report was dismissed by the chief pilot. Though it was a great working environment, deregulation and fuel crises took a toll on TWA and she found herself, along with many other pilots, furloughed.

Emily Howell Warner was the first female commercial pilot in the United States to be hired by a scheduled airline since Helen Richey in 1934. On January 29, 1973, Emily joined Frontier Airlines, rising through the ranks to become Captain, serving with different carriers before joining the Federal Aviation Administration as an examiner.

It was after her year at TWA where she had “a lot of weird flying.” Technically still on the roster at TWA, she could be called back to work, making it difficult for other companies to hire her, just to lose her should she be called back to TWA. She started flying odd pilot jobs, flying for a small airline, but also oil surveys in Texas, flying back and forth looking for salt; flying as co-pilot to someone who bought a DC-3; training another pilot to fly on someone’s brand new Cessna Citation jet; a quick stint as an air-traffic controller and also flying the first aircraft into storage at Mojave airport (and now spaceport) when the Convair 880s were retired. The Convair 880s was Convair’s penultimate commercial aircraft, Linda was a flight engineer ferrying the last 10 of the type to be converted to cargo aircraft. One was flown to Van Nuys for cargo conversion but ultimately never re-entered service.

Faced with an uncertain aviation future, Linda decided that the time was right to complete her college degree at the University of Washington. But before she went back to school, she did lob in one last hail Mary, applying for a position at Continental. On her job application, she left the phone number of her sister who was based in Los Angeles. While Linda was busy preparing for her finals, Continental called her sister, who happily accepted the job on her behalf.  Linda was back in the sky game.

At Continental, Linda shined, she knew the systems and the components of the 727 inside out, she became an flight engineer instructor and also taught on the DC-10. It was at Continental, while in ground school that Linda met her husband, also a pilot. “You’re the prettiest girl in the class” he said, she was also the only woman in the class. Still married to this day, both continued their careers in parallel at Continental, and then United when they merged. In 1985 she became Captain on the 727, on the 727 she said “it just handled great and it could do stuff, if you forgot to descend on time, you could pull the speed breaks out and dive down at six thousand feet per minute.”

Despite her pioneering success as a woman in aviation, her path was continually met with inappropriate or unfair challenges.

Linda Wright in front of a 787 GEnx engine. Source: Linda Wright

Linda flew in the last Powder Puff Derby in 1977. A transcontinental all woman’s race from Palm Springs, CA to Tampa, FL. The race continues annually under different names.

“I flew with a guy who decided he didn’t like me […] and for two years wrote filthy things about me all over the airport (Denver), and he’d write this nasty stuff in the men’s room and it was just went on for two years and company at the time didn’t do anything about it.”

“I was getting stressed. I almost quit my job. My husband Todd, was taking spray paint to work to spray this stuff off and it wasn’t until I went to the airport, this was in Denver where I told the airport people: you know, can you put a camera in the elevator because he writes in the elevator every day, and they said sure. Then Continental at the time said, oh well, no, we’ll do that and of course it got the guy twice in one week writing stuff about me in the elevator. He wasn’t fired. That was bad, that was very very difficult and if somebody says something bad about you they think oh it’s got to be true and so the rumor mills would go on…”

When doing emergency check-ride simulations, other male pilots would receive standard, relatively textbook emergency procedures, Linda was consistently given borderline catastrophic scenarios at the minimums of the flight envelope. While she could perform the correct emergency procedures for those scenarios, she was being given harder scenarios by an order of magnitude. “I can’t tell you how many times the check ride for me was twice as hard, it is really true […] for a woman pilot you had to be twice as good to be considered half as good.”

When Linda was expecting her first child, there were no policies in place for pregnant pilots, as far as the FAA was concerned, as long as you were healthy you were fit to fly. Originally, the Pilot’s office wanted her to be removed from duty, which meant no pay. Linda fought to be able to fly for six months, in-line with the flight attendant policy which allowed them to fly for 6 months during pregnancy. 

Linda, as a mother of two children did feel pressure, especially from other stay at home moms in Texas to resign and stay grounded. ” I had the last laugh because both of our kids grew up to be successful and independent adults. Olivia is one of a few women winemakers and Alex is a banking lawyer in Denver.”

“So I had a lot of things happen to me that made me question my choice, but I stuck with it and it was a beautiful career.” She didn’t do it alone, Linda is quick to point out how other women pilots and organizations provided help and support in trying times. She has been a long time member of the Ninety-Nines (99s) which was founded in 1929 and “promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.” Linda served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, an organization that provides support to women choosing a life in sky. Both the ninety-nines and the ISA provide scholarships for women seeking a future in aviation. In the age of social media, less formal groups that support women can be found on platforms that allow women to share their experiences, not just in aviation, but in other traditionally male dominated industries.

“It’s gotten tons better, it isn’t perfect but the airlines are leaps and bounds better than where they were.” Airlines have made substantial improvements: United Airlines has taken steps to proactively train and hire women and people of color to their pilot corps through their Aviate academy, Delta Airlines is partnering with different organizations to promote training of women with prospects of a career within the airline, most major carriers have initiatives to promote inclusivity in their hiring processes. 

Linda completed her career as Captain on Boeing 787, one of United’s long-haul aircraft, her husband Todd continued to fly on it for a few years before retiring as well.

Linda Wright (fourth from right) and her crew on 787. Source: Linda Wright

Linda sees a bright future for aviation, even in the time of Covid, she sees a packed airport showing people’s resolve to travel and explore. As advice to future pilots, “don’t go in for the money, there’s ups and downs, furloughs but also good times, there will be periods where you will be out of work, you have to love to fly and travel.”

Linda’s uniform will be on display shortly at the Flight Path Museum. 

Post Scriptum. 

In addition to Linda’s scholarship program, the United Aviate academy, Flight Path Museum also offers scholarships. 2021 scholarships have been awarded and 2022 scholarships will be due middle of 2022. Consider universities such as Embry-Riddle (AZ or FL) or Ohio State that offer pilot training programs as part of their academic curriculum.

This article was not reviewed by any airline or other organization than Flight Path.