A Girl’s Guide to Surviving Flight School

While aviation training is challenging for everyone that takes on the endeavor, I believe certain niches would benefit from some advice tailored to their specific demographic. So, ladies, this one’s for you!

Handling Joey Tribiani:

The fact remains that men outnumber women in aviation and the majority of the people you will encounter in the pilot’s lounge are men. You might even be the only girl in flight training at your airport. Most of these men will be decent, friendly people who are pleasantly surprised to see a female on the tarmac with a flight bag. They will become treasured colleagues you will turn to for advice and fly with for years to come.

A fraction of these men will hit on you.

It doesn’t matter that you are wearing your wedding ring, or that you give them your best I-will-cut-you-face when they sit all too close to you and pull a “how you doin’?” With today’s technological advances you might even field some creepy emails or text messages from guys you’ve never met that “saw you at the airport” and “think you have a beautiful smile” with no idea how they got your contact info. It is also not uncommon for that flight instructor to put his arm around your seat in the plane because “it’s just so cramped in here.”

However tempting and satisfying it might be, do not crush Mr. Tribiani’s ego or burn bridges by insinuating anything about the size of his manhood. My advice is to harness the testosterone already on your side. There are far more good guys in aviation than bad ones. There is no shortage of older, protective fatherly-types and big brothers among them. Usually all it takes is asking for their advice to enlist them into your Tribiani defense squad.

Aviation Attire:

In the winter wear layers you can pull off after the preflight (tarmacs are typically windy, cold places, cockpits are typically hot, cramped spaces). In the summer fly in sundresses.

Yes, you read that right. Sundresses.

In the summer it is miserably hot inside an airplane on the ground and even at lower altitudes (especially if you get that one plane where the cabin air is inoperative and the windshield air vent is jammed shut). Sundresses, with their light, breathable material and their flowing skirts (nothing too far past the knee though) are the perfect remedy. Be sure to wear some bloomers or yoga shorts underneath, especially if you are crawling up a strut to check the fuel in a high wing airplane.

So far I have found only one drawback to flying in a sundress and that is when you strap on your lapboard you have to hike the skirt up a bit, and even that is only an issue if you are flying with a male CFI. If you wear some lady boxers (yes, lady boxers are a thing) underneath, this is not a factor.

Men will tell you it is impractical and dangerous. They are jealous they can’t wear a napkin on a hot day. Sundress flying in the summer is some of the most enjoyable, refreshingly cool flying I have ever done and I have yet to encounter a single danger related to the dress.

99sFirstMeeting

This picture was taken at the first 99s meeting in 1929. I count at least four sundresses and I bet some ladies in the back are sporting some too. Photo courtesy of the 99s.

Handling Big Machines:

Flying alone is frightening for many students. An added element of fear is introduced when you combine flying alone with someone who has learned her whole life when faced with mechanical malfunction she should find a guy to help. Many women have never even changed a flat tire – a guy will always pull up and offer to help – for which we are thankful. However, there are no guys to pull over and help in an airplane soaring above the earth. For some reason it barely matters that she has studied the finer points of piston engines or what each circuit breaker does. At the end of the day she is alone up there sitting behind a machine that is older than she is that continues to run based on a series of controlled explosions.

While it is breathtakingly beautiful up there for the solo aviatrix, it is also terrifying. Old piston engines make plenty of sounds and on startup produce many strange vibrations. When their mixture becomes too lean they putter out and die. When they get too cold they make a different noise and lose RPM. When their oil pressure gets too high they run hot and start banging at you. It takes time to learn these things, and until those sounds and feelings become something she knows how to translate into action, every new thing the engine does is of dire concern to the new pilot.

My recommendation: stuffed animal co-pilot (get one big enough to fit in the safety belt so you can strap it in the passenger seat). Yes, it is ridiculous. Yes, you will be ridiculed in the pilot’s lounge. Sticks and stones ladies. Nothing breaks the tension of an unexpected event in flight like exchanging blank faces with the sweet, buggy eyes of your co-pilot Gizmo, or Wilson, or Amelia. Talk to it. Give it the passenger briefing. Explain what is happening to it like the pilot you are becoming. (“Don’t worry, Gizmo, that is just the sound the engine makes when you lean it past peak, I will fix it right away.”)

img_1917

This is Gizmo, my copilot for all solo flights.

Another recommendation: name your plane. It promotes camaraderie with the aircraft and makes it less frightening. It doesn’t matter that you only have it for this one flight, name it! Lots of great plane names out there: Canary, Red, Little Blue, The Dragon, Bang Bang, be as creative as you want!

The B Word:

Girls are raised to be quiet. To be sweet. To avoid confrontation. Then we started flight school and were walked all over by CFIs that cared more about building hours than our progress to the tune of a few hundred dollars. It was only a matter of minutes after we took charge of our aviation training and began saying things to our CFIs like “I’d like to do a little of the flying this lesson” or “I would like to review the goals of this flight before we go up” before the B word came out. You know the one: B-o-s-s-y. I kept a tally during my training – I averaged about four bossys a week.

I was called “bossy” for refusing to work with the jr. chipmunk again after he treated my pre-solo progress check like a waste of his time. I was called “bossy” for not blindly accepting any CFI that was thrown at me by my flight school without an interview and a student recommendation. I was called “bossy” for giving feedback to my CFIs in hopes it would improve future lessons. Accept it ladies, to get where we are going, we are going to be called bossy…and probably worse than that before we get there. Sticks and stones, communicate what you need and forge onward!

The Blind Side:

“There’s a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.” So said Madeleine Albright. Yet there is a group of women out there wreaking havoc on female flight students.

Who am I talking about?

Think of the one female that has no reason to be involved in another woman’s flight training and yet has the most power to disrupt it. The one woman you never saw coming.

I’m talking about the wife/girlfriend of your CFI.

I wish I were making this up, but unfortunately I have twice experienced this completely unprovoked trouble and I have heard this story from other female student pilots like a broken record. It is unfortunate, but many non-pilot wives/girlfriends of CFIs seem to have a real problem with their significant others teaching female students.

Sometimes it is subtle – frequent calls interrupting your flight lessons to “check in” or popping in often to “deliver lunch” or “give him his keys” in the middle of ground school. Sometimes it’s less subtle – she calls if your lesson runs five minutes over and screams into the phone “why are you still with HER?!” then appears in the pilots lounge just to give you the stink eye from across the room as you leave. If you are really unfortunate, she determines you will no longer be working with her man, effective immediately. It’s juvenile, and ridiculous, and completely uncalled for…and unfortunately, it’s fairly common.

This non-pilot directly tied to your instructor truly doesn’t understand your lessons have more to do with pattern work and V speeds than whose arm grazed whose leg reaching for the fuel selector valve. You cannot win over this woman no matter how creative or friendly you are with her. She is reacting to a stimulus you cannot see and her insecurity trumps your innocence. Don’t underestimate this woman. She has the power to make your life miserable and your flight training move backwards. The best thing to do is duck out. There are plenty of other CFIs in the world without the complications of a jealous partner. But duck out not just for you, duck out because you should be kind to another woman who is going through something rough with her partner and taking it out on you. Because there is a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.

Mastering the Lingo:

Aviation loves it’s acronymns. So. Much. I found it easiest to learn some through flash cards and others I set to rap songs.

Men love acronymns. So. Much. It’s the reason they call life vests PFDs and Volkswagons VWs.

Acronymns are not the only thing tailored towards mens’ proclivities when it comes to aviation training. There’s actually a bit of history to how this happened.

During WWII when aviation went from bourgeouis hobby to useful national defense tactic young men were trained as rapidly as possible and rushed into battle. It was determined by the instructors the fastest way to get the attention and memory of young men in the basics of flight training was to use sexual inuendo. Many of these phrases still exist today and can be heard not only in ground schools across the nation but in popular culture. “Balls to the wall” anyone?

“Suck, squeeze, bang, blow” still teaches students the four strokes of a piston engine and a number of other charming little phrases are still employed that have caused more than one instructor to blush when having to say it aloud to a young woman no one saw taking flying lessons back in the early 1940s.

Would it be helpful if they taught center of gravity with gymnasts on a balance beam instead of wood planks and concrete blocks? Sure. But wood planks and concrete loads appeal to the masses when it comes to training future pilots.

Flash cards, rap songs and an ounce of grit, ladies. You got this!