If you’re of a certain age, you know what that headline means.
In 1971, National Airlines* rolled out a $9.5 million ad campaign. It urged air travelers to “fly” Cheryl, Jo and many other stewardesses. It painted their names on plane noses, and made them wear “Fly Me” buttons while they worked.
In 2015, sexist requirements for flight attendants are long gone. They can be any age, weight or gender.
But female pilots are still rarer than empty overhead compartments. Of American Airlines’ 12,000 pilots, fewer than 1% are women. The company has 4,000 captains; the number of females at that rank is infinitesimal.
Peggy Lehn is one of them.
Her family name is well known in Westport. They’ve been here for 11 generations or so. There was a Lehn Bakery on Main Street from 1883 to 1904. Her grandmother born on the property that is now Longshore, where the halfway house now sits. Her great-great-grandfather — a Civil War army drummer — has a memorial marker on his Willowbrook grave.
Peggy’s younger brother Tom always wanted to fly. “I don’t know where he got that idea,” she says. “My father was a stone mason. We never had money to fly anywhere.”
At Staples in the late 1970s, Peggy — inspired by her brother — took Wilson Hopkins’ Aeronautics course. The former military pilot had a flight simulator in his classroom. No one ever told her she — as a girl — could not fly for a living.
Of course, no one ever said she could. At Embry Riddle — a highly regarded aviation university in Florida — she was the only female in her classes. For 4 years.
Still, she says, “I was naive. I thought nothing of it.”
When Peggy graduated, she had enough hours to fly charters and twin-engine planes, and teach.
She applied for a job at Sikorsky Airport in Bridgeport. They told her she could answer phones.
Determined to be a flight instructor, she headed to Danbury Airport. They said they already had a female teacher — and anyway, not many women wanted to learn to fly.
Two weeks later, that female instructor quit. Peggy was hired. Most of her students were men.
She used the same books and techniques Hopkins had, a few years earlier. One day, he brought his Staples class to Danbury. Peggy took the teenagers up in the air, one at a time. “That was very cool,” she says.
Peggy’s career followed a typical path. She flew for USAir’s commuter line, Southern Jersey Airways, based in Atlantic City. In 1987 she was hired by American Airlines. Twelve years later, she upgraded to captain.
The scarcity of female pilots stems from a lack of encouragement and role models, Peggy says. She makes an effort to talk to girls at college and high school career days.
Attitudes are changing. When she brings children into the cockpit, she says, they don’t think twice about her gender.
Her co-workers don’t care either. She recently flew with a female co-pilot — and the entire cabin crew was male.
Passengers are still occasionally surprised, though. A man once asked to see her pilot’s license.
“Are you from the FAA?” she asked.
No, he said.
“Then you don’t need to see it,” she replied. He still got on the plane.
Peggy’s brother Tom — who graduated from Staples in 1985, 6 years after her — wanted to fly too. But he wore glasses, so he went to the University of Connecticut as a pre-med student.
When the airlines changed their rules to allow pilots with glasses, he switched careers. He started out as an instructor at Sikorsky, then moved to SkyWest. When he was hired by American, Peggy pinned on his wings.
Tom is based in Los Angeles; she flies out of New York. They rarely see each other. But in the summer of 2001 American arranged for them to fly together, from JFK to San Francisco.
They told the passengers, who loved the story. Peggy also used the mic to thank her mother Kathleen — who came along, in first class.
“My dad died when I was 18, and Tom was 12,” she says. “She really helped us reach our dreams.”
The airline world has changed, of course. Passengers today want cheap fares; the airlines want cheap labor. There are lots of regulations (“it’s not a de-regulated industry,” she notes). Before 9/11, she adds, “I never thought a passenger would want to kill me.”
But she loves her work. She’ll be training soon on 787s — she’s been flying 767s and 757s since 1992 — and she’s never been furloughed. Plus, she says, “I still live in the town I grew up in.”
Of course, Peggy says, “pilots work really hard. A lot of what we do gets lost, because the image of airlines these days is not great.”
“I was driving to the airport in the snow, with all the traffic going the other way,” she says.
She and her crew got the plane ready. It was delayed and de-iced. Finally — with snow still swirling at 7 p.m. — they blasted off for Miami.
When they arrived, disembarking passengers shook her hand. The gender of the pilot was irrelevant.
All they cared about was that she had gotten them — safely — to Florida.
*May it rest in peace.