I’m Peggy. Fly Me.

If you’re of a certain age, you know what that headline means.

Fly meIn 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.

Embry Riddle logoOf 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.

Captain Peggy Lehn.

Peggy Lehn, in a  Good Housekeeping feature on women in traditionally male jobs.

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.

Peggy Lehn and her brother Tom, in the cockpit.

Peggy Lehn and her brother Tom, in the cockpit.

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.”

Captain Peggy Lehn (far right), with her brother Tom (front left), their mother Kathleen (far right), and other American Airlines crew members.

Captain Peggy Lehn (far right), with her brother Tom (front left), their mother Kathleen (far right), and other American Airlines crew members.

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.”

American Airlines logoDuring the almost-blizzard last month, Peggy was called at 1:30 p.m. She was told to get to JFK, for a 5 p.m. flight.

“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.

21 responses to “I’m Peggy. Fly Me.

  1. wonderful story, thank you! made my day.

  2. J.W. Kaempfer

    Wonderful story, thanks, Joey

  3. loved the story!

  4. Great story, although I’m pleased to note that female commercial pilots (left seat) are no longer quite so rare. I am also a former student of Mr. Hopkins and his Aeronautics course in 1980 (?), and we flew with him out of Danbury. One cool thing about him was he was a licensed FAA instructor and administrator of the pilot exam (SEL) and he administered it to the class at the end of the semester – the deal was if you passed that he would have to give you an A in his class. (I passed it, and Hopkins was forced to give me an A, apparently not his first choice of my grade.) I still have my letter from the FAA, but I never got the hours required for my license.

    So cool to learn that his course set Captain Lehn on her path. What a great school.

  5. Bobbie Herman

    What a wonderful, inspirational story.

  6. Great post, Dan. Besides being a great pilot and role model, Peggy is one of the nicest and most genuine people you will ever meet. I love the FAA retort! That is classic Peggy!

  7. Fantastic story.

  8. Dan as you know… Mr. Hopkins actually put several Westporters/Stapleites on the aeronautical career path… He in his own right would be an interesting subject…. Just another example of how amazing the offerings at Staples put student on a career path at an early age.

  9. Great story Dan. So proud of both of them.

  10. Christina "Tina Constantikes" Lawrence

    Bravo Peggy! You are a true inspiration! I am honored to call you a friend.. and oh yes, “Wow, time flies”!!

  11. LOVE this story.. !!

  12. Sue Sweetnam Asetta

    Yea Peggy! Proud of our 79er classmate! Great piece Dan!

  13. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Great story, Dan. I fly much more than I care too. But, every time I walk off a plane I thank the cabin crew and the pilots. They accomplished their goal of getting me there safe and sound.

  14. Great piece Dan and so nice to read all of the details of Peggy’s career and family history. Another class of 79′ success story !

  15. Fantastic story! I took Mr. Hopkins’ aviation course, too, and then made it through 2 flying lessons with “Hoppy” before I discovered that being a pilot wasn’t right for me.

    Sadly, Mr. Hopkins died in 2013, but his obit (http://www.westportnow.com/index.php?/v2_5/obitjump/wilson_m._hopkins_jr._80/) reveals quite the Renaissance Man. He graduated Princeton, went on to Wesleyan for a MALS (Masters in Liberal Studies), got into med school and attended for 1 year — before deciding that medicine was not right for him — and then spent the next decade as a Navy pilot. I guess his dedication to national service was pretty strong; 2 of his 3 kids served in the Marines.

    He went on to pursue a high school teaching for the rest of his career. Wow, we were pretty lucky to have this guy teaching us at Staples!

  16. Great story, Dan. I just wish you had given it a different title so as not to conjure up one of the worst examples ever of overtly degrading, sexist shilling. To a 1970’s hard core feminist, it struck a nerve.

  17. If I was on a plane that was having trouble I would want Peggy at the controls. She is the best !!!!!!

  18. I love the story and Peggy; the kindest person you would ever want to meet and her mom too…i was a flight attendant for American for many years. I met Peggy through our Airline connection. I know she is passionate about her job; you can’t find a better captain or friend than Peggy!

  19. Dick Lowenstein

    Peggy and Tom are not the only flyers in the family. Tom’s wife, Kris, works for SkyWest Airlines, out of Palm Springs, CA. I know them well, as I officiated at their wedding.

  20. Fantastic story. You have executive authority to include whatever you want to in your stories, but the issue of low pay for beginner pilots bothers me; the beginner pilots should be compensated better; it relates to safety in my book.

    .

  21. I’m also a graduate of Staples and Hoppy’s program. UConn, then Officers Training School, 8 years in the USAF flying T-37 aircraft as an instructor pilot and as a B-52 aircraft commander. I’ve been with American Airlines for 25 years and want to say Peggy is a great pilot and a better person. Congrats on the recognition Captain Lehn.