Susan Schwaab | Madison, WI
It was one of those moments where a light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Hey, I could do this.’ And I thought more about it and decided if I really wanted to fly, I probably should do it as a career. So I told my boyfriend at the time I was thinking about becoming a pilot.’ And his response was that girls can’t be pilots.
So, I thought, ‘Okay, now I’m doing this for sure.’ I was already in love with flying, but that was very motivating for me to hear. In fourth grade, growing up in Racine, I wrote a paper about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I wrote that I was going to be a flight attendant. That was my dream because I wanted to fly and travel, and that was the only option I thought was available to me.
I started searching around to find an avenue to become a commercial pilot and ended up going to Gateway Technical College in Kenosha for my pilot licenses and ratings. I completed the aircraft and power plant mechanic licensing program as well because I knew I wanted to be part of this world. Beyond being told I couldn’t be a pilot, the fact that we only have one life was a motivating factor for me. I really wanted to see all there was to see in the world.
After I finished all my schooling in Wisconsin, I moved out to California in 1984 where I flight instructed and flew charter planes for two and a half years. After that, I flew for multiple regional airlines, American Eagle and others, and then got hired by United.
When I was hired at United Airlines, females made up approximately 1% of airline pilots. People kind of assumed that because you were a woman, you couldn’t do it. I was the only female in the mechanic’s program, which was challenging. When I lived in California, I learned the west coast had more female pilots. The East Coast and West Coast have always been a little further ahead than the Midwest as far as change. I mean, one of the wonderful things about the Midwest is that we are pretty traditional and family oriented. But we don’t take on new ideas as quickly as they do on the coasts.
I did meet several female pilots out there, so that was very supportive. But when I came back to the Midwest to fly commuters, there were very few women. I remember going in to apply for a job at a small airline, and the guy flat-out said, “We don’t hire women.” So, I went in once a week and just bugged him until one day he finally hired me. Back then, people just didn’t think women could do the job. Even when I started at United Airlines, I had a lot of hours and a lot of experience. But there were a lot of white men who had been in the profession for their whole careers, and it was a huge adjustment for them to have females in the cockpit. A lot of them weren’t very happy about it, so it was challenging.
Back when I first started flying here in the Midwest, before my move to California, I searched to find a female pilot because I felt like I had to see someone who looked like me to know that I could do it. It was really tough finding a female pilot in this area—there wasn’t a lot, but there were some. One day, someone said that there was a female freight pilot in Kenosha. So I went to Kenosha, looked around the airport, and found her in a hangar. I said, ‘So I’m thinking about becoming a pilot. Do you think I can do this?’ She was very gruff and said, ‘Yeah, if you want to eat a lot of peanut butter.’ Her point was that she was only getting low-paying flying jobs because the airlines did not hire women until 1979.
That was when the first females became airline pilots. A lot of pilot jobs don’t pay well unless you get to the higher level. So she did have a point, and the boyfriend who told me girls can’t be pilots had a point, too, because back then there were no women airline pilots. Now, women make up only about 6% of pilots, so it hasn’t grown as much as medicine or law where women are nearly at 50%.
The thing that’s different now from when I first started is there are lots of wonderful support organizations for women and people of color—Women in Aviation International, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. A fellow African American female pilot at United started an organization called Sisters of the Skies to encourage Black female pilots. That support that’s out there now is so great and so helpful. I have a really good friend who was also a United Airline pilot and lives in California. I met her when I moved to California and first started flight instructing. We’ve been friends for many years, and we talk about how huge of a difference it would have been for us just knowing that there were others like us out there and we could support one another.
So, I moved to California in 1984 and found a job teaching flying and I could fly all day every day since the weather was so beautiful. I lived there for two and a half years before coming back to Wisconsin to work for the regional airlines. After 3 years working for the smaller airlines, I got hired at United Airlines. I flew there for 30 years and retired as a B777 captain.
In 2007 I became a Big Sister through the Big Sisters of Greater Racine. I was living in Racine at the time to be closer to family, and it worked out nicely because I was based at O’Hare and it’s an easy drive from Racine down to Chicago. I became a Big Sister to twin African American girls, and they’re still in my life today. They were eight at the time, and now they’re 22. I learned a lot about the lack of opportunity in some African American communities, so I started doing work around racial justice issues. When I retired from United, I thought it would be great to combine racial justice work with flying. That’s where the Wings to Fly idea came about —I wanted to introduce aviation to people who weren’t exposed to the aviation world.
For many people, the biggest obstacle to having these opportunities is subtle. It’s just the obstacle of people thinking that because you’re not a white male, you aren’t qualified to fly. In many ways, that obstacle can be overcome by believing in yourself. Wings to Fly is a program under Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Young Eagles program. We introduce youth from underrepresented communities to aviation, specifically women and people of color. Without this introduction, many of these kids would never really think about aviation. It’s just not in their world.
This is a program where each kid gets a lot of one-on-one attention. We give them a specific time to come to the airport and they are greeted by volunteers. They meet their pilot and help them do flight planning. Then they go for a 40-minute flight including a flight lesson and then get celebrated with lots of pictures and swag. It’s a life-changing event for a lot of these kids, so that’s been hugely gratifying for me.
There’s one girl who always comes to mind. She’s a 14-year-old African American girl, and she came to the airport so shy, hiding and not wanting any pictures. By the end of her experience, she was waving out the window as we were taxiing in, and you could see her confidence level went up a hundred percent. It was a beautiful thing.
This is the third year that we’ve run Wings to Fly. I would say the point of the program is not necessarily to make a lot of pilots. They may choose to follow that path, but the point is to show them there are so many opportunities out there, to just give them a wider perspective of what’s possible. For anyone interested in pursuing a career in aviation, the first thing I tell them to do is go to their local airports. Most small airports in Wisconsin have flight schools and flight instructors, so they can get a lot of information just by going to the airport and talking to people. They can get what’s called an introductory flight and make sure that they love it. It’s a lot of work to become a pilot, so you just really want to make sure that it’s really a passion.
I’ve done a lot of career talks at middle and high schools, and I always tell kids, ‘If you get introduced to this and you love this, you can do this. It’s going to be hard sometimes, but do it, because it’s an amazing opportunity.’
In those moments, I think back to when I moved out to California in the 1980s and was flight instructing at a little airport called Santa Paula. I remember a moment just standing on a little balcony near a hanger, watching what was going on at the airport, feeling so happy and thinking, ‘This is my world.’ At that point, I knew I wanted to stay in general aviation but it would be a very difficult way to make a living. I had a good friend that became a United pilot and she kept telling me, ‘You need to go to the airlines.’
She must have said it 50 times, and she was right. I really value that advice now, because despite any doubts, I knew aviation was the world I wanted to live in. I didn’t know then the direction that I wanted to go with flying, but I knew that I just loved it. And now I’m still involved in general aviation. I get to introduce kids to all this joy of flying, and I mentor young people who are wanting an aviation career.
Just the other evening I went out with a young woman who’s moving toward being an airline pilot and building up her hours. It’s a great feeling to be in the world of aviation and be a part of it in all different capacities. It feels like things have come full circle— like I’m revisiting those roots.