Couples Sharing the Cockpit: Fact or Friction?

My husband, a physician, and pilot joined the Flying Physicians organization and so we flew to their annual meeting in New Orleans in 1998. When the editor of the Flying Physician magazine heard that I was a pilot he asked me to write about why so many wives refuse or resist flying with their husbands no matter how much their husbands want to share the cockpit. This article is my explanation of that phenomenon.
couples sharing the cockpitJohn had problems convincing his wife, Martha, that she could enjoy flying. Before her first flying lesson, Martha tried to climb back out of the plane. John and the instructor acted immediately and decisively. As John tells it, “We had a wrestling match and shoved her back in.” “She went along with grim determination until her first solo cross country,” John explained. While John and the instructor paced on the ramp, Martha dodged storms and wound up coming back after dark. She marveled at the sunset from this new perspective and fell in love with flying. Today, John and Martha King own and operate King Schools of San Diego, California, where they teach flight training. They have become a poster couple of general aviation. Because only 6 percent of pilots are women, most couples in general aviation don’t share a pilot-to-pilot relationship in the cockpit. The majority of women fly as passengers. The complaint “I can’t get my wife to fly with me” demonstrates a trend in general aviation that can be changed. We will explore a few of the factors working for and against flying couples.

FUN FACTOR

Other than access to airplanes, the FUN FACTOR is a key element in attracting women into aviation. Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier, got her pilot’s license on a dare from her husband. Aerobatic champion Betty Skelton Frankman’s parents brought her to the FBO for their flying lessons. Patty Wagstaff’s father used to take her for rides in his plane, but she really got involved with aviation after her husband taught her a few aerobatic maneuvers. The first woman to earn a pilot’s license, Harriet Quimby, entered aviation for the fun of it with her pal Matilde Moissant, whose husband offered flying lessons in New Orleans. (Yes, the Moissant after whom the airport is named.) In their eagerness to get women to enjoy flying, some men have unintentionally driven women away from it. Veteran flight instructors cite one serious, common tactical error men make — let’s call it the

SEE HOW SAFE FLYING IS FACTOR

Using this tactic, a fellow convinces his wife or girlfriend to go for a ride so he can show off his new skills. In trying to make the ride fun, he demonstrates emergency procedures, slow flight, stalls, spins, rolls, steep turns and such. He means well, the poor dear, but this stuff scares the lunch out of most people. Granted, a few women love this kind of thing. The rest will display symptoms such as icy silence, fainting, screaming, threats and clawing at the windows. But who can blame them? Who would ever fly twice on ABC Airlines if one of their pilots demonstrated a stall during flight? Experienced professional pilots know that passengers enjoy and expect uneventful flights. Leave the thrill rides to theme parks.

I’M GOING TO HAVE FUN WITH OR WITHOUT YOU FACTOR

Another common unsuccessful tactic men employ is to simply leave the woman behind and go fly. The I’M GOING TO HAVE FUN WITH OR WITHOUT YOU FACTOR has one major flaw. It invites, begs and dares the one left behind to reciprocate in kind. This tactic also makes the airplane an object of scorn and jealousy. Bullying, threats, nagging, harassing and frightening women won’t achieve positive long-term results. Of course, it’s more time-consuming to find out why she doesn’t want to fly and respectfully address that concern, but asking a man to do this would be like expecting him to ask for directions. A woman may stay away from flying because of fear, motion sickness, apathy, or pursuit of other goals. Perhaps the “Mrs.” doesn’t eagerly accept a four-hour flight because she has a three-hour bladder. Is she adventurous enough to wear a Depends ® undergarment? Fun is a matter of perspective.

HASSLE:FUN RATIO FACTOR

The HASSLE:FUN RATIO FACTOR often works against women more than it does for men. For a woman with young children, taking flying lessons poses a series of unique obstacles. Is a sitter available during the day? How much time is there to fly between the start and end of daycare or school? Can she juggle carpool duties to allow time for a cross-country flight? Who will help with the children’s homework while she studies for the written exam? Even if she thrives on flying, she will not continue if the hassle:fun ratio leans heavily toward hassle.

THE GUY DRIVES THE HARLEY FACTOR

Women who obtain their pilot’s license often face another obstacle that John King describes as “the biggest single failure of men — failing to relinquish power to women in the cockpit. They’ll try it a few times and the men absolutely, flat-out, totally, fail to relinquish any authority or power to the woman and, after all, she may as well be in the back seat because there’s nothing in it for her. That is as universal as the fact that the man always rides up front on a Harley. What happens is that even when the woman is flying she’s nothing more than a voice-activated autopilot and that is absolutely no fun.” Let’s call this THE GUY DRIVES THE HARLEY FACTOR. It is no coincidence the Harley-Davidson brand motorcycle is called a ‘hog’. Couples who fly together find the greatest peace in the cockpit when they behave as the professionals do. The ground rules include acknowledging that the person in the left seat is genuinely the pilot in command (PIC). In an emergency only one person can fly the plane, so the ‘who’s driving’ issue must be settled before takeoff. Imagine what auto insurance rates would be if cars had dual controls. Settling the command issue means more than just saying the words; it means trusting the PIC. For example, pilots Larry and Martha Walker of Winter Haven, Florida, have flown together for years, yet when Martha was recently PIC she remarked that the right brake didn’t work. As they taxied down the ramp, Larry insisted the brakes had just been fixed. Martha asked him to taxi back to the hangar. Larry ended up steering the plane off the taxiway into the grass, where he graciously apologized. It all goes back to the question — Would a man treat another man this way? Which brings us to the

I’M ONLY TRYING TO HELP FACTOR

Even men with zero flight training have been known to offer advice from the right seat. How many men have ‘helped’ women fly by adjusting controls from the right seat? This can be wonderfully handy with the consent and knowledge of the PIC; without consent, however, the mysterious change of power, radio frequencies and such can be hazardous. If a man wouldn’t touch the controls when another man is in command, then he shouldn’t do so when a woman is in command. After all, cockpit fights are such poor form. They destroy morale among the passengers. John King recommends professional cockpit resource management. “The co-pilot on a commercial airliner doesn’t fiddle with the throttle or adjust the gear without a command from the captain, they just don’t do that. Period. Ever. And you don’t make wild comments, as the co-pilot, in giving your opinion about this or that. All you can do is present facts. So you can say ‘sink is one thousand’ — that’s okay — ‘you’re too low and darn it you’re descending too fast’ is not correct because it’s an opinion.” Dennis and Janeen Kochan, of Winter Haven, Florida, flew for separate carriers and are flight instructors. Janeen, a guest speaker at Lakeland’s Sun ‘N Fun Fly-In, observed that “the tone in the cockpit, when couples are flying together, reflects their total relationship.” She’s met men who nag their wives and girlfriends of pilots whose interest in aviation stopped on their wedding day. Change of altitude does not change the relationship. Let’s call this the

FLYING PIG FACTOR

If the relationship stinks on the ground, it will stink in the air, too. For some couples, the happiest arrangement may be for the man to fly left seat. A woman who doesn’t want to fly the plane might enjoy reading the checklist aloud, setting the transponder, learning how to operate the radios and writing down instructions from controllers during flight. For couples to develop a sound working relationship in the cockpit, they must communicate clearly and honestly to establish their own ground rules. Because men hold 94 percent of the airmen certificates, men predominantly influence the future of general aviation by inviting women to fly.
Cessna Centurion 210

This is me with my favorite plane.

Here are a few suggestions for making flights more enjoyable for women. Allow a woman time to enjoy flying. Not everyone feels love at first sight. Some require courtship. Go the extra mile to make each flight a wonderful experience. This can mean waiting for good weather before taking up a skittish passenger. Start with brief flights and work up to long flights. Discover where she wants to go. Treat each other with the same courtesy you would use with royalty. Communicate clearly and respectfully. Never perform aerial stunts (slow flight, loops, rolls, spins, stalls) without the prior knowledge and eager consent of the passenger. The pilot in command is an earned title. Respect it. And finally, be prepared to share PIC duties if she becomes as enthralled with flying as you are. It can happen.

The Plane Truth

Getting my pilot’s license could be a boost for my marriage–if it didn’t kill us first.

“Why can’t you take up golf?” I pleaded when my husband, Maury, announced he was going to learn to fly. Fly? First the red sports car, now this? Was this part of a man’s “go-fast stage” of life?

But the more I tried to talk him out of his newfound desire, the more set he was to try it.

I had a feeling this one would test our relationship. And all my pleadings were in vain.

Throughout his training, Maury urged me to take lessons. But I wasn’t interested in riding in a small airplane, let alone piloting one.

I preferred tamer activities, such as water skiing in the alligator-infested lakes of Central Florida where we live. Of course, when I tried to learn to water ski, I broke a bone in my foot and sprained my neck. Bad knees prevented me from keeping up with him during snow skiing, and a near brush with drowning made scuba diving less than appealing.

But we wanted to find fun hobbies we could share. My pursuits of cross-stitch, gardening, and reading didn’t lend themselves to drawing us closer as a couple. And Maury, who loved flying from day one, believed sincerely he’d found just the hobby for both of us to experience together.

“You should try it. It’s really fun,” he insisted. I responded that I don’t appreciate being “should” upon. This hobby definitely wasn’t love at first sight—for me.

A death-defying ride

Several months later Maury earned his license and offered me a ride. My first impulse was to shout “No way!” But I knew how much it meant to him, so I nervously accepted.

During our flight, he explained how safe the plane was and how stable it flew in an engine failure. Then—at 4,000 feet above an orange grove—it sounded like the engine stopped.

While he excitedly told me how many miles the plane would glide, I sucked air and stared at the panel of blinking lights, knobs, and dials.

This stunt provoked not only panic but severely uncharitable thoughts toward the man I loved and had trusted.

“Handling emergencies,” he explained, “is part of the training.”

“Start it up again now!” I screamed. This was not how I wanted to spend my final moments.

“It’s okay. I have it under control,” Maury soothed, manipulating the hateful controls.

“Yeah, well, I don’t,” I yelled.

If hell had a theme-park this would be the featured ride, I thought.

The engine roared back to life and I resumed breathing. By the time we landed I’d calmed to seething fury. Maury was genuinely shocked that I hadn’t enjoyed my first ride. Apparently, by simulating the worst-case scenario— engine failure—he hoped to prove there was nothing to fear. He explained that a similar demonstration had impressed him, so he assumed it would have the same effect on me. I explained that it made me want to beat him senseless.

I can fly!

Clearly, Maury was committed to this hobby and would continue flying with or without me. My choices were: A) avoid small planes and spend weekends alone—which didn’t meet our doing fun hobbies together quota, or B) take a few lessons so I could land the plane in an emergency—such as if he ever choked the engine again.

After deliberating my options, I finally—reluctantly—chose option B. Flying was important to Maury, it was something I could do with him, and it could be an extra boost for our marriage—if it didn’t kill us first.

Maury was delighted. “You’re going to love this!” he said. “Just think about all the fun we can have together.”

Yeah, right.

Male pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, and the ones so visible on commercial flights, gave me the impression that aviation was a male-dominated realm. The only significant woman pilot I could name then was Amelia Earhart. According to what I knew, Lindbergh was famous because he’d successfully flown across an ocean; Earhart because she had died trying. Not a ringing endorsement.

The few local women pilots I interrogated stressed that learning to fly wasn’t as mentally challenging as getting a college degree or as physically demanding as childbirth. After a “been there, done that” self pep talk, I called a certified flight instructor for an abbreviated course on how to call for help on the radio and to provide practice in landing the plane. Patient, courageous, and witty, Don Kohler had been flying longer than I’d been alive, and the folks at the airport said he didn’t scare easily.

Don and I practiced landings for weeks with both of us holding the controls while Don talked through the procedure. Over time he loosened his grip more and more until one day I looked over and saw his arms folded and his feet off the rudder pedals. I’d landed the plane! And with no injuries and no airplane parts left behind on the runway. Cue the Peter Pan soundtrack: “I can fly, I can fly. I can fly!”

The friendly skies

Flush with adrenaline and success, I wanted more. When I told my sweetie I needed more lessons, well, you’d think Ed McMahon had handed him a giant cardboard check. I hadn’t seen him that excited—with his clothes on, anyway—in years. Money flowed toward this mutual objective.

It wasn’t enough for me to go along for the ride or to hold the charts for him. It wasn’t enough for me to be an educated passenger. I wanted us to be a team of qualified pilots. After earning my private pilot’s license, I earned the coveted instrument rating so my husband and I could simply take turns flying. Maury earned a commercial license with seaplane, instrument and multi-engine ratings as well. While I’ll probably never catch up to him, I’ve achieved skills beyond his—and my—expectations. I even took a few aerobatic lessons, just for the thrill of it.

So what if my hair gets re-styled by headsets and I smell like aviation fuel? Who would think that 110 low lead could be an aphrodisiac? Friends who once told us we were crazy now ask for rides. To afford a great airplane we share ownership of a well-equipped Cessna 210 (identified as N761XD) with two other couples. I’m alive in my husband’s heart as a can-do woman who shares his new exciting world of aviation. Oh—and I love it when he calls me Captain.

Joni climbing into an RV-6Embracing my husband’s hobby taught me to stretch my boundaries and to overcome fear through knowledge and ability. Flying gives my husband a separate world from his high-stress job as an orthopedic surgeon. Flying gives me freedom. Flying gives us both a new and exciting dimension to our relationship.

According to the statistics branch of the Federal Aviation Administration, women hold only 6 percent of the airman certificates in the United States. I’m proud to be one of them. My husband is so proud that he works, “My wife is a pilot” into conversations. Sure, over the last eight years we’ve flown to West Texas, Northern Michigan, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, and many places in between. But the more significant benefit of sharing this hobby is that it brings a level of intimacy—we trust each other with our lives. And we spend more time together.

Sharing a hobby helped prevent us from drifting apart when it seemed some days that our only common interests were our daughter and our faith. Though we also have separate interests, we have this one to share, to draw us together, and enjoy long after our child leaves home. I would have robbed our relationship if I hadn’t taken those trial flying lessons to see why my husband embraced this hobby. Maury was right. Flying is fun, and yes, for us, it beats playing golf.


This article first appeared in 2006 in a Christianity Today publication. They were publishing a series on how sharing a hobby can affect the marriage relationship. The original is in their archives.

Parts of this piece were adapted from AOPA PILOT.