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.

Not Just Along for the Ride

cover of AOPA Pilot magazine“Why can’t you take up golf?” I pleaded when my husband Maury announced he was going to learn to fly. First the red sports car, now this? My second reaction was to check our life insurance policies and our will. Was this part of a man’s ‘go-fast’ stage of life? He seemed undeterred by news clippings of commercial airliners pictured as twisted smoking remains. I feared what I didn’t know. I worried about the dangers that he would face in an environment with such fatal consequences for error. Would he perform as well at flying as someone who does it for a living?

Throughout his training, he urged me to take lessons, but I wasn’t interested in riding in a small airplane, let alone controlling one. I preferred tamer, safer activities, such as waterskiing in the alligator-infested lakes of Central Florida, where we lived. Maury loved flying from day one and tried to instill his enthusiasm in me. At times his insistence, that I should do as he does, felt like badgering or nagging. I didn’t appreciate being ‘should’ upon and told him so. Suddenly the nagging stopped, and I traced the cause back to his flight instructor, who had warned him that nagging creates resistance.

FIRST FLIGHT

After Maury got his certificate, he offered me a ride. Knowing how diligently he had studied this new hobby, I felt obliged to go. What a mistake. He explained how safe the plane was and said something about how stable it flew in an engine failure, and then—at 4,000 feet—it sounded as if he had stopped the engine. While he told me how many miles the plane would glide, I sucked air and stared at the panel of blinking lights, knobs and dials, hating them all. This stunt provoked panic and severely uncharitable thoughts toward the man I had loved and trusted for sixteen years. Handling emergencies, he explained, was part of the training. Smiling, he told me that he had everything under control, but all I could think about was beating him senseless if we survived.

“Start it up again now!” I demanded, dreading the long fall to the orange groves below. This was not how I wanted to spend my final moments.

When the sounds of the engine returned, my fear converted to silent fury. He had meant well. He believed that by simulating the worst-case scenario—an engine failure—he would prove that there was nothing to fear. By the time we landed I had calmed down to mere yelling. He was shocked that I hadn’t enjoyed the ride. This stunt kept me away from small planes for six months.

Clearly, he would continue flying with or without me. My choices were: to never get into a small plane—and spend weekends alone—or learn to fly so that I could land if I had to. I decided to challenge my fears.

Male pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, and the ones so common on commercial flights, gave me the impression of aviation as a male-dominated realm. The only significant woman pilot I could name then was Amelia Earhart. In my mind, Lindbergh was famous because he had successfully flown across an ocean, and Earhart because she had died trying.

WOMEN PILOTS?

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’ pep talk to myself, I called Don Kohler, CFII, for an abbreviated training course on how to call for help on the radio and to provide practice in landing the plane. Patient, courageous, and witty, Kohler was the perfect instructor for me. He had been flying longer than I’d been alive, and the folks at the airport said that he didn’t scare easily.

I learned two important things on the first lesson: one, my feet couldn’t reach the rudder pedals; and two, bulky earrings don’t go with headsets. By lesson two, I had a booster seat and studs, and we went flying.

Kohler encouraged me through the hurricane season flight by flight. On our third flight, he casually brought up his beliefs about the afterlife, quickly adding that he wasn’t in a hurry to test them and would I please not touch the mixture control on final approach again. Gee, how did he know that I had momentarily confused it with the throttle?

Kohler’s coaching built my confidence and knowledge in increments, introducing me to each knob and dial, each chart and calculation and its importance. The only time I became unnerved came when we were on final approach at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field, a non-tower controlled field. After I dutifully announced my position in the approach pattern on the downwind leg, the base leg, and the final leg, a man announced that he, too, was on short final and was going to ‘scoot’ under us. His low-wing plane zoomed 200 feet below us seconds later. I couldn’t reply to Scooter because what I wanted to say to him was prohibited according to FCC directives. I was forced to execute a go-around because landing behind him would have caused a crash. Scooter was long gone from the airport by the time we landed.

After hearing about the day’s lesson, my husband said, “Welcome to uncontrolled airspace.”

Helicopters, seaplanes, skydivers, hot air balloons, gliders, birds, and ‘stealth-flyer wannabes’ who don’t use the radio offer a variety of hazards for pilots. But, as my mother says, “Life is not fair—adjust.”

After many practice landings, the instructor dropped his hands in his lap and let me land the plane. My goal changed. YEEEEHA! No more learning just enough for an emergency; I wanted more. I wanted my certificate. When we walked into Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base, where I had rented the airplane, Kohler congratulated me again and then urged me to leave immediately; he recommended running. I obediently ran to the van and zipped home.

At our next lesson, he explained the peculiar traditions for celebrating a solo flight, such as cutting out and hanging the back of the pilot’s shirt or throwing the person in the lake. Had I known, I’d have kept a Dolly Parton-size bra handy for them to hang in my name.

Our neighbors, the Walkers, often took Saturdays to fly to the beach for what they called a hundred-dollar hamburger. They demonstrated the fun of flying as more than a means to get somewhere. The ground school course that I studied, featuring John and Martha King, also showed couples happily flying together. I wanted to be part of a team, to be more than someone just along for the ride, more than someone to hold the charts. It took me a year to get the certificate, completing the practical flight exam on my instructor’s birthday.

I’ve found no negative discrimination from male pilots beyond the usual “you have your license?” asked after I’ve already said so. Well, then there was the time that I walked into an airport lounge and the men stopped talking and looked uncomfortable. Doubting that their silence was from awe or hormone surges, I wondered if they were offended that a woman dared to enter their Y-Chromosome sanctum, so I didn’t linger. It turned out that the men weren’t offended by me; in fact, they were trying to avoid offending me because my sudden appearance had interrupted a rude joke. I can live with that. I can also live with having my hair restyled by David Clark headsets. And I can live with the smell of aviation fuel as my signature scent.

SIX PERCENT

Joni M Fisher with planeAccording to Diane Green, management assistant at the aviation piloting statistics branch of the FAA, women hold only six percent of the airman certificates in the United States. I’m proud to be one of them. And maybe, one day, we can fix that title. How long would men tolerate being called airwomen? How about calling us all fliers or aviators or pilots instead? Flying skills are not gender specific.

My husband is so proud that I challenged my fears to embrace his favorite activity that he works “My wife is a pilot” into conversations. I hope women settle for more than holding charts. Aim higher. Hold the controls. Flying is fun, and yes, I’d even recommend it over playing golf.


AOPA PILOT, The Airplane Owners and Pilots Association magazine, is the largest circulation magazine in general aviation with 400,000 subscribers. This article appeared in the New Pilot’s Journal column in November 1998. In 2000, I earned the instrument rating for single-engine land aircraft.

Six Percent Sound Off

SIX PERCENT SOUND OFF

Cessna Centurion 210

This is me with my favorite plane.

Let a headset mess your hair,

Break a nail, you don’t care,

You have earned the right to fly.

Goodbye roads and hello sky!

High wing, low wing, try them all,

Aerobatics have a ball.

If any man should give you flack,

Check your six, I got your back.

 

Only six percent of pilots are women. I wrote this to a pal when she earned her wings. She said to share it. So to my sisters in flight, whatever you fly, this one’s for you, too!

 

Six percent.

This is hubby’s favorite airplane. I am his co-pilot.

Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC

North pavillion

North pavillion

The 7th Annual Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC, will be held from September 4th to 8th, 2013. This is not your port-a-potty and picnic table kind of fly-in. No, siree. As a veteran of five Triple Tree Fly-Ins, I enthusiastically recommend it for the southern hospitality of everyone involved. In rain and shine, I’ve had fun at Triple Tree.

First of all, the Triple Tree Aerodrome (SC00) has a grass runway (03/21) with a tower manned by FAA volunteers from Greenville, SC., for special events. Pat Hartness, retired CEO of Hartness International, bought the tower for $100 from a nearby military airfield and had it cut into quarters from top to bottom and reassembled on the Triple Tree airstrip. He won’t tell me how much that effort cost.

South pavilion overlooking lake

South pavilion overlooking lake

Secondly, surrounding the grass strip lies 400 acres of lush camp ground, two small lakes, a wooden pavilion on the south end of the field,  two wooden restroom buildings with granite counter tops, and a large masonry building on the crest of a hill overlooking the north lake that has a walk-in fireplace and kitchen manned by an army of friendly volunteers.

Owned by Pat and Marylou Hartness, the Triple Tree Aerodrome is best known for hosting radio-controlled airplane events that features one quarter-, one-third and even half-scale models. (The power to weight ratio is off the scale for these models.) The September fly-in is referred to as a full-scale model event.

Pilots from KGIF

Pilots from KGIF

Pat Hartness has a hangar full of radio-controlled airplanes on display at the south end of the field near the larger of the two lakes and the large pavilion where the Saturday night BBQ is held on a bluff overlooking the field. His full-scale toys are also kept there when he doesn’t need the hangar for concerts and parties.

Greenville Jet Center supplies a fuel trailer and a van for the event. The local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol volunteers manpower and a VHF Comm Radio for the control tower. Vendors offer food, souvenirs, and some airplane supplies.

Hands-on workshop

Hands-on workshop

And for those pilots who want hands-on workshops, come to the south pavilion behind the hangar. Wherever you go on the field or in the pavilions enjoy hangar talk, tall tales and the company of like-minded aviation enthusiasts.

Fishing, hiking, karaoke and cookouts around the lake make this a fun family getaway. On occasion the Fly-In offers a day tour to nearby shopping areas, and plantations.

Triple Tree Tower

Triple Tree Tower

Participants can camp by their airplanes at the north end of the field. The larger curved lake at the south end of the field can accommodate sea planes. Those wishing to bring campers or recreational vehicles can park near restrooms and showers at the south end of the field where there are limited power hookups. Tent camping and self-powered trailer camping falls under the trees at the north end of the field. Walking on the landing strip is not allowed for safety reasons. For those who prefer to stay in hotels, see the website for local listings. For more information, such as approach procedures and frequencies, hotels and camping info, see the website: http://www.tripletreeaerodrome.com/triple-tree-fly-in.php.

N661DJ

RV-6 N661DJ

Hubby and I will be arriving in a red and white RV-6, N661DJ. See you there!