Since Captain Laura Savino first entered a cockpit, a lot has changed: fewer cigarettes, more masks, and huge advances in aviation technology. Over her 33-year career Capt. Savino has flown a staggering range of aircraft, including a B777, B767, B757, B747, B737, A319 and A320, for airlines including United, Eastern Airlines and Pan Am. Alongside this she has worked as a flight teacher, charter pilot, freight pilot, aerial sightseeing tour pilot, and aircraft repossessor.
Laura’s new book, Jet Boss: A Female Pilot on Taking Risks and Flying High, provides a compelling insight into what it takes to climb the ranks through the aviation industry as female pilot. At a period when STEM prospects for women were scarce, one teenage act of rebellion changed everything for her. If passengers on a commercial plane couldn't fathom a female flight engineer — which Laura became — imagine their surprise when they saw her piloting their widebody jet across the world. Laura is a true inspiration to all aspiring pilots, male and female.
We here at USTN were privileged enough to ask Laura a few questions on her experience of flying for the fourth instalment in our Pioneering Pilots interview series.
Your book, Jet Boss, charts your journey of breaking the glass ceiling into the male-dominated world of the commercial airline industry. Could you give our readers a flavor of what made this so difficult and what if – if any – improvements you’ve noticed in terms of attitudes towards female pilots?
Growing up before the Internet was around, I was only aware of the traditional gender roles I was directly exposed to as a child. Getting past my own ingrained biases was my first hill to climb.
Flying as a commercial airline pilot in the 80’s, I wasn’t too surprised to find pilots and flight attendants reluctant to work with me - some openly expressing their anger at the change I represented. The testosterone-charged airline culture continued to maintain long-held beliefs well after other industries had diversified. But I was quite surprised to find the biggest opposition came from passengers who genuinely felt unsafe having a woman at the controls of their aircraft.
I never took it personally when a passenger walked off my plane. People don’t like to buck the system when it comes to their personal safety – and that was how women in the cockpit were often viewed.
I couldn’t demand respect or tell someone how to feel – all I could do was be respectful of their fears, do a good job and show them that women were quite capable and competent.
The greatest improvement has come from more people having personal positive experiences, normalizing the experience of seeing a woman in control of their aircraft.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to any woman or girl aspiring to be a pilot today?
I would tell any young woman to view herself as a ‘pilot,’ not a ‘female pilot.’ A pilot is a pilot, and aircraft can’t tell the difference.
That said, I’m also going to add that there are a lot of fantastic female aviation organizations out there, and I’d suggest finding support and friendship with other women who can best understand the questions that she may have, while also offering opportunities and fun camaraderie.
In your book, you describe one particularly nerve-wracking incident flying over the Rocky Mountains. Could you talk us through your thinking at that time and what helped you to survive?
On this day, I was flying a C172 ‘through’ the Rocky Mountains, because I was unable climb above the terrain – and I flew directly into a boxed canyon. Having a massive wall of rock suddenly fill my windshield and realizing I was aimed straight at it, stunned me momentarily and I froze in my seat. But very quickly a feeling of terror took over, and with that came an instinctive determination to live. Intensely focused on turning around in the narrow passageway, every other thought emptied from my mind. I successfully performed a vertical escape maneuver that was well outside of my purview, not because I had practiced it before or knew I could do it - but because I had to do it.
I always use checklists, fly practiced procedures and know my limits – but on this day, it was throwing that well-trained way of thinking out the window that saved me. I learned I was capable of far more than I believed I was - when I had to be. I think we all are.
Your book talks candidly about the emotional impact of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the pilot community. Do you think pilots still find this a difficult subject to talk about?
9/11 was very personal for pilots. Many were in the air and had the responsibility to get their passengers on the ground safely, after being informed of ongoing hijackings/deaths by their airline’s dispatchers. Many pilots lost friends and colleagues on this day. All pilots could connect to the horror their fellow pilots experienced, and all were directly impacted by the subsequent changes in their cockpits and in the industry.
Little regard has been given to what the pilots experienced on that horrific day, and their pain in the aftermath.
Finishing on a lighter note, over your long and distinguished career what has been your favourite aircraft and route to fly and why?
My favorite aircraft has always been whichever one I was currently flying. My second favorite would have been the Boeing 777. United was the launch customer for the 777, and it was exciting to be in the first wave of pilots to fly a completely new aircraft. And the 777 is just a beautifully built, fun machine to fly.
My favorite route was always the last leg home. No joke, I would get super excited for that final destination. Flying chartered flights into Cuba were probably the most interesting of my different routes.
Thanks Laura for such a fascinating interview. We hope you all enjoyed it as much as we did!