When my mother died, in 1974, and left me some money, one of my first purchases was a VW bug. A novice driver, I remember taking three members of the Women’s Press Collective across the Bay Bridge, and thinking that if I made a mistake I’d wipe out our entire enterprise. All the same, despite my lack of behind-the-wheel experience, I decided to take the next step and learn to pilot a plane.
This wasn’t an entirely new thought. At age 10 I had dreamed of being the first little girl on Mars. Frequent visits to the Hayden Planetarium and a science fiction series on TV kept that ambition alive. It was my understanding that you had to be a pilot to join the space program, but I didn’t have money for lessons, nor did I know of an aviation school in NYC. Then when I was 15, an Air Force recruiter came to our high school. I was ready to apply, saying confidently, “You’ll teach me how to fly.”
The arrogant twerp replied, “We don’t teach girls to fly.”
It wasn’t until 1973 that an American commercial airline hired their first woman pilot, Bonnie Tiburzi. She was 24 and had connections—she learned the trade at her daddy’s knee, as he’d flown for SAS and TWA. That same year, the Navy began allowing women to train for the profession.
In 1974, as a long-time antiwar activist, anarcho-socialist, and lesbian feminist, I had no intention of joining NASA, the Air Force, or any other government agency, even if there had been the remotest chance that they would accept me. Instead I came up with the notion of starting my own company: Amelia Airlines, where women would hold all the jobs, from pilot to mechanic to flight attendant.
The nearest aviation school was in Hayward. My instructor was the epitome of niceness and competence, and seemed to have no problems with female students. The first lesson was something of a disappointment, though. I had fantasized that piloting a small plane would feel like those dreams of flying, with the wind in my hair. Instead we rode up and down in a small, noisy box—so noisy I could barely understand the radio communications from the control tower.
Nevertheless, I persisted, at least for a while. One day I managed to put the plane in a nose dive, inadvertently simulating zero gravity, with papers flying around the cockpit. My instructor rescued us from what would have been a lethal crash. I thought it was funny, but when I told the story to my housemates, they were not amused.
A lesson or two later, I asked the instructor how long it would take to get a commercial pilot’s license, and how much would it cost. He said it would be at least $30,000 ($60,000 in today’s dollars), many times the amount I had. At that point I gave up on aviation.
Shortly after that, and as a result of the Inez Garcia trial, I learned to operate a smaller piece of hardware—a Firestar 9 mm semiautomatic pistol.
To be continued…