The following are a few of a female Part 135 pilot’s anecdotal encounters with the rest of the world. 

It was actually -23 when I started.

The outside temperature at the Talkeetna airport read minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It had warmed up from the overnight low, but I still struggled to make the de Havilland Otter ready for its flight to the Alaska Range. Two different winter solo climbers, bound for two different mountains, were supposed to fly out on one aircraft. One, a humble veteran of many winter ascents, and the other a young German, new to the Alaska Range. Denali Basecamp, their destination, sits at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. In the summertime, it is a colorful tent city of international bustle. In the winter things are different: It is a stark, windswept expanse of snow in the perpetual shade of Mount Hunter. I had been flying the Otter all week, but because of the challenging nature of the flight (landing on a dark glacier with no runway markers and minus-20-degree temperatures), my boss was driving today. I rode along happily as a support crewman.

“Did you fly this last?” he said with a laugh as he struggled to lower the cranky pilot’s seat from my impossibly high, forward position. The veteran, sitting just behind us, had known me when I was brand-new to all of this. “It’s so great that you get to fly these now,” he said graciously. And that’s when the German let out a hoot of laughter. He couldn’t hear very well under his large fur hat, and had mistaken our exchange as us joking about me flying. “No, you won’t be flying these!” He was laughing at the idea of me at the controls. And, even as the words tumbled out of his mouth, I forgave him. You see, I’m used to this kind of reaction.

Turbine Otter and my passengers on the glacier

I can think of nowhere in aviation where passengers interact so closely with their pilot. We talk to them in the air, spend time with them on the glacier, and cultivate a relationship as ambassadors to Denali National Park. The vast majority of passengers react positively when I fetch them for a flight. I’ve been called all kinds of nice things. My hand gets shaken warmly. Little girls and wives, normally destined for spaces aft, clamour to sit in the copilot’s seat. My youth and gender likely make many nervous, but they mostly keep it to themselves. Sometimes, though, bad things rise to the surface: The Korean matron that refuses to get in my Otter, the man from Alabama joking about me being the flight attendant, the guy from Seattle wondering aloud why the male ramper isn’t climbing into the pilot’s seat, the anxious woman whispering that she’d prefer a “real pilot,” the tour guide that makes a comment about my “nice body” as he’s seeing his clients off, the guy from the East Coast that I overheard calling me a “liability” as I walked past. That one hurt.

Thankfully, my coworkers are brave, intelligent men who treat me fairly. However, other pilots can fall prey to misconceptions, sometimes in hilarious ways. In my state, there are these ubiquitous macho big dudes in camo that drone on about their Cub-driving days, florid with war stories. They call me “little lady,” and tell me incriminating things about their flying that I would never disclose to a stranger. When pressed, many of them have not held a valid medical certificate for years. Those guys are always good for some silent humor. Humor is one of my ways of dealing with these things.

One time, a shiny polished-metal Beaver (I’ll leave the particular air taxi’s name out) came to a stop near the aircraft that I was fueling. After seeing his passengers off, the young pilot sauntered over. He stopped next to me, and made friendly but slightly annoying small talk. Befitting my gender, I listened politely. And then he paused. “I didn’t know they let rampers fuel the planes here.” “They don’t,” I replied. The kid didn’t get it. “Are any of the pilots around?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, barely containing my smile. “I bet there are some in the office.”

We all feel bad weather sometimes.

I don’t want my readers to think I’m complaining. As I mentioned before, the vast majority of people react positively. It’s pretty fun to be a woman “making it” in a male-dominated field. However, the negative encounters give me pause. Sometimes those things hurt. Sometimes they can’t be anulled with humor.

Truth is relative. The proponents of cognitive dissonance say that we can make ourselves think anything is true. Stereotypes exist because they are where most people’s truths coincide. They are the median perception of the collective. Because of that, I can mostly forgive the keepers of the stereotype. But occasionally, it sucks. And really, no one should have to be held in the negative thrall of one. I think the key to breaking down stereotypes may be empathy. Empathy, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, means “…the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person situation.” Everyone I know, white males included, has been judged by their appearance.  I bet that young pilot that stereotyped me gets judged all the time for being young. We have all felt this judgement in our own way: for being too old, too young, overweight, not rich enough, not handsome enough, the wrong color, the wrong gender, etc. Though these experiences run a vast spectrum, I think that if we could all tap into the  fact that we all have them, and this is something we share, then I think it would help to break down barriers created by stereotypes. And that’s why I think it’s good to see a woman in the cockpit. Heck, that’s why it’s good to have diversity in the cockpit. I think it’d be nice to have a more open, less judgemental society. And I think everyone would benefit.

Young(ish) woman in a man’s world: pretty fun.

The stereotype that I battle is a deep one. I know this because of the cross-section of my stereotypers: In this article alone, you have heard from young guys, old guys, minorities, women, foreigners, and Americans. Even progressive liberals have stereotyped me.

One March, I was loading a Beaver with four skier guys headed for a week in the Alaska Range. After spending hours weighing and dragging and loading them and their stuff, I flopped into the pilot seat. “Y-you’re the pilot?!” one of them stammered. These guys were young professionals from Portland. I guess I had stereotyped them for being more perceptive than this. Couldn’t hold my humor in this time.

“What’d you think I was, the ramp welcoming committee?” I laughed. “Now… how do you start this thing?”

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.