‘First Lady of the Flight Deck’ Honored at Retirement Party

Air Line Pilot, September/October 2002, p.18

By Capt. Jean Haley Harper (United)

The first time I ever heard of Emily Howell was in the spring of 1973. I was waiting in the pilot lounge at the University of North Dakota flight operations hangar when my commercial student (now a senior captain for Northwest Airlines) sauntered in with a long face and a glum pronouncement. Frontier Airlines, he muttered, had just hired a woman pilot.

From hiring to retiring, Emily Howell Warner had gone the distance.

Good heavens—at last! My heart hit the ceiling, and I almost screamed with excitement while he mourned, head in hands, the end of what used to be an exclusively male profession. As a 23-year-old female aviation student and flight instructor, I had optimistically committed myself years earlier to preparing for a career that had never before been entered successfully by a woman in this country. It was an exciting, although at times unnerving, aspiration. But now—I was ecstatic.

My friend later admitted that he was only teasing me with the chauvinist act. He knew how much that news would mean to me, and he wanted to deliver it himself.

In the early days

Of course I’d read about Helen Ritchie, who served as a copilot for Central Airlines in 1935. Regrettably, she resigned after less than a year, when it became evident that she would never be fully accepted into the pilot ranks, or allowed to join the union. Times were different then, and public opinion was slow to evolve. Even the elite Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II, more than a thousand female aviators who flew everything from AT-6s to B-25s, were turned away from airline hiring offices.

I was 11 years old in 1961 when my dad, a crop-duster pilot, pointed out a newspaper article featuring Turi Wideroe, a pretty blonde woman who had just been hired as a copilot for Scandinavian Air in Europe. I was wide-eyed with wonder and eager for more news about her, or any other female airline pilots elsewhere in the world. (Rumor had it that some women flew for Soviet airlines behind the Iron Curtain; but during the Cold War, such news was sketchy and difficult to verify.) Years passed and I never heard anything more, even by the time I’d earned my pilot certificates.

Perhaps this conspicuous lack of role models was the inspiration for the early 1970s Robert Serling novel, dauntingly titled She’ll Never Get Off the Ground—a fictional account of the first American female airline pilot. (Wideroe was actually mentioned, in a make-believe "celebrity cameo," to have congratulated the main character on her hiring.) In the end, the protagonist chose love over duty and lost her Airline Transport Pilot certificate. How depressing.…I’d foolishly hoped for a happier ending.

Even with competitive qualifications, I knew, history had shown that it would not be an easy road for women attempting to enter this profession. While I had some prior experience in cracking walls of resistance to female pilots on a much smaller scale, the thought of filing a civil lawsuit against any airline (as I’d been told I would probably have to do to force the hiring of women) made me shudder. There had to be someone out there so eminently qualified that she would be hired on merit alone—someone who could fill shoes that were far too big for me at that time.

A new era

There was—and she didn’t have to go to court to get a shot at the job of her dreams. I instantly loved this lady named Emily Howell—an individual who, by that point, was clearly no publicity stunt, but a legitimate member of the pilot workforce who would be expected to upgrade to captain and remain actively employed until retirement age, just like every other pilot who had preceded her. Emily’s place in aviation history, I was certain, would be as important and influential as Amelia Earhart’s.

The interline scuttlebutt I picked up from airline pilots passing through Grand Forks whenever I asked if they’d heard of the Frontier Lady was encouragingly positive: "Well-qualified"—"Good pilot"—"Everybody likes her." In a profession where dirt is brutally disseminated and negative rumors fly faster than a B-727, these men consistently spoke of Emily with genuine respect. Before that year was over, American Airlines, Delta, Pacific Western (Canada), and Eastern had hired their first women pilots.

A dream realized

Five years, a college degree, and several flying jobs later, I was hired in early 1978, along with two other women, as the first female pilot candidates of United Airlines. You can imagine my excitement when, 12 years after my first flying lesson and the intensity (not to mention public scrutiny) of new-hire pilot training, the three of us received an invitation to a social gathering of women airline pilots in Las Vegas, Nev.—and Emily would be there! Twenty-one young, vivacious ladies, representing 10 different airlines, showed up in May 1978 to talk nonstop, compare flying stories, party together, and become instant lifelong friends. These women were the first genuine, same-gender peers I’d ever met outside of my own airline—and that had only been a few months earlier. Suddenly a cheer went up—Emily had arrived.

I’m not sure what kind of a person I expected (someone with "scarf and goggles" flamboyance, perhaps?); instead, we met a 30-ish woman who was warm, quiet, and conservatively dressed, without a hint of pretension and with a disarming sense of modesty. I was amazed—she looked like any school kid’s mom. While she gently protested that she had only done the same job that thousands of other pilots ahead of her had accomplished with no fanfare whatsoever, she nonetheless graciously acknowledged our accolades—and her auspicious place in aviation. By the time the charter members of the newly minted International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21) returned home to our beloved jets, high from the experience, I felt certain that the best possible person had opened the door for us all.

Modern-day pioneer

Even after I’d made it into the Big Leagues, I never stopped looking up to Emily—who by then was married to Julius Warner—as a mentor and role model. Her historic groundbreaking continued when she became the first female member of the Air Line Pilots Association, and later the first female airline captain in the United States (of a Frontier Twin Otter). Her four-stripe uniform is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, along with the Mercury capsule and the Spirit of St. Louis.

Nonetheless, Emily Warner could only watch as younger women from other carriers—all of whom had benefited from her trailblazing—were promoted to the captain’s seat of transport jets (one in a widebody) ahead of her. Despite the frustration of differences in progression between airlines, she thoughtfully honored her sister pilots’ achievements by establishing the "Captain’s Club" within ISA to recognize those who successfully upgraded to the left seat. Her own intense desire to be in command of a transport jet was eventually realized, as was mine (about a decade later!). One of my proudest moments as an ISA member was accepting my Captain’s Club award—from Emily herself.

Capt. Warner’s career, like that of thousands of other pilots in the era of deregulation, was not without its disappointments and setbacks. After Frontier’s bankruptcy in 1986, she sought and found work flying for Continental and United Parcel Service before accepting a position with the FAA as a full-time Aviation Safety Inspector and Aircrew Program Manager for the Boeing 737 fleet of United Airlines in Denver.

Although her career didn’t end with a rousing Frontier jetway party on her last trip as a captain, as we all once assumed it would, her friends in the United Airlines B-737 fleet—nicknamed "The Guppy Club"—hosted one themselves. B-737-300 Standards Captain Christopher Sheehey, Program Support Coordinators Sally Smith and Dan Sisneros, and B-737 Flight Training Programs Specialist Theresa Saul-Laughlin organized a gala dinner dance in her honor on April 26 at the Stapleton Doubletree Hotel, to toast her retirement.


Inside the crowded ballroom, a large screen displayed a black-and-white high school graduation portrait of young Emily Hanrahan. The guest of honor happily greeted about two hundred friends and co-workers, including representatives of ALPA, Clinton Aviation, the FAA, the original Frontier Airlines, ISA+21, the 99s (International Organization of Women Pilots), and United Airlines. A cake I made for her, an edible replica of a Frontier captain’s hat on a field of sky blue adorned with a red rose, symbolized the feminine touch she brought to a predominantly masculine career field.

The program, narrated by master of ceremonies Christopher Sheehey, was a musical and pictorial presentation produced by Theresa Laughlin. The entertaining video highlighted women’s progress in aviation before blending into Emily’s career. Even though the tone was intentionally lighthearted and humorous as pictures of an attractive, slender young lady in her 20s in and around a slew of airplanes were flashed upon the screen, the undeniable magnitude of what she had accomplished was palpable. Cheers and applause spontaneously erupted when the show got to the point of her actual hiring at Frontier, and Capt. Sheehey had to pause several times for the enthusiasm to die down so he could continue.

A foot in the door

An insider’s viewpoint of Emily’s history-making career breakthrough was provided in a colorful and candid documentary written by retired Frontier captain and former MEC Chairman Billy Walker. Another former Frontier pilot (now a United captain), who had been one of Emily’s copilots on the B-737, commented that the original Frontier was not at all a politically correct workplace at that time, and that she had picked a mighty rough environment in which to break a powerfully entrenched tradition. But change it she did, and in doing so, won the respect of many male pilots who may not have been especially happy, at first, to make room for a lady in their cockpits and crew rooms.

Capt. J.R. Russell, the newly appointed Denver chief pilot for United Airlines, presented Emily with an airline pin, followed by a large arrangement of red, white, and blue flowers from Theresa Laughlin, on behalf of the United B-737 pilots. The Colorado Chapter of the 99s presented their friend and fellow member a gift assembled by Donna Miller and Bev Sinclair. It was a framed set of Jeppesen airport diagrams of both Stapleton and Denver International Airports, symbolic of the breadth of Emily’s career, which started and ended in Denver.

Thanks, Emily

The individual tributes to Emily were started off by a retired United manager who, as a young man, had been one of her instrument flight students at Clinton Aviation. Other personal stories, some by women airline pilots for whom Emily had been their primary role model, thanked her for her courage, tenacity, strength of character, and class.

Several groups of people were asked to stand and be recognized—all the female airline pilots in attendance (a large number), anyone who had ever taken a checkride from Emily (also a sizeable crowd, mostly men), and anyone who had ever given Emily a checkride (only two older gentlemen, one of whom was Jim Muncey, her original flight instructor from Clinton Aviation). The gratitude for her widespread positive influence was clearly as deep, genuine, and heartfelt from the men in attendance as it was from the women.

At last the guest of honor herself got the chance to speak, after having been repeatedly embarrassed with praise (and likely moved to tears) several times that evening. She retold, from her point of view, the story of her "camping out" for weeks on Frontier’s doorstep in the early 1970s; of the interview and tough checkride, and the string of events that led to Frontier, after due consideration, coming up with no reasons not to hire her. It was a story of which I never tire, that always gives me chills, and had the entire room of seasoned aviation professionals captivated.

When truth is better than fiction

She explained the significance of the flowers. The Norwegian aviation pioneer, Turi Wideroe, had personally congratulated Emily back in 1973 by sending her a similar red, white, and blue bouquet. "But these mean more to me," she said. (For the benefit of those who hadn’t heard of author Serling’s novel of which Emily ultimately played out the real-life role, she briefly recapped the plot, saying that she didn’t like the ending.) When Capt. Warner declared, in parting words of wisdom, that "what goes around, comes around," she was alluding to her career, which started out in the jumpseat of a Boeing 737 as a flight engineer, and ended in exactly the same place, giving checkrides for the FAA.

The prolonged standing ovation that followed brought the realization home—she did it! From hiring to retiring, Emily Howell Warner had gone the distance. This down-to-earth, patiently persistent woman with an easy smile and quiet dignity—who never purposely set out to call attention to herself, from whom I’ve never heard an unkind word about anyone, who took her career more seriously than herself, who was a loving wife and mother—made "age 60" look beautiful. And (unlike her fictional alter ego) Emily didn’t have to choose between love and flying. She got both.

"Emily?" came a childlike voice over the loud speaker during the band’s intermission. Up on the stage was a red-haired boy, about 10 or 11 years old, whom I recognized from a table near the one I shared with my family.

The brave little guy clutched the microphone nervously. Was he going to sing her a song?

"Emily?" he said again, trying to get her attention as the buzz of the crowd quieted. He took a deep breath.

"I love you!"

The spontaneous cheer of approval confirmed it—he spoke for us all.

This article is adapted with permission from Centennial Aviation and Business Journal, June 2002.

Capt. Jean Harper (United), based in Denver, lives in Centennial, Colo., with her husband, Victor, also a United captain, and their two teenaged children.