A View From the Cockpit

Groundbreaking retired female pilot Captain Kathy advocates for change

By Drew Myron

Kathy McCullough is not one in a million. She is one in 2,376.

In an industry dominated by men, Kathy worked 26 years as a commercial airline pilot—one of 2,376 female airline captains in the world.

It has been 45 years since the first female was hired to pilot a commercial flight— Emily Howell Warner in 1973—yet women comprise just 5 percent of pilots in North America, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

Hired in 1981 by Northwest Airlines, Kathy was the airline’s fourth female pilot and an aviation leader. But groundbreaking didn’t come easy, and Captain Kathy—now retired and living on a wheat ranch near Wasco—has lived through personal challenges and professional triumphs.

Since retiring, Kathy has written two memoirs. She is now working on a novel.

Kathy was just 16 years old when she earned her pilot’s license. A few years later, she bought her first plane, a Cessna 140.

Flying requires a rigorous and costly series of classes, testing and flight time to achieve various levels and licenses. Kathy’s middle class family did not have deep pockets. Against her parent’s wishes, the teenager pursued her dream of flight. To pay for lessons, she worked as a receptionist at the local airport, as well as waitressing, pumping gas and washing planes.

Since retiring, Kathy has written two memoirs. She is now working on a novel.

To acquire her multi-engine rating, Kathy took on an enviable role: flight attendant to rock stars. In the 1970s, she flew across the U.S. with top bands. With insider status and backstage access, she got chummy with America, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Commodores and more.

“It was just so much fun,” she says.

Later, still reaching to acquire a higher level, Kathy took on a variety of gigs: providing transport for coal mines, night pilot with infrared camera over forest fires and certified flight instructor, where she met her future husband, Kevin, who was her student.

Years later they reconnected, dated, married and moved to his family farmstead near Wasco, where they raised two children.

Kathy found she enjoyed flying cargo planes filled with an array of freight, from zoo animals to cars, salmon and even French fries.

In 1981, at 25 years old, Kathy was hired by Northwest Airlines to pilot commercial flights. She worked for the airline for 26 years, starting on the 727 and DC-10s and ascending to Captain Kathy and the Boeing 747.

From the start, there were cracks in her achievement. She says discrimination was persistent: sexist jokes, snide remarks and constant undermining. She says her every move was under a microscope, then questioned and critiqued. But she persevered and let it go, again and again, determined to prove herself.

“I always thought doing a good job would show others your ability, but that’s not enough,” Kathy says. “You have to be three times as good as a male pilot, and they still put you through the wringer.”

She says retaliation from male colleagues and the male-dominated union keeps women from speaking up and fighting back, but Kathy makes one thing clear: “I am not a male basher.”

Kathy says she has earned her perspective on gender equality. She says although discrimination was rampant in the 1980s and 90s, it is even worse now.

“It’s discouraging,” Kathy says. “It’s regressed. The struggles and prejudices I experienced in my career still exist today. We early women pilots think we have made a difference, but it hasn’t been enough. I don’t know what the answer is, but maybe if everyone does a little bit, we can make changes. It will take a huge grassroots movement and some brave women to make a difference.”

To improve the profession for others, Kathy serves as communications chairwoman for the International Society of Women Airline Pilots—a group advocating for greater visibility, acceptance and understanding of women airline pilots around the world.

As a way to encourage female pilots, the organization raises scholarship money for flight training—an expensive process that is, for many, a deterrent to becoming a commercial pilot.

Recently, the group advocated for changes to maternity policies. Kathy told the New York Times that airline maternity policies are archaic. Unlike most major companies, U.S. airlines don’t offer paid maternity leave or alternative ground assignments for breastfeeding mothers.

Airline unions—which could mandate changes—have been slow to support women’s issues, Kathy says. “They do the bare minimum,” she adds.

Kathy McCullough was the fourth female pilot to be hired by Northwest Airlines. She flew for 34 years. Photo courtesy of Kathy McCullough

Kathy did secure a win. As a former Delta pilot — Northwest Airlines merged with Delta in 2008—Kathy advocated on behalf of pilots to Delta management. American Airlines and United Airlines had changed their policy, while Delta had not. The airline finally revised its policy to provide 10 weeks’ leave and job security for up to one year. Kathy hopes other airlines will step up, too.

In 2005, at age 50, Kathy’s career was cut short with a sudden onset of visual migraines. Unable to fly, she retired after 34 years as a pilot. Other health crises soon emerged: appendix cancer and breast cancer.

She handled these personal challenges just as she had her professional hurdles: with optimism, perseverance and a gratitude that has fueled her to help others. Now recovered, Kathy speaks at schools, prisons and community centers, encouraging youth to pursue their ambitions.

Kathy is traveling again, but as an informed tourist rather than a working pilot. The landscapes she once admired from 30,000 feet are now upclose and personal. Her camera—a Nikon D800—captures every moment.

“I’m proud to say I hit the ground running on almost every layover of my career,” she writes in “To the Edges of the World,” a travel memoir featuring her photographs.

Since retirement, Kathy has published two memoirs and is working on a novel.

“Looking back,” she says, “I can’t believe the places my life has taken me.”