“Every time I walked around my Boeing 747 conducting a pre-flight check I felt a sense of amazement at the people who built such an incredible machine, capable of lifting 700,000 pounds into the air,” says Seattle-based pilot and novelist Karlene Petitt. “But when I sat in the flight deck and rotated that aircraft into the sky for the first time, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Even today, when I’m flying across the ocean, or observing a sunrise, or the power of a storm in the distance, I still feel that sense of calm. A sense of joy and gratitude for the opportunity to fly. I still feel the same as I did that first flight.”
Now into her fourth decade of flying, Karlene has flown Boeings and Airbuses for the likes of Braniff, America West, Northwest Airlines and Tower Air. She has three daughters and eight grandkids, a couple of master’s degrees, gives motivational speeches, and writes novels and children’s books. So the obvious question is, where on Earth — or in the sky — does she find the time to do it all?
“Balancing the career with small children was a challenge, but thanks to my husband’s support and encouragement we made it happen. Support of family was so important, too. I also took a non-seniority job instructing in the simulator to have a better schedule to be home more while the kids were small. Now, the more senior you become, the more flexible your schedule is for bidding purposes and I’m able to see the grandkids often.”
Karlene met her husband, Dick, 39 years ago while bagging groceries at his store (he’s now retired), and they married four years later. As for falling in love with flying, that occurred on Karlene’s first voyage — the decision to become a pilot came even earlier, aged nine. “I decided to become a pilot, but I was told girls couldn’t fly,” she tells me. “I began saving money and working, doing anything to earn money for lessons. At 16, I had enough for an introductory flight, and to pursue lessons. The moment we broke ground and began to fly, I had a sense of awe. A calmness fell over my body. It was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced, and I thought, ‘They are going to pay me to do this?’”
Karlene’s unsure from where, exactly, she draws her strength of character, but is glad to have been faced with such obstacles that led to such character growth. “I had a mother who believed I could do anything,” adds Karlene. “She always encouraged me to respectfully challenge whatever I did not feel was right. I have found strength raising children and have learned a great deal from them.”
It is, she says, simply self-defeating to worry about anything over which we have no control: “We do our best, anticipate, mitigate, and take action to do the right thing. If we do all we can, then worry is a wasted emotion. Many times in life all we can do is the best we can, and then have faith that all will work. If it doesn’t then deal with it. Lately, I have to say that much of my strength has been faith-driven.
Speaking of faith and control, have you had any terrifying experiences while flying?
“Once my nose gear was inop on my Cessna 182, and I wasn’t sure if it would come down. I had one of my daughters with me, she was just 10-months-old at the time. The gear did collpase after touchdown, but all was well. That shows the good and bad of flying. We have a situation, deal with it, and then walk away. Luckily, I’ve avoided major crisis in my aircraft, other than an engine failure in a Boeing 747, or diverting a storm or two.”
Under times of stress — or even just in general — do women pilots bring something different to the flight deck?
“Absolutely. In fact, women are more apt to want to know how the plane works before they fly, and understanding of the automated aircraft is essential. The guys have often said, ‘We fake it until we make it.’ Women are great at multi-tasking, which is required during emergencies. Many women are natural proactive safety managers — the future of aviation is about proactive safety. The ability to anticipate what could happen and solve it before it does, is the essence of the future of safety. Women are also empathetic, compassionate and listen — key elements of a quality leader in, and outside, the flight deck.”
Karlene says the industry has made great strides in terms of sexual equality. Years ago, women pilots would be the victims of cruel practical jokes such as having bricks sneaked into their flight bags or naked pictures left in the cockpit. In the early years, women were often not allowed to fly, meaning they couldn’t increase their performance. When they were allowed to fly, the captain would not assist as supporting pilot. “That part has changed,” says Karlene. “However, there are some airline cultures in existance today that still harbour that old school mentality. They don’t do things as overtly as before, but they do have different standards, allowing special benefits for men that women don’t receive. Women also have different standards of performance, which is more subjective — we have to be better. There is still a challenge with some airlines not being flexible with maternity and paternity issues, too. It’s all about culture.”
Do you feel like a pioneer in the industry?
“I don’t feel like a pinoneer in the cockpit. There were a group of women who came before me who endured the greatest challenges and paved the way for the rest of us. However, I was the first woman at a couple of my airlines, and dealt with many obstacles. What I’m working on now, pursuing safety culture improvement and writing novels, exposing the current and real aviation challenges in fiction, I do believe may be considered a pioneer work 30 years from now. Standing up to the current system of injustice was the essence of my latest novel, Flight For Sanity, and explains all that is happening — my pioneer work.”
Which gives you the greatest thrill, writing or flying?
“With age we hit a point in life where the word ‘thrill’ isn’t part of our vocabulary! So, which provides the greatest passion? I’m not sure if I could separate them. Both are different parts of my world and are equally enjoyable. Aviation provides inspiration and plot points for my novels. It also provides great life analogies, which I shared in my motivation book, Flight To Success Be the Captain for Your Life. Writing provides the skills to entertain, but also to educate. To share your passion. Today, I am working on a PhD in aviation, with a focus on safety. My passion for writing and aviation will keep the dream alive for others who follow my footsteps, while ensuring passengers will be safe every time they step onto an aircraft.”
Who have been your most notable mentors?
“My Flying mentor was Captain Bo Corby, who not only supported women pilots in the early days, but taught me flying skills that I still carry today and opened many doors along the way. Female pilots such as Kathy McCullough who were among the first to overcome those early challenges — now in retirement, she’s actively supporting women and encouraging positive change within the industry. John Nance, a retired captain, has taken his aviation communication skills into the hospitals to improve safety — he is also an author — and an incredible support for women aviators. He has supported me with work and writing too.”
Karlene is both proud and thankful for many things: her children and the people that they have become; her husband for his support; and her mother for the “challenges she has dealt with and survived”. “Gandhi said that we must be the change we want to see in the world, and I live that,” she adds. “I could kick back and enjoy the rewards of a successful career and play more, but I’m committed to help improve our aviation industry. I’m proud that I have not given up, despite the pushback and challenges I have faced.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces