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Getting There: Female pilot reflects on hard-won career

Mon., March 25, 2013

Love of flight started in Alaska, spanned 36 years

The first woman to fly passengers aboard a Boeing 747 said she had no choice but to persevere even though the men who controlled the skies at the time tried to get her to go away.

Norah O’Neill, of Seattle, said being a pioneer in aviation came at a cost – one she’s saddened by in her retirement years.

She said she was undermined by male pilots, who made no secret of their distaste for sharing the cockpit with a woman.

“It was hurtful. It was painful,” O’Neill said last week in an appearance before the Spokane chapter of the Washington Pilots Association.

O’Neill, 63, retired in 2009 after logging 22,000 accident-free hours in the cockpit over a career that dates to 1973.

She was working the night shift at a bar in Kodiak, Alaska, when the flying bug bit. She took flight lessons during the day and within a year was ready for her first job with Alaska Central Air, a freight business.

Within a short time, she said, she became the object of gossip that she was sexually involved with the boss and other men. She was told by male pilots that they were embarrassed to work with her because she was going to kill someone someday. Some passengers didn’t want to fly with her.

She almost lost that first job, she said, until a friend agreed to join the air freight company and become her co-pilot.

In 1976, she joined the Flying Tigers air freight service after an interview in which her male supervisors wanted to know if her menstrual cycle would cause her to miss work, she said. They also wanted to know how she would handle it when a man expressed sexual interest in her while she was in the cockpit. She told them that cramps would help her stay awake on long flights and that her response to a sexual inquiry would depend on who was asking. Her frank answers apparently got her the job.

She became the first woman to land a large cargo jet at major Asian airports. She said government officials ordered her to leave Saudi Arabia right after she landed there.

During her career, her passengers included race horses; Shamu, the performing killer whale; and the Rolling Stones rock band.

In 1980, she flew passengers aboard a Flying Tigers 747, a first for a female pilot.

A statue of O’Neill is on display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. O’Neill tells her story in a 2005 book, “Flying Tigress.”

In 1978, she became a founding member of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, a group of the 21 female pilots in the U.S. at the time.

With the group, she learned that the same gender discrimination was suffered by all of the members. Talking with them was therapy. “We were truly a band of sisters,” she said.

“We fought for a chance and we didn’t go away when they wanted us to,” she told her audience Wednesday.

Later, her former co-workers told her that their behavior was not personal, that they just wanted to preserve the integrity of the cockpit.

Her advice: “Do not judge people based on something they have no control over.”

Businesses brace for closure of Francis

A major construction project on Francis Avenue east of Crestline Street is expected to get under way today with closure of the section from Crestline to Haven Street in Hillyard.

The renovation should be complete in June. After that, the section from Division to Crestline will be closed for reconstruction.

The $4 million project is being financed through a 2004 voter-approved bond issue.

Jeffrey Toole, owner of Tobacco, Beer and More at the northwest corner of Francis and Market, said the closure will limit access to his business and is going to impose a hardship.

Customers living to the south of his store will have to circle around the neighborhood north of Francis to get access because left turns will be prohibited on northbound Market Street at Francis.

“It’s going to have a huge impact,” he said. “They are basically going to shut down everything in front of the store.”

The limited access could last up to 45 days, he said.

He said he and another nearby shop are planning to offer sale items to draw customers through the construction zone.

In addition to the city project, a contractor working for the state is building a new overpass bridge for Francis just east of Market. A detour allows a single lane of traffic in each direction through that work zone.

Elsewhere in the city, sewer construction could affect traffic this week on Crestline at Decatur, Central and Bismarck avenues.

Dartford, Stroup

In Spokane County, Dartford Road is closed for construction from Wandermere Road to Little Spokane Drive.

Also, Stroup Road will be closed between Sunset Road and U.S. Highway 2 where it crosses the North Fork of Deep Creek for work on the bridge there.

I-90 lane closures

Workers are repairing lighting on Interstate 90 from Division Street west to the Latah Creek bridge. The work could cause closure of city streets adjacent to the freeway.

The Sullivan Road bridge on I-90 is also getting repair work that could cause lane closures on the bridge on Tuesday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Bridge repairs at the Greenacres, Country Vista and Appleway exit could result in westbound lane restrictions on I-90 today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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