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Flying high: First-ever female airline captain made a mark on the industry

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By Deborah Swearingen

Emily Howell Warner wasn’t wearing her airline pilot uniform when she spoke at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, but she had a good excuse.

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It’s challenging to wear a uniform when it’s on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Warner, who has dementia and now lives in a Littleton memory care facility, was the first female airline captain in the United States. In addition to being hired by Frontier Airlines in 1973 as the first female captain in the country, Warner also was the first woman to be appointed a designated Federal Aviation Administration examiner and was the first woman member of the Air Line Pilots Association. Before all of this, she was a flight instructor at Clinton Aviation Company in Denver.

When Jodi Cornman, community relations director for Highline Place, where Warner lives, found out about Warner’s history, she immediately tried to coordinate an educational event. Thus, a group gathered last Friday at the Denver museum to listen to Warner speak.

Although there are certainly more women pilots than in Warner’s first days, the industry remains highly male dominated. Just under 7 percent of all pilots in the United States are female, according to the FAA.

“I was pretty accepted after a while,” Warner said, recounting one experience of discrimination she can recall.

As soon as she hopped aboard the plane, the male pilot told her not to touch anything. He flew the airplane, while Warner sat beside him with nothing to do. She remembers thanking him after the flight landed and having him respond by saying: “Well, I don’t know about women pilots, but I guess it was going to happen.”

Last Friday, when she spoke at Wings Over the Rockies, Warner was joined by a number of her friends and industry colleagues — Krisan Wismer, Patty Gattmann, Debbie McEndree and Ann Marie Kelly, a Columbine High School graduate.

The four pilots can share many a story about times shared with Warner. They looked up to her as young pilots and now consider Warner a dear friend. They are forever bonded through shared experiences and a mutual love for flying. All contend it’s one of the most magical feelings in the world.

“Oh, you know, it’s beautiful when you’re flying,” Warner said, referencing a particularly special time when she saw the Northern Lights while piloting a plane. “You get up there, and you see the world in a different way than when you’re looking at the ground.”

Wismer agreed. As a pilot, no two days are the same.

“Your office view is different every flight,” she said. “ … Every day is different, and it’s a challenge.”

Now is a great time for those interested in being a pilot, according to John Barry, CEO of Wings over the Rockies. Airlines are offering better pay and better benefits due to a pilot shortage.

Regardless, Warner and her colleagues have a simple piece of advice for those intrigued by the profession: Go for it.

“Don’t let anything stop you,” McEndree said. “You know, people are going to say, ‘Oh, women don’t do that.’ … They’re going to say it’s too expensive. They’re going to say it’s not ladylike. They’re going to say all kinds of things. … If you really, really want it, you’ll find a way to get it done.”

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.