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Learning to Fly Like a Girl

Article appeared in Flying Magazine March, 2015 by John King – John_05

It was a growing cumulus cloud, cauliflower-shaped with distinct edges. Our IFR route was taking us right through it. “You’re not going to fly through that are you? That’s a thunderstorm,” said Martha, clearly alarmed.

“Well, yeah. But that’s not a thunderstorm. It’s not tall enough. We’re only at 17,000 feet. Besides, it’s right in our way,” said I with supreme confidence.

Martha wasn’t ready to give up. “It’s really going to be rough. Look at those distinct edges. I don’t know whether it’s a thunderstorm or not, but it’s really going to be rough.”

“I don’t think it will be that rough.” With that we entered the cloud.

I had never experienced such intense vibration and shaking in an airplane. Our arms flew around the cockpit. The panel was a blur. It was almost impossible to read any instruments.

In spite of the standard advice never to turn, I made a ninety-degree turn to the right. Based on the view as we entered the cloud, I guessed that was the quickest way out. When we exited the cloud into clear air, the chaos magically stopped.

This event in our Cessna 340 is far from being the only case in which Martha gave wise advice which I ignored to my regret.

There was the time when I ignored Martha’s advice not to fly our Citation over the top of a thunderstorm that was displaying magenta radar returns. We were struck by an electrical discharge from the top of the storm, and lost the use of our radar and autopilot for the rest of the way home.

Then there was the time when we were flying two separate powered parachutes. Martha radioed to me that she thought it was going to get turbulent and we should return to the strip we were flying out of. I said I thought we should keep on flying. I was having too much fun to quit. Of course, Martha was right and we both wound up swinging wildly below our parachutes and barely in control. We made it back to the strip OK, but it was a truly scary ride we would never want to repeat.

When Martha flies her half of our legs, our roles are reversed. As pilot-in-command, she uses her authority to ignore my risk-taking suggestions and keeps us out of hazardous situations.

It is not just that she is more conservative. Martha is proactive. She maintains situational awareness and stays ahead of things. Having Martha in the cockpit means that we never forget to listen to the ATIS before we call approach, and always have the approach briefed with everything all set up well in advance.

One time Martha served as co-pilot, in our Citation that required two pilots, on a type rating checkride for a couple of pilots who worked with us. When they got back to the airport, I asked, “How did it go?”

The examiner said, “Martha was fantastic.”

I persisted, “But how about the applicants?”

“Oh, they were OK, but Martha was fantastic.”

The applicants had, indeed, passed, but as an excellent co-pilot Martha had been ahead of the airplane the entire time. She anticipated everything, making life far easier for the applicants.

Martha’s reluctance to take unwise risks does not reflect any lack of courage or calmness once we are in a situation that requires them. Once our Citation depressurized at Flight Level 350, when Martha was at the controls. Martha was completely unfazed by the abrupt change in pressure and the sudden cooling of the cockpit. She calmly put on her oxygen mask, methodically performed the memory items, and started the emergency descent, while directing me to call ATC and get the checklist out.

As her examiner said to me at the end of her ATP check-ride, “That’s one cool customer.”

Is all this simply due to the fact that I am just a slow learner, and Martha as an individual is inherently wiser and a better risk manager than I am? Possibly, but I keep thinking—maybe hoping—that there is more to it than that. As much as I resist putting people into categories—especially ones based on characteristics they were born with—I wonder whether the fact I am male, and Martha is female, might play a role in this.

Of course, it is not reasonable to extrapolate Martha’s characteristics to all women pilots, but there is more information to go on.

In 1995 the British CAA’s General Aviation Safety Department released a study that found that male pilots are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than their female counterparts. According to the study, of the 138 general aviation fatal accidents in the United Kingdom in a 10-year period, just two involved women pilots. Considering that in the United Kingdom, as in the United States, women represent 6% of pilots, their share of the accidents would be 8 rather than the 2 they actually had.

We male pilots have every right to be skeptical about this. After all, this is a very small sample size. Plus, we don’t know whether the types of flying and the hours flown per year are comparable.

Yet there was a study done at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University by Massoud Bazargan and Vitaly S. Guzhva titled “Impact of Gender, Age, and Experience of Pilots on General Aviation Accidents.” They studied general aviation accidents from 1983 through 2002.

What they discovered is that women had about 4% of the non-fatal accidents vs. their 6% share, about a third better than men. But for fatal accidents women had less than 2.5% of the accidents. In other words, regarding accidents that kill people, women were almost two and half times safer than men. The flaw to this study, once again, is that we don’t know whether the types of flying and the hours flown per year are comparable. So there is still reason for men to be skeptical.

But then there is a U.S. Army study comparing accident rates of men and women flying Army helicopters from 2002 to 2013. The bottom line is, ten out of every 100 Army helicopter pilots are women—but they account for only 3 out of every 100 accidents. The Time Magazine article about the study wasn’t clear on this, but it also seems that flight crews composed of at least one woman have fewer crashes.

According to the Time article, the Army’s former top psychiatrist (who happens to be female) doesn’t believe helicopter crews with one or two females at the controls are being cut any slack that could lead to fewer accidents. “Pilots do not choose which missions to fly,” she says. “Their bosses choose the missions.” The end result, though, is that fewer accidents mean not only less loss, but also more completed missions. And that is a good thing.

That same psychiatrist, as quoted in Time Magazine, says, “The obvious conclusion is that mixed [gender] crews are safer. Why is the question. Less ‘cowboying’? More safety checks? More thoughtful behavior in the air?”

I certainly don’t know the answer to the “why” question, but I have come to believe that there is something about either the nature or nurture of women that makes them better risk managers as pilots.

You have to wonder if the fact that women over the decades have been a steady 6% of the pilot population might be another expression of the same phenomenon. Maybe that quality that makes women more risk-averse also makes them reluctant to fly, but when they do fly, it makes them better risk managers.

From observation, I also believe that this quality does not reflect a lack of courage, but a lack of recklessness. It is something to be admired and emulated.

Thanks to Mo’ne Davis, the girl Little Leaguer who throws 70 mph fastballs and wicked curveballs, “throwing like a girl” has a whole new meaning. So with apologies to those adult females who prefer to be called “women,” and those macho men who never want to be thought of as girl-like in any way, I think we should all learn to “fly like a girl.”

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