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Hello from the Flight Deck: An Interview with First Officer Stacy Chapman
Stacy Chapman has been flying planes since 2002, where I met her at Penn State University. She began her career in the US Air Force and now flies a 737 for a major commercial airline. Chapman also works for the Wyoming Air National Guard–she will actually be deployed in the New Year to fly a C130 plane hauling cargo and military personnel to locations she can’t discuss. She took some time in between flights to tell me about airport bathrooms, catching some me-time on the road, and her Very Strong Feelings about almonds.
Katy Rank Lev: Have you ever done an emergency landing on the Hudson River?
Stacy Chapman: Nothing catastrophic has ever happened while I was flying commercially, but I’ve had sick passengers here and there. I’ve never had to do an emergency landing. Flying for the military, I’ve dealt with fires, engine failures, propeller and landing gear malfunctions, smoke in the cockpit…you name it, I’ve probably had some version of it.
KRL: That is really bad ass, Stacy. Are there many women working as pilots?
SC: In my unit for the Air National Guard, there are 4 female pilots out of about 40 or 50 pilots total. In my commercial airline, there are…not a lot of women flying. I’ve flown with maybe 3 or 4 other female pilots.
KRL: It looks like only about 4% of pilots are women.
SC: You’d be shocked by how many people are shocked to see me in my uniform in the airport.
KRL: Any idea why there are so few women in this role?
SC: The lifestyle is hard. You have to be able to have a life with your partner…if you had kids, your spouse would have to take on that primary parent role. Even without kids you kind of have to flip those traditional roles. I think maybe that aspect holds women back from reaching out for these jobs, but I guess that’s not really different from any other job where women are gone for a few days every week. It’s a really complicated question!
KRL: Right, because it seems like there are a lot of women working as flight attendants and they would have the same sort of schedule.
SC: You’re right about that. About 80% of flight attendants are women and they are gone just as much as I am. A lot of them have children and spouses. So I don’t know why there aren’t more women pilots. I’ve got no good answer for you there.
KRL: Tell us what made you become a pilot.
SC: It just happened. In college I wanted to do something different and be part of something bigger, but I didn’t know what that meant. I was in Air Force ROTC and another cadet had wanted to be a pilot her entire life…but she failed the sitting height test. You have to meet certain height requirements both standing and sitting. Anyway, after that she really insisted that I go and take the test. I thought, why not? I passed all the physical requirements and got a pilot slot by my senior year.
KRL: What’s your day like at work?
SC: I wake up really early–2am–and I check over the plane and go fly anywhere from 2 to 5 legs per day. I work 3 days in a row and then am home for 4 days. We bid on our schedule a month in advance and it goes by seniority. I have pretty high seniority now, so there’s a lot of flexibility for me.
When I first started flying commercially, I would study the routes a lot and make sure I understood the nuances of the airports. Atlanta, for instance, is very busy so you have to know what’s going on. Now I am pretty familiar with all the major airports and can review the arrival procedures while I’m in the air.
Usually, I spend the entire day sitting next to a man who is a lot older than me. Flying commercial, you tend to have a different crew all the time. My fellow pilots and I don’t often have a lot in common but at this point, I’m used to being with men. You have to build a thick skin and I’m pretty comfortable at work. To work as a pilot for a major airline, the standards are high, so everyone is very professional.
KRL: How is it different when you fly with the military?
SC: I have flown with this same unit for years and we all know each other really well. When we land, they want to do things and hang out and they have my phone number!
KRL: Is it hard to get down time when you’re traveling for work?
SC: The pilots are often put in a different hotel from the crew. Sometimes I do really want to be social, but not necessarily with the person I’ve been sitting next to in a tin box all day. If I don’t feel up to spending time with the other pilot, I say I’m going to go work out. Sometimes I actually do go and work out, but sometimes I just say that so I can be alone. Whenever I am with the flight attendants, I do seek them out and join them because it’s nice to hang out with women!
KRL: What makes a good hotel?
SC: If the hotel is walkable to things, I enjoy that. Our hotel in Austin is steps from a river path where I run and walk, enjoy nature a bit and de-stress. Being confined to a hotel in the middle of nowhere is the worst, especially when we have longer overnights.
Food must be available! It sucks when you get in late and you can’t get anything hot because the hotel has closed the kitchen.
This is why I always have my “in case of emergency” food.
KRL: Is it hard to eat well on the road?
SC: It’s expensive to always be buying food in airports, so I bring a lot of food. Since I get to go through the side security line, I can bring drinks and liquids. I’ve always got almonds, and stuff I cook at home. I struggle to keep it all cold because we don’t always have a fridge in the hotel. Bringing enough food for 3 days is hard–my stash usually lasts me 2 days and then I have to eat airport food. I try to get salad or sushi. If our hotel is near a supermarket, I always restock.
KRL: So you don’t love the food. What else bugs you about airports?
SC: I like airports where I can maneuver around everyone. I’m in a hurry!
KRL: I met you playing rugby, so I know you’re good at evasive running.
SC: Ha! Yeah. All the newer airports have wide, open spaces. And nice bottle filling stations at the water fountains. But the most important thing is that they have deep stalls in the bathrooms.
These older airports, the stalls aren’t deep enough. I have my airline bag with me and I have to crawl over the toilet to shut the door to the stall. It’s disgusting and it drives me nuts. I don’t want to stand over the toilet in my nice clothes! I actually prefer to use the bathroom on the plane.
KRL: A lot of our readers really struggle with the dry air from flying a lot. What’s it like up there in the cockpit?
SC: Ugh! The dryness–it’s from the altitude as much as anything else. I get bloody noses a lot. I always have tissues and lotion. The sun is also an issue for me. I always forget sunblock.
KRL: You’re a redhead and you forget sunblock?
SC: I always forget that my arms are exposed. We can’t pull the sun shades down up there!
KRL: At least it doesn’t smell like farts.
SC: I actually didn’t know it smelled like farts in the cabin. My husband told me that! There are only 2 of us up in the cockpit, and we just met that morning. We’re about to spend 3 days together. He’s not going to fart.
KRL: So you and your husband connect by talking about farts?
SC: We text a lot, just about mundane stuff. I can’t always talk in between flights. We have to work to actually get to talk on the phone. I learned it’s important to actually talk, even though he’s at work and I want to be asleep.
I arranged my schedule so that he and I are (for the most part) sleeping and working at the same time. When we had flipped schedules we would go days without talking. It was bad. When I am home, we are very deliberate about spending time together. We run errands together, go to shows. We love to go to dinner theater. When I get back, we make it a point to spend that entire first day together.
KRL: And you’re about to be deployed…
SC: It’s hard. When I’m gone for a long time, we will video chat every few days. Time zones are obviously an issue, but we make it a priority to just tell each other about our day.
KRL: Which includes farts.
SC: In the military, it’s hilarious to fart.
KRL: Any advice for other women whose job takes them away from home each week?
SC: I’m still figuring things out. Talk to people, other women especially. Ask questions from people who have been doing it a long time–I didn’t do that in the beginning. My job is demanding and difficult, but it’s an exciting and very rewarding career.
Journey On, Janes!
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