Emily Howell Warner was the first woman to pilot a scheduled-passenger airliner (Frontier).ou know her now as Emily Howell Warner, but in the 1950s, she was simply Emily Hanrahan. On one particular day, she hurried into the May Company in downtown Denver. She approached Juanita Bailey, her boss in the scarf department, and told her that she had a job lined up at Clinton Aviation, a local fixed base operation. Bailey looked at her with consternation.
“Oh Emily, you’re going to give up a good career in the retail business!” said Bailey to the girl she had been gearing up to become an assistant buyer.
But she had already made up her mind. Emily Hanrahan was born Oct. 30, 1939, and grew up in North Denver, with four brothers and a twin sister. When she graduated in 1957, she was in a quandary.
“My sister wanted to be a nurse,” she said of Eileen, who would eventually become an air-evac nurse in Vietnam. Her family wasn’t “well off,” so she threw the idea of a college education “out the window.” But she had one thing in her favor; her parents had taught her and her siblings that they could achieve anything they set their mind on. Her only problem was finding what to set her mind on.
A traditional college wasn’t the only option. She was soon taking courses at Emily Griffith Opportunity School and working at the May Company. As she worked, now and again flight attendants (“we called them stewardess in those days”) would come into the store on their day off or on breaks. Soon, she was picturing herself as a stewardess. After checking with all of the airlines she knew of, the disappointed 18-year-old found that the minimum age requirement was 20 and a half, due to the fact that they served liquor.
In the meantime, since she’d never flown before, an acquaintance suggested that she take a flight to see how she’d like it.
“I bought a ticket on Frontier Airlines in a DC-3,” she said of her first flight to Gunnison early in 1958. During the flight, she watched the stewardess’ every move. Since she was the sole passenger on the weekday flight back, she asked if she might be able to see the cockpit.
“In those days, security hadn’t come into play yet,” she said. “I got to ride on the jump seat back to Stapleton.”
Hooked on flight
She didn’t get airsick and loved the flight. She was hooked. Although she didn’t yet have a driver’s license, she asked around and was told that the best place to learn to fly was at Clinton Aviation, a fixed based operator and well-known flight school owned by Lou Clinton, which had its physical offices at Stapleton International Airport. Within two weeks, she was taking lessons; takeoffs and landings were done at Stapleton, but flight instruction through the company was performed at Sky Ranch Airport in Aurora.
Three months later, her first flight instructor, Jim Muncey, told her that Clinton Aviation was looking for a receptionist. He suggested that she talk to Ruthie Harrington, the secretary/manager of the company and Lou Clinton’s aunt. She was hired and her promising career at the May Company ended.
In June 1959, she soloed out of Sky Ranch. She hadn’t given up her idea of becoming a stewardess. When she reached the required age, she determinedly headed toward airline offices to apply for the position, only to find out that her height of 5′ 8 3/4″ was three-quarters of an inch above height requirements. (Years later, Equal Opportunity would result in the end of the height requirement, “you’re out when you marry,” and the practice of regularly weighing flight attendants.)
Day after day, she found herself surrounded by pilots and susceptible to their enthusiasm. When someone asked her if she thought she might be a flight instructor some day, she thought, “Why not?”
It wasn’t long before she was on her way towards earning her commercial license and her flight instructor rating. She was allowed to pick up more than 1,600 hours of free flight time by flying to Wichita, Kansas, to pick up new airplanes for the company, and doing other odd jobs.
After becoming flight school secretary and earning her flight instructor rating in 1961, she approached Muncey, who was also the flight school manager, about an instructor’s job.
“He didn’t want to lose me as the flight school secretary,” she said with a laugh. He made her a deal that she could pick up a few students in the early mornings and on weekends, if she would remain the secretary. She agreed. After she had amassed too many students to teach in off hours, Muncey reluctantly released her from her office job and allowed the determined young woman to become one of about 12 fulltime flight instructors at Clinton Aviation.
Even as she instructed, something else was on her mind. She had recently read a story in Time Magazine about Turi Wideroe, a female Norwegian pilot who had become the first documented female airline pilot in the free world when she began to fly for Scandinavian Air, the same year that Emily became an instructor. In a time when the airlines were male-dominated, this was big news. True, Central Airlines had hired Helen Ritchey as a pilot in 1934, but her career never got off the ground; she was forced out of her position when she wasn’t allowed to join the all-male pilot union in existence at the time.
Emily began to dream of becoming an airline pilot, but her work at Clinton Aviation continued. Besides instructing, she became a pilot for “Operation Airwatch,” a program that Triple A and a local radio station had begun to report on traffic from the air. Triple A contracted with Clinton for pilots and aircraft. She first flew one day a week, before becoming the main pilot. When another radio station took over the program, bringing with them its own pilot/commentator, she was hired to bring the commentator, who wasn’t current, up-to-date. She then turned the flying job over to him.
In 1967, Clinton Aviation contracted with United Airlines to put new hires with a commercial license through instrument rating in the United Airlines Contract Training Program. That same year, Emily received her certificate as a designated Federal Aviation Administration pilot examiner. She was chosen as one of the instructors to gave the new hires—with as little as 1,500 hours flight time—check rides for their private, commercial and instrument ratings.
By that time, she had amassed about 2,500 hours of flight time. She began to resent the fact that she, a woman, could teach men, but wasn’t considered “qualified” to fly for the airlines. It would appear that she was “anatomically incorrect.”
But things were happening in America that would alter the course of her future. Along with “flower power” and the peace sign came the women’s lib movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Barriers were tumbling down everywhere. This was music to this pilot’s ears, since, besides being a woman, she was about to turn 30, and thought she would soon be “over the hill.”
In the late 1960s, she picked three airlines to target, and began sending out letter and applications. Frontier Airlines, who utilized about 800 pilots, was at the top of her list. She considered Continental and United—which each utilized between eight and nine thousand pilots—a less realistic goal. But she sent off letters and applications to each airline.
“I never heard from Continental, but United sent me a form letter saying that they weren’t hiring at that time,” she said.
At that time, United had about 600 pilots out on furlough. Frontier didn’t respond either, but they were a locally based carrier, and Emily, who had pilot friends there, began to make regular visits to their headquarters. Soon, many Frontier employees and managers recognized the would-be airline pilot by name. She did manage to talk briefly to Frontier Airlines Captain John Myers, who was the director of flight operations planning. Although Myers told her that he doubted if an airline would ever hire a woman, he offered her sound advice.
“Build up your multi-engine flying time and get your airline transport pilot rating,” he said.
She took his advice, and in 1968, earned her ATP. The year 1970 found her campaigning heavily, even though things were also changing at Clinton Aviation. Muncey had retired, and she took his place as flight school manager.
Then, Clinton Aviation moved to the new Arapahoe County Airport (now Centennial Airport). The GI Bill had been enacted and the company now owned about 50 aircraft, utilized 25 flight instructors, and had about 500 students. She found herself beginning to give up on the airlines. But her determination was steeled when a flight instructor told her that Frontier was once again hiring, and he had an appointment for an interview.
“He was a year younger than I was and had less flying time. I sort of got angry,” she said.
On a September morning in 1972, Emily Howell, who had now amassed 3,500 hours of flight time, walked into Frontier’s personnel office and requested an application. She was told that they only accepted applications in the morning, and headed home to burn midnight oil completing the lengthy application. When she turned it in, she copied one to Capt. Myers.
Never underestimate the power of friendship. In the days before the phrase “networking” had yet to be coined, word of the pilot’s plight was getting around, and she had gathered allies around her. One of those allies was Jack Gardner, a Frontier pilot. One day he called her and told her that he knew Frontier was hiring pilots, and that they would be training in January.
“Your name came up,” said her friend, “and they dropped it like a hot potato.” When she asked what she should do, Gardner asked her to meet him at the Frontier headquarters to formulate a plan. In response to his question as to if she knew where the offices were, she laughed and said, “I sure do.”
Over coffee in the Frontier coffee shop, Gardner told her his plan. He would arrive at the office of Ed O’Neil, the vice president of operations for Frontier, and would start a conversation. She would appear in the outer offices five minutes later.
“Jack walked in and said, ‘Ed, there’s someone that you have to talk to,'” she recalled. “He was real flustered, red in the face.”
After a 25-minute conversation, she was told that the company would “get back to her.” And this time, they did. She finally had a formal interview with O’Neil and Andy Hoshock, chief pilot for Frontier and manager of personnel, who voiced his concern regarding what uniform the aviatrix would wear.
“That’s the least of your worries,” she said. Since this was an unusual situation, the trio took a walk up to the office of Al Feldman, the president of Frontier, and discussed her future further. While there, Feldman picked up the phone, and called his wife, Rose Emily, who was an engineer for Convair.
“There’s a woman in my office I thought you might want to know about,” said Feldman. “I’m considering hiring her as a pilot.”
Emily believes that the conversation helped her on her way. Finally, she heard the words she was waiting for. O’Neil scheduled her to fly a United Convair 580 simulator that evening. Once again, friends came in handy. When she asked for advice, she was told that she should read the basic chapters in the Navy Instrument Flying Handbook. She was also informed about standard Frontier operating procedures.
When she arrived that evening at the Frontier Training Facility, O’Neil and Jack Robbins, flight instructor and captain, greeted her. It might have been an innocent question, or it might have been sheer genius, but she asked if O’Neil would be occupying the left seat. It was common for directors to abandon regular flying to handle managerial duties, and O’Neil was no exception to the rule. Robbins, maybe out of sheer amusement, thought it was a great idea for him to take the left seat instead of the observer’s seat.
The Convair 580 (motionless) simulator was a duplicate of the cockpit of the very powerful twin turbine powered 53-passenger aircraft. The 580 was known to be extremely heavy on the controls, and pilots often worked out with weights to gain the strength to fly the 580. Emily took her place in the first officer’s seat, while O’Neil climbed into the left seat, and Robbins took his place at the instructor’s panel. After Robbins explained the basics of the Convair 580, they were ready to fly.
Along with demonstrating basic instrument flying with some emergency procedures, Emily was asked to simulate a V-1 cut, where an aircraft loses the right engine in takeoff. Although she was highly competent in light aircraft, she had no experience in large aircraft. She was off to a bad start when she didn’t give the sim enough pressure to get off the ground. But she asked if she could try it again and succeeded.
After multiple approaches, Robbins asked her if she would like to call it a day. She left it up to O’Neil and Robbins to make that decision, declaring that she was “ready for whatever” they tossed her way. The grueling two-hour sim ride was over.
After getting out of the simulator, the trio took their place at a long table. Robbins instantly launched into a description of the long days, bad weather and other problems pilots face, before advising her that she might want to look into a job in real estate. Emily resolutely turned to O’Neil.
“Mr. O’Neil, I know I can do this,” she said.
A moment passed.
“You have the job, if you want it,” O’Neil said. “Call me in the morning.”
But as she left, O’Neil asked her to think about three things. Would it be good for the airlines? Would it be good for Frontier? And would it be good for aviation (and women) in general?
She stood on the threshold of a door that had been locked to U.S. women up until that point. Her mind was made up. Like the Scandinavian Wideroe, she would step through the door that had reluctantly opened for her.
The next morning, Jan. 12, 1973, she called O’Neil and told him that she definitely wanted the job. He advised her that personnel would get a hold of her, and they did. Then she heard from a surprised public relations department, which had just heard that Emily Howell was to become the first woman hired by a U.S. scheduled airline carrier as a pilot (in modern times). That afternoon, she took her place in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 as press gathered around, snapping picture after picture.
On Jan. 29, she took her place in a class of new hires that included eight other pilots. On Feb. 6, she took her place in the jump seat of a Boeing 737, resplendent in a pantsuit, straight-collared shirt, ascot and hat, as a second officer. In the captain’s seat was a captain who “looked like my father,” she said. The flight took them to Las Vegas, St. Louis and back. Upon her return, she found a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers waiting for her from Turi Wideroe.
If she thought everyone would accept her—and she didn’t—she would’ve been in for a surprise. On her second flight, the captain told her, “Don’t touch ANYTHING on the flight.” Those were about the only words he said to her. But as the months went by, she continued to gain acceptance—if sometimes grudgingly—from the males who surrounded her.
“I could feel the acceptance in about a year,” she said.
Within about six months, Frontier discontinued their use of second officers and everybody became either first officers or copilots. With her all-important seniority number, on June 1, 1974, Emily Howell became a copilot on the DHC-6 Twin Otter, which was used to fly Nebraska routes. This would make her Frontier’s first female first officer on a DHC-6.
On Oct. 1, 1974, she became the first female officer at Frontier to copilot a Convair 580; her flights in the 580 included overseas flights. Always with the aim of getting close to a jet position, she flew the Otter for about a year before becoming a copilot on the 737, and then going back to the Convair 580 to get more flying time in a “bigger airplane.”
1976 was a big year for the trailblazer. On June 6, she at last moved over to the prestigious left seat in the Otter DHC-6, becoming the first female captain of a U.S. scheduled airline carrier. Also, that year, by request from Michael Collins, the director of the new Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., her first uniform found a new home in the museum. She and her son Stanley, then about 7, would make a trip to the museum later to pay her uniform a visit.
That same year, Congress designated 1976 as “Woman’s Year.” She was asked to fly to Washington and give a speech. She gladly did just that, as her son proudly watched.
For the next several years, Emily Howell would spend an average of about 800 hours a year flying. On May 24, 1984, she became the first Frontier woman captain to fly the 737. On July 5 of the same year, while flying as captain of the 737, she again became part of history by piloting the “first all female crew.”
In 1986, with the demise of Frontier Airlines, Howell and other Frontier pilots would find themselves unemployed for several months. Hopeful that United would pick them up (they didn’t), most of the pilots eventually found jobs with Continental. But Howell’s seniority number was no longer as helpful as it had once been. Once more a first officer/copilot in a Boeing 737, she wondered if she would ever take her place in the left seat again.
Sixteen months later, in 1988, Howell and about 30 other Frontier pilots hired on as Boeing 727 captains at United Parcel Service, an expanding company that had previously contracted aircraft and pilots to fly mail, but had decided to buy their own airplanes and hire their own pilots. The job, which was all night flying, wasn’t easy for Howell, who had to commute to Louisville, Ky.
Working for the FAA
Fate would work again for her when she ran into a former Frontier pilot about three years later at Stapleton as he did a ramp check. He told her that he worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as an aviation safety examiner. She asked how he had managed to get a job in Denver, and was told that he had simply applied and someone had helped him out.
She called the FAA and was told to get her application in and get on the government register. In 1991, after being interviewed via phone from Louisville, she began working for the FAA as an aviation safety examiner working in the FAR 121 airline division in the Flight Standards District Office in Denver.
After about a year, she transferred to the United Airlines Certificate Management Office, known as TKR, which was United’s training center in Denver. Her new title was assistant aircrew manager. When the current aircrew manager retired, she stepped into that position. In that position, she oversees the region’s operations of United’s 737 program, which includes a fleet of 185 aircraft and 1,500 pilots. She oversees new routes, flies along with line check airmen and certifies line check airmen in the fleet.
After marrying Jay Warner, the pilot taught her new husband how to fly. The couple has a mountain retreat in Granby. Emily Howell Warner plans to retire in October 2001. She’s earned a long and prestigious list of aviation awards. In 1973, she was named the Amelia Earhart “Woman of the Year.” In 1983, she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame. Her other achievements include being inducted into the Woman’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1992.
Howell Warner was the first woman pilot to become a member of the Air Line Pilots Association and the first member of the Colorado Pilots Association. She’s an active member in the 99’s, a group of woman pilot founded by Amelia Earhart and others in 1929, and a member and cofounder of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, as well as a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Colorado Aviation Historical Society and the Silver Wings Fraternity. Besides her uniform displayed at the Air and Space Museum, there’s one displayed at the Prima Air and Space Museum and an “Emily” collection at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.
Emily Howell Warner stays current for her job with the FAA by putting in sim time and flying a friend’s Cessna 182. In the past, she has been a partner in a Steen Skybolt biplane and has belonged to the Aspen Flying Club at Centennial Airport. To date, Howell Warner, who still lives in the Metro Denver area, has flown more than 30 different types of aircraft and accrued more than 21,000 hours of flying time. More than 14,000 of her flight hours were accrued as an airline pilot.
After Frontier took the plunge and hired her, other airlines followed suit and gave other deserving female pilots a chance.
Over the years, Howell Warner has taken the time to encourage women—and men—to follow their dreams. She’s told her story on numerous occasions, extolling the virtues of determination and persistence. Along with sharing her experiences and speaking about aviation career opportunities, she also speaks on aviation safety.
Years after becoming an airline pilot, she received a letter from her former boss at the May Company.
“I guess you did know what you were doing,” said Juanita Bailey.
I think Emily Howell Warner and many other women whom she has helped along the way would agree.