By Karen Di Piazza
Relaxing at her dining room table, Captain Julie Clark confesses that she’s not happy unless she’s flying.
“People think that just because I’m a senior captain for Northwest Airlines, my desire for aviation is completely satisfied. No way!” says Clark, who was inducted into the Women in International Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in March 2000.
Clark, 55, has logged more than 25,000 accident- and incident-free flight hours during her 30 years of commercial flying. She’s ready to devote fulltime status to her aerobatic stunts after she retires from Northwest in 2003, but that’s about a year away.
“Before I retire, I’m going to get my Airbus rating, too,” she said. “Planning to retire doesn’t mean slowing down.”
It’s easily understood why one of the nation’s top aerobatic performer’s passion climbs to new altitudes in her T-34 Mentor, Free Spirit (N134JC), or her brightly colored yellow T-28, Top Banana (N128JC). It’s in her blood.
From Tomboy to Miss San Carlos to Flying Diva
Clark’s father, Ernie Clark, was an airline pilot and mentor. After a few trips with him as a young girl, she made the decision that aviation would be her career, too.
Clark, born in Hayward, Calif., in 1948, later moved to San Carlos, Calif. She spent her adolescent years there with fraternal twin Judy, and older sister Sharon.
“My sisters never had any interest in aviation, although they’re my biggest supporters,” says Clark. “They’d play with dolls; I made model airplanes. We had a truly picture-perfect childhood. We always had inspirational conversations at the dinner table, the hub of our home. I was usually late for dinner, showing up in torn or dirty clothes. I was a tomboy!”
Clark said she was lucky to have had two parents who were both working professionals, which wasn’t a fashionable thing back in the 1950s.
“My mother was a role model,” Clark smiles. “She was always there for us, but she also worked as a real estate agent. She needed that, just for her. I was never encouraged to grow up and become a ‘submissive little homemaker.’ And my father, well, he simply adored my mother; they were really in love.”
Clark’s father would get the children up, make breakfast and get them ready for school.
“We loved my dad’s cooking; he was pretty good at it and he enjoyed doing it for us. I think I take after my mother; I get a panic attack when I walk into the kitchen,” laughs Clark.
Clark says she was a daddy’s girl.
“My dad was my hero,” she said. “He was a captain for Pacific Airlines and several times he’d sneak me into the baggage compartment on his DC-3 or F-27. When the coast was clear, he’d open the baggage bin and sneak me into the cockpit! I thought flying with my dad was the greatest thing in the world.”
Life changed drastically for Clark when she was 14.
“My mother suddenly died of a choking accident,” she said. “My father was completely devastated. One day she was there; the next she was gone. It was such a blow.”
Clark and her two sisters took care of their father by keeping up the house and continued going to school. Then, just one year after her mother died, Clark’s father was murdered.
Captain Ernie Clark flew in the 1960s when cockpit doors were left unlocked during flight. In 1964, he was filling in for a pilot who had called in sick. A “mentally deranged passenger,” said Clark, had purchased a gun the day before, wrote a suicide note and had intended to crash the airliner over the San Francisco Bay, hoping the gun would never be found and it would look like pilot error.
“He walked into the unlocked cockpit with a gun and shot my father and the crew,” Clark said, holding back tears. “The aircraft went down, killing all 44 people on board.”
Although Clark’s father was murdered, she is against pilots having guns in the cockpit under any circumstances.
“We’re pilots, not cops,” she said. “I know some people disagree with me.”
Clark’s father’s death prompted the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Clark Act” in 1967, which requires cockpit doors to remain locked during commercial flights.
“It was an incredibly difficult time,” she said. “Major magazines and newspapers covered the story. We were trying to deal with our grief and people hounded us.”
Clark said that initially the press tried to blame the accident on her father’s grief over his wife.
“It really made me angry that anyone would infer that my father wasn’t paying attention,” she said. “Three days after the crash, the voice recorder was retrieved; it was clear that my dad was murdered.”
After her father died, unbeknownst to her, newly appointed legal guardians (distant relatives) would take over the family’s estate. Clark continued attending school at San Carlos High School, where she was crowned homecoming queen in 1964. As a senior, she lived in Chili as an exchange student, and became fluent in Spanish. Two years later she was crowned Miss San Carlos.
“I was roped into that one,” laughs Clark.
Mixing beauty with brains, Clark was determined to fly. She used her college book money while attending UC Santa Barbara to pay for flying lessons.
“My college degree was in Spanish,” she said. “I taught school for awhile in Alabama, but that was never my goal; flying was.”
Things were tough financially for Clark. She didn’t own a car while attending college, so she rode a bike. One day in 1967, she had $53 left over from buying books and used that money for her first flying lesson at Santa Barbara Airport in a Cessna 150.
Always broke, Clark found it difficult continuing with lessons and getting ratings she needed to become a commercial pilot. Determined, she worked hard to make her dreams come true.
Clark worked several jobs to make ends meet. She restored antique clocks for a while, and worked as a professional water skier by day at Marine World Africa USA. After flying and working on her ratings, it was off to her evening job waiting tables at Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse.
In 1974, Clark had the ratings she needed. She expected to land an aviation job with a major airline company and move up the ladder quickly. But it wouldn’t be as easy as that. Her first aviation job was with the Navy as a contract instructor at Lemoore Naval Station in California. In addition, she flew farm equipment parts and incubator babies out of Fresno Yosemite International Airport for Valley Children’s Hospital.
“I wanted to be a commercial pilot, not a taxi!” she said. “But because I’m female, I couldn’t get a job as a pilot with any airline. Hard to believe, but that’s how it was back then.”
Golden West Airlines, a scheduled commuter airline out of Fresno, Calif., was hiring. However, they required prior training from a Canadian-based flight school, and they expected pilots to pay for it out of pocket.
“I was married at the time, and I told my husband, who was a pilot, that I’d have to take a loan out on the house to pay for training,” said Clark. “The school was geared for Canadian pilots who flew the bush; they had to fly, fix and dispatch their own airplanes. That was back in 1976. It was difficult, but I came back with my certificate.”
In a desperate attempt to obtain a job as a pilot, Clark even resorted to making her potential employers think she was male.
“I removed my photo from my resume when I applied at Golden West Airlines, and I deliberately forgot to check the box for male or female on their form,” she said. “I changed my first name to Julian.”
Clark was disappointed but not surprised when she interviewed at Golden West and was told to get more experience. Golden West dangled the carrot in front of her face for five months with a series of endless interviews. She was referred to as “the girl from San Joaquin.”
“Captain August, the chief pilot for Golden West, finally told me he’d hire me, but first he said I’d have to cut all my long hair off,” she said. “It made me angry; he refused to let me braid it and pin it up under my hat. He said he didn’t want me to look like a woman!”
August had another problem. He informed her there weren’t bathroom facilities for females near the ramp area, which meant she would have to walk through the terminal.
“His other concern was the fact that the bathroom used by male pilots, which was located near the ramp, didn’t have a door,” Clark said. “Without thinking, I got up, leaned across his desk, and in a loud voice screamed, ‘I’ll buy you a damn door!'”
Still, Clark got the job, and said it was the most humiliating experience of her life.
“I was mortified having to look like a guy. My hair was shorter than my husband’s,” she said.
Clark flew turboprops for Golden West until they went belly-up in 1981. She had accumulated 4,000 flight hours by then, which put her on the A list of applicants. Western Airlines and Hughes Air West both offered her a job. She opted for Hughes Air West, becoming their first female pilot and one of the first 21 female pilots hired in the U.S.
Hughes merged with North Central Airlines, then Southern Airlines to become Republic Airlines and in 1986 became Northwest Airlines. Hughes Air West was the predecessor of her father’s airline, but Clark went by her married name “Aims,” hoping to avoid reporters.
“I was in Seattle at the time, still on probation, when I turned a corner in the terminal and literally hordes of reporters chased me down the corridor,” says Clark. “They wanted to know about the career of the daughter of Ernie Clark. I felt like a monkey with three heads. Captain Will Harris came to my rescue and told them to back off.”
Clark said she was an oddity since she was female and “crew resource management” wasn’t a concept yet. CRM came about in the late 1980s, eliminating egos.
“I was hired as a first officer, but kept my mouth shut,” she said. “Captains back then were male and they were in charge; they decided when a first officer would fly. Protocol said first officers would fly every other leg, but my captain said, ‘Maybe you’ll fly and maybe you won’t.'”
Clark continued working as first officer for the next seven years until she became captain.
“I’ve paid my dues, like many women have had to do,” she said. “I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it either. The point is that if you really want something you can’t let anyone stop you.”
Positive Gs and Defying Gravity
If Clark isn’t flying through clouds in a DC-3, chances are she’s defying gravity in her T-34.
“I used to take my dog ‘Mags’ along in the T-34,” Clark said. “I had him for 16 years; before he passed away, he logged more than 4,000 hours with me. As long as I kept the Gs positive he was fine.”
Clark’s high-energy personality and death-defying stunts have earned her the admiration of fans worldwide and an impressive list of awards and honors. She was honored with the Francis E. Willard Award, Alpha Phi Alumni in 2000, and the Art School Memorial Award for showmanship in 1998. General Aviation News named her Favorite Female Performer in 1997, 1988, 1990 and 1992. In addition, Clark was inducted into the International Forest of Friendship at Amelia Earhart’s residence and into the International Women’s Air and Space Museum in 1992. She was named Woman Pilot of the Year by the Southwest section of the 99s in 1980 and Performer of the Year by General Aviation News in 1987 and 1988. She received the FAA Certificate of Appreciation in 1989.
Clark’s schedule is grueling. Although she says something “has to give,” she adds that she’ll continue air show performances, which have been sponsored for the last 15 years by Mopar Parts, a Chrysler company.
Clark is the longest running sponsored air show performer in history. Most air show performers are burnt out in two or three years at best. She’s been planning her retirement from Northwest since she was 40, but she has no plans of retiring from her air show performances. Clark, who says she’s never bent a frame, says that the seven years before joining up with Mopar were tough.
“It used to be little sponsors and little pay,” she said. “I’d have to go out and get the sponsorships. All they could afford was a motel room and fuel.”
Clark has been a guest on “The Joan Rivers Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and numerous other shows.
“Robin Leach was such a wimp,” laughs Clark. “They made him look like he was flying in the back seat with me. He wasn’t. I talked him into mounting a camera in the front and taking him up for just one roll. After the roll, he said, ‘I felt like I was going around and around inside of a washing machine!'”
Clark bought her 1956 Beechcraft T-34 sight unseen, in 1977, at a government auction in Alaska for $18,000. She flew the plane the 2,900 miles to her home and immediately started the painstaking four-year process of restoring it, inside and out.
“People are quite surprised to learn that I got out my tools and physically restored this plane,” laughs Clark. “I taught myself how to do it; that Canadian flight school really paid off.”
Clark never aspired to become a famous aerobatic performer. It was all about being in the right place with the right frame of mind.
“The first air show I did was a rodeo wedding for a friend of mine,” explained Clark. “I flew my T-34 to see my friend get married. I was restoring it during that time. Being the only sober one, I decided to get up there and put on a show. Before that, I had done some competition flying in a little Pitts S2-A.”
Today, Clark’s T-34 aircraft houses a “24-karat gold” limited edition, 285-horsepower Victor engine. That engine replaced the original 225-hp engine. In addition, it’s coupled to a Hartzell three-bladed prop made by American propeller of Redding, Calif., and insured now at $400,000.
The T-34, originally a military trainer, is somewhat of an oddity on the air show circuit; it’s larger than most aerobatic planes. The plane doesn’t have inverted oil or fuel systems, which demands Clark’s close attention when she’s calculating her inverted flights. Another challenge is the airplane’s low power-to-weight ratio, which makes the controls extremely heavy during her performance.
With multicolored wing tip smoke streaming behind her and fireworks exploding around her, Clark’s performance is a showstopper. Always a highlight and fan favorite at each show is a patriotic aerial routine personally choreographed by Clark, to either Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” or “God Bless You Canada.”
Clark’s favorite old trainer is her T-28.
“I love it!” she said. “It’s fun, powerful and has a big engine with 1,425-hp, but it’s a maintenance hog. This baby flies in formation with other warbirds at air shows. I don’t use this one when I’m doing aerial maneuvers; I use the T-34 for those.”
The downside to the air-show business, says Clark, is you can’t take off for a year.
“In this business, if you left for a year you’d be a ‘has been,'” she said.
It’s not surprising that Clark gives motivational speeches throughout the U.S. and Europe, talking especially about the “D’s.”
“Desire, determination and dedication are topics I know about,” she affirmed. “If you want to fly and become an airline pilot, you can. When I’m talking to adults, I throw out another D—divorce. There’s always going to be someone there who’s gone through that too, and there’s not a reason to let it hold you back.”
Clark has a fifth D—death.
“If I can overcome, prevail and do what I want, you can too,” she said. “That’s my motto.”
Clark is in the process of writing a book, “On My Own,” with author Ann Cooper, which the Smithsonian Institute will publish next year. The book is about her trials and tribulations, and how she overcame them.
“It seems for every two steps taken forward, there have been two steps back,” she said. “Grief can do amazing things to your soul.”
In addition to overcoming the death of her parents, Clark has survived experiences that she says have given her the strength to continue doing what she wants to do, including the deaths of two fiancées and two divorces. She hopes that relating them will inspire other women to move forward and know they can survive.
It was a case of “love at first sight” between Clark and a chicken rancher, also a pilot, whom she met at Morgan Hill Airport, but tragedy would strike. One day, as Clark tailed him across the sky, she looked back and his Bonanza had disappeared.
Then, as Clark circled around, she spotted a fire on the ground not far from the airstrip they had taken off from at his ranch. Clark landed on the airstrip, hysterical and in shock. Farmhands held her back to prevent her from running into the fire to save him.
Clark said that after that she stayed in her house and didn’t want to fly. She didn’t want do anything or see anyone. She sank into a pool of depression.
“Then, the chief captain of my airline came over,” she said. “He was an older gentleman and former friend of my father’s. He yelled at me and told me to start living again. He reminded me that my father would not want me to give up my airline career. If it hadn’t been for him, at that moment, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
Years later, love bloomed again with a man who took aerobatic flying lessons from Clark in his T-34. But tragedy again intervened.
“His ego killed him,” says Clark. “He insisted doing an air show, which he wasn’t ready for, in Bishop, Calif. He was killed at his first show, doing his first maneuver. His friends tried talking him out of doing the air show, but because I was a well-known performer, he was trying to compete with me.”
Clark says she tells “wannabe aerobatic pilots” that story to make it clear: you have to crawl before you walk.
“After the accident, I literally had his corpse alone with me on the floor while I flew him home for burial,” she said. “It was a long flight.”
During that same year, 1987, Clark lost several friends when a DC-3 crashed killing all on board. In her lifetime of flying, she says she’s seen the most horrific aerobatic accidents, “because pilots are cocky.”
Clark’s goal is to drive home the fact that tragedies can lure you into pitying yourself or can be used as a tool to move forward and accomplish excellence.
“I’m a happy person now; I know who I am. I’ll keep flying forever,” says Clark with a big smile.
For information on Julie Clark’s air show performances, visit www.americanaerobatic.com.