Female Aviation Pioneer Emily Howell Warner Inducted into Hall of Fame
October 5, 2014
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  • Emily Howell Warner’s name is attached to many honors and many “firsts.”

    First woman member of the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union in the world. First leader of the first all-female Continental Airlines flight crew.

    First woman hired as a pilot by a U.S. commercial airline and the first female captain.

    On Saturday, there was an addition to her long list of honors: induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

    Even today, a mention of flying to Warner, 74, will be met with a wide smile. She’s smart, witty and full of stories, most punctuated by her infectious laugh. She has forgotten more about airplanes than most could ever hope to learn.

    But in 1957, she was an 18-year-old Denver woman for whom college was financially out of reach. She mulled over the idea of becoming an airline stewardess.

    Just one problem: She had never before been on a plane.

    At the urging of a May Co. department store co-worker, Warner booked a flight to Gunnison. On the way home, she was invited to the cockpit to take a look.

    “I looked out that front window and it just hit me,” she said. “It’s so beautiful looking out of the front window instead of looking out of the sides.”

    One of the pilots overheard her excited chatter in the cabin and encouraged her to take flying lessons.

    “To which I said, ‘Gee, can a girl take flying lessons?’ ” she recalled. Soon after, she began learning to fly at Clinton Aviation at the former Stapleton Airport, paying $12.75 per lesson. She eventually landed a receptionist’s job at the company but kept working toward obtaining various pilot license ratings and racking up flight hours by volunteering for parts runs and other “gopher” tasks no one else wanted.

    By the time she was 21, she was a full-time flight instructor. Each Clinton instructor had their own airplane. Warner’s was a Cessna 150 and green — because she’s Irish.

    Clinton’s flight-training business boomed as the Vietnam War ended, and Warner found herself busy teaching returned military men.

    She watched as male instructors accrued flight time and departed Clinton for good jobs piloting commercial jets.

    One day, in 1967, it struck her: “Well, why can’t I do that? So I started to apply.”

    She sent off many applications to Frontier Airlines, Continental and United Airlines detailing her flight hours and qualifications.

    She knocked on the doors at the big airlines for six years before she was invited for an interview and hired by Ed O’Neil, Frontier’s then-vice president of flight operations.

    She recalls him asking what kind of uniform she would want.

    “I said that was the least of his problems,” she said, laughing. “I said, ‘The pantsuit is in, so all you’d have to do is design it like a uniform with some stripes on it.’ ”

    That uniform now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum .

    Frontier — which became part of Continental, which eventually merged with United — took some big strides for diversity in 1973.

    On the same day Warner was hired, so was the Denver-based airline’s first black commercial pilot, Robert Ashby, who was a Tuskegee airman.

    Yet, while there’s no doubt that Warner opened a door, women are still grossly underrepresented in aviation.

    Women make up 6.7 percent of all active pilots and flight instructors in the U.S., according to 2013 data from the Federal Aviation Administration. As far as employment, United is slightly above the national average, with 851 females, or roughly 7 percent, among its 12,197 pilots.

    The current Frontier Airlines comes in at about 10 percent, a spokesman said.

    Hetty Carlson, teacher flight program coordinator at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, attributes the underrepresentation to messaging and mentoring.

    Carlson grew up loving airplanes and dreamed of becoming a pilot. She looked up to Warner. But she was told that girls don’t fly jets.

    “In my mind, I heard ‘Women aren’t pilots,’ ” said Carlson, who earned a degree in aviation management. “It cemented in my head that women don’t do that. I think, because women are underrepresented in the aviation industry in general, there aren’t a lot of role models out there. And if there are role models, they’re so far and few in between that a lot of girls don’t hear about them.”

    Although she was entering a job that no American woman had held before, Warner said she faced her new job with enthusiasm. She said she countered the skepticism of some of her male colleagues with a mix of grace and perseverance, knowledge and experience.

    “Early on, I flew with this one captain. Just as we were starting out, he said, ‘I’m flying today, so don’t touch anything on the airplane,’ ” she recalled. “That was going to happen sooner or later, but then it did and it was over with and then I just moved on.”

    Others pilots were much warmer, including a high-ranking Frontier captain who spread the word that she “was OK.”

    “You get that acceptance, and it gets around, and everybody accepts you,” she said.

    Warner went on to have a long career flying for Frontier, Continental and United Parcel Service. She eventually became a Denver-based FAA inspector. Gender inequity in aviation frustrates her, and she has no trouble speaking up about what she feels is the biggest frustration of all.

    “I always felt like the United States — all countries, really — they only use half of their manpower,” she said. “If they only use men, they’re losing a lot.”

    Warner’s induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame makes her the 15th woman of the 225 people so honored.

    Her nomination was vetted by a committee. She was then voted into the six-member 2014 class from a ballot of about 200 people.

    And they’re thrilled to have her.

    “Can you imagine being a flight instructor instructing male pilots for airlines and being told you’re good enough to train them, but not good enough to work them on the flight deck?” said Ron Kaplan, National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement director.

    “There are certainly many female airline pilots that point to Emily as the giant whose shoulders they stood on as they considered a career in aviation.”

    Warner left for Dayton on Thursday. On Friday, she was to participate in the Wings of Women conference, during which female aviation professionals are paired with teenage girls to mentor.

    “Once these girls get to meet and know these professionals, it’s awesome and inspiring for them, because they suddenly realize their future is virtually unlimited,” Kaplan said.

    Although she’s already in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and a portion of the Granby Public Library is named for her, joining the National Aviation Hall of Fame is a big deal for Warner.

    Warner says she wants to be a good role model and encourages women to get into aviation. But she recognizes the challenges women face.

    “Not as many women are learning how to fly, and you’ve got to build your flight time, and if you have a family, it’s tough,” said Warner, who has a family. “But women make good pilots because they’re smoother.”

    Warner’s home in the Lowry neighborhood — built on the former Lowry Air Force Base — is filled with plaques, model airplanes and other items from her years in the sky.

    In her hallway hangs a letter she wrote to Frontier in 1967 asking for an “equal opportunity.”

    She proudly shows off group photos taken with fellow women in aviation, and she giggles when explaining that the floor of her two-car garage is painted with runway directions — 35 R and 35 L.

    To say that flying runs deep in her veins is an understatement. She doesn’t often fly solo anymore. But, she says with a gleam in her eye, she has a friend with a Cessna 182.

    “We go flying,” she said. “I still love it. You don’t lose that — looking out and seeing that world in a different way.”

    Laura Keeney: 303-954-1337, or