I’m sitting at JFK airport in New York City, and wondering if my flight is going to be delayed. After sitting in traffic for hours and racing through security, I sit down to chat with Bonnie Tiburzi. And who’s Bonnie Tiburzi? The first female pilot on a major commercial airline. And this year, American Airline is honoring her boundary-breaking work with The Bonnie Award, a grant for female filmmakers in collaboration with The Film Independent Spirit Awards. Who better to soothe my worries about missing a flight? Presented in partnership with American Airlines x Alfred Coffee’s Strong Coffee, Strong Women initiative.
When did you realize you wanted to be a pilot?
Right from the get go. My dad and brother were pilots and I was just drawn to it – fascinated with flight and the sky. I really think it was just somewhere deep inside me.
Once you knew you wanted to be a pilot, what was the training like?
I began taking flying lessons at a local airport first getting my student pilot’s certificate and working my way up to my commercial license. I became a flight instructor, worked as a tow plane pilot for gliders and flew charter flights to the Bahamas. I flew single engine, multi-engine and seaplanes all to accumulate as many flying hours as I could. The more hours the more qualified you are for the better jobs – for me that was going be airline flying.
Was it ever isolating, all that studying and time alone up in the sky?
It was a little isolating but I didn’t mind that. I love time alone, and I love being by myself. When you’re in the sky all by yourself it’s your own little sanctuary. I always found there was something very magical about flying. Even instructing was wonderful. Being able to share my love for flight with someone else.
Did it feel like a boys club? Were there major obstacles for you that didn’t necessarily exist for men?
I was dimly aware of what was going on around me because there was so much happening. When I started flight instructing and flying charters, I was a 21 year old in Southern Florida sporting pigtails and short shorts. I’m sure my fellow pilots at the airfield thought it was cute yet seemed to respect me as their equal until I began applying for airlines. That is when they didn’t take me seriously.
But I was serious and eventually I got hired by American Airlines as their first and only woman new hire. There the men were welcoming, respectful and curious. We studied together, we did sports together, we shared meals and if anyone was in need of a trim I volunteered to cut their hair. Of course there were one or two of guys who were not happy that I was there. The CEO of American got a letter from a woman saying “You gave a female pilot a job and took it from my husband.” I was asked to write back. In a polite manner I said, “I hope you wrote the same letter to the other 223 new hires too.”
At a young age it seemed to me that women are taught to be in competition with each other. Men simply didn’t come into the equation. Here’s a perfect example from my life. There was a woman named Debbie. She was an aerobatic pilot who arrived at the airfield about a year after I started instructing there. All the guys were enamored with her and longing to take lessons from her. Neither of us had worked with women before and avoided each other as much as possible. . Personally I wished she would hop in her super sports car of an airplane and fly off into the sunset. I learned later she had felt the same about me. The day I got my acceptance telegram from American it was raining at the airfield. Puddle jumping across the parking lot I hurried into flight operations and said “Hey guys, I got it, I’ve been hired by American Airlines – I’m going to be an airline pilot!” They basically ignored me.
Then Debbie grabbed my arm and took me out in the pouring rain and said “Those guys have no idea where your head is at. I am thrilled for you” Now a life long friend, Debbie is also the godmother to my son. Who knew women could be so great!
In the 1980s a lot of women were getting hired, and it surprised me to see how competitive they were. I was disappointed with that. I don’t think competition is a bad thing, but it’s how we compete that makes a difference.
Did becoming the first female pilot for a major airline feel “important” to you, or did you just feel like you were doing the job you loved?
I had no idea it was something so historic, I’m really only realizing that now. I had my little motorcycle, my surfboard, didn’t finish college because I wanted to fly. I never had a mentor. My parents were incredibly supportive but I don’t think they knew what it meant. I was laser focused on getting a job. I’d been asked to go with a commuter airline, but it wasn’t a major airline. I wanted a major airline and the benefits that went with it. I wanted to depend on myself. There were plenty of articles. There was a lot of press and adulation and I began feeling a bit like a freak at the sideshow at times.
Your daughter worked with me at One Kings Lane and I just love her. Which brings me to ask, what was it like balancing motherhood and working? I can’t imagine it was easy. It’s not like you could bring her to daycare on the plane.
Once I had my children, my whole mindset shifted to family. It was heart-wrenching to leave them. I had the best husband. He would never travel when I was traveling, so there was always a parent at home. I thought, “I worked so hard to get this airline job and how can I give that up?” But the same could be said for my home life. I worked hard for it. You can’t really do it all, unfortunately. I took early retirement at 50. I just didn’t think juggling would work for me. You can’t say “Oh my daughter’s sick, I can’t fly that plane.”
Obviously at the time you were the only woman back then, but so much has changed. How do you think about all that?
There were a couple of guys in my class who were black and really cool guys. I stuck out more than they did. There were a lot of military guys coming in, POWs, who had been out of touch. So when they saw me, they were dumbstruck. Airlines hired military pilots usually, and there were only three of us that were general aviation pilots.
The airlines have a lot of women pilots now – former military pilots as well. They’re doing everything – that’s what changed. Women are jumping to the top in so many areas which is wonderful. Airplanes are more sophisticated with glass cockpits and iPads instead of flight bags. Pilots can trade trips more easily. I sometimes think if I could’ve done that, I would’ve stayed a little longer.
American goes way back with diversity and accepting people for who they are. I wrote letters to every airline but only American responded. They gave me a chance that no other airline would.
Was flying back then as glamorous?
Going way back in time I certainly thought it was. Pan Am took the cake. It seemed more elegant with flights flying to exotic places around the world.
What advice can you give to women who are trying to forge their path in their chosen fields?
First of all find a mentor. And if someone says, “You can’t do something simply ask “Why not?” I guarantee you won’t get a logical answer.
What would your superpower be?
Oh, and if you’re a Groover in LA, stop by Alfred Coffee to get your next caffeine fix. For every Alfred Strong Coffee Strong Women post on Instagram that includes the hashtag #BonnieAward, American Airlines will donate AAdvantage Miles to organizations that celebrate and empower women.