The Dream of Flying Takes This Pilot on a Winding Road

Despite perceived gender barriers and the fallout from 9/11, this woman's dream of becoming an airline pilot was finally realized—with the help of a shirt.

Growing up in Sweden, several decades ago, there were many barriers between me and my dream of flying. While, in hindsight, they were not rational obstacles, they suppressed my ability to reach for what seemed to be an impossible dream.

The biggest barrier—one that I started to breach in the 1990s—was a lack of good information. Without the benefit of computers and the internet, it was hard to figure out how to go about getting a pilot’s certificate. In those days, research was limited to books and tiny microfiche sheets, which I could view through enormous machines at the local library in Karlshamn—my hometown of around 10,000 people.

I did have access to one close source of information, however. My aunt’s husband was a pilot. He owned a small charter business in a town about five hours away by car—an eternity by Swedish driving standards, so I rarely saw him. Interestingly, he had traveled to Florida to acquire his certificates, something that seemed unfeasible in my 18-year-old mind. Oh, if only I had been able to see beyond the barricade.

My other perceived barrier was my gender. A woman being a pilot seemed unimaginable to me at the time. Again, because of the lack of research opportunities, I had never heard of a woman flying an airplane. The two channels we had on TV never featured people like Harriet Quimby, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Jacqueline Cochran, Lynn Rippelmeyer, or any other female trailblazer of the skies.

The Journey Begins Strangely

Instead of following my dream of flying, and without other aspirations, I ended up on a winding and somewhat-bizarre path in my early adult years.

“So, why aren’t you flying,” she asked. “Well, I’m a girl,” I said sheepishly. I still had never heard of a female pilot.

Right out of high school, in 1989, I left Sweden to pursue my first career: I became a ski bum. I moved to Verbier, Switzerland, where I worked in a hotel bar. There, I met my former husband—a Canadian—and I moved with him to British Columbia, where I worked for four years as a tree planter and waitress while trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Eventually, I started college. I initially considered med school but decided against it. I thought I wanted to be a dental lab technician because my husband was heading for dental school. The blend of art and science seemed intriguing, and I started a program in Vancouver. But when he ended up getting accepted into the University of Southern California School of Dentistry at Los Angeles, I left the program and we moved to California.

One of my husband’s classmates put herself through dental school by working as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines. I told her about my “impossible” dream of becoming a pilot.

“So, why aren’t you flying,” she asked. “Well, I’m a girl,” I said sheepishly. I still had never heard of a female pilot. She proceeded to tell me that Delta had female pilots. That was all I needed to hear.

I didn’t even take a demo flight. I just jumped right in. I researched all the flight schools at the local airport—Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO)—and settled on the biggest one, Justice Aviation. While working full-time, I got my private certificate in about six months, quit my job at USC, and started working at the flight school.

With full focus, I breezed through my ratings. My instructor was also in pursuit of an airline career. During one lesson, he looked squarely into my eyes while giving me a very serious piece of advice.

“When it comes time to go to an interview, you need to look the part. Wear a uniform. All they should need to do to hire you is put the epaulets on your shoulders.” I took my instructor’s advice very literally and bought a Van Heusen professional pilot shirt.

Most companies in the early 2000s required 1,000 hours with 100 of them being in multiengine airplanes. I was approaching those numbers, and I sent in my application to a regional airline on September 10, 2001. Most people wouldn’t remember the exact date on which they applied for a job, but this one ended up being extraordinarily memorable.

History Throws Up a Barrier

The events of September 11 affected most people in aviation—and outside of aviation—in ways we would have never been able to predict. That day, my dreams of becoming an airline pilot were crushed alongside the World Trade Center buildings.

Needless to say, my airline application bore no fruit, and my friends who had applied and been hired lost their training dates. Those who had recently started were furloughed. I was lucky. At least I had my instructor job. And I kept the Van Heusen shirt.

Before September 11, I had no idea of the incredible careers that existed in general aviation. I found opportunities that I could have never dreamed of. Other than instructing, which I absolutely loved, I had a chance to sell and demonstrate airplanes straight out of the factory for Liberty Aerospace out of Melbourne, Florida, and Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita, Kansas. I’ve visited small airports all over the country and spent hundreds of hours soaring solo over mountains, deserts, oceans, and farm fields.

I’ve been fortunate enough to own two airplanes that have allowed me to visit remote places that would have taken too much time to drive to. And through my amazing job at FLYING, I have flown a long list of airplanes, from two-seat taildraggers to jets. Best of all, I have met many amazing people along the way. I have no blood relatives on this side of the pond, but I have my aviation family. I truly love general aviation and, after more than two decades, that love has not faded.

The Shirt Still Fit

But the dream of flying for an airline kept nagging. The incessant talk of the pilot shortage and the quick upgrade times lured me to, once again, apply. I knew the Women in Aviation conference would be in Long Beach, California, in 2019, and I applied in time to have my interview at the show. The professional pilot shirt that I had bought nearly 20 years prior was still in the plastic wrapper. Ceremoniously, I unwrapped the plastic and tried it on. It fit. I interviewed with a female pilot from Phoenix, and we hit it off. To my amazement, I was hired three days later.

Now, my life is filled with the best of both civilian aviation worlds: I get to fly passengers around in a Bombardier CRJ, and I still get to fly my Mooney, write for this legendary magazine, and spend time with my GA family. If my 18-year-old self had had a crystal ball, she would have never believed the prediction.


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