Careers in Transit: The Life and Times of Pilot Petitt

After working for eight commercial airlines, raising a family, earning two masters degrees, and working towards a Ph.D., international pilot Karlene Petitt has another mission to accomplish: to inspire more women to go into the aviation industry.

Women of Aviation Worldwide reports that of all pilots licensed for-hire in the U.S., only five percent are female.

Karlene is on a mission to change that statistic, as well as make the aviation industry safer for both pilots and passangers. Her love of flying has led her to write six books and even offer free flights to girls who are interested in getting into aviation. Some of the girls she’s given flights to have gone on to become pilots.

in Transit (iT): What made you decide to become a pilot? How’d you get into this?

Karlene Petitt (KP): “I was nine years old, and I was playing this game called, “careers” with my girlfriends. To put it in perspective, I just turned 55. So when I was nine, in the game you could be a hostess- an old-time flight attendant, a librarian, a schoolteacher, a nurse or a model. And all of my girlfriends wanted to be hostesses. And I wanted to be a hostess. Because we never imagined you could be the pilot, so you could just be hostesses. And I couldn’t get on the spot, but all my friends did.

So finally I said, “Fine, I don’t care, I don’t want to be the hostess. I want to be the pilot.” And one of my girlfriends said, ‘you can’t be a pilot,’ and I go ‘why not?’ and she says ‘girls can’t do that.’ And I go ‘yes they can.’ She says, ‘No, they can’t! My dad’s a pilot and he says girls can’t do that.’ And I’m like, ‘yes they can.’ So we get in this fight, I kick them out of the house.

And so I went around at 9 years old telling everyone I wanted to be a pilot. I had four sisters, two older and two younger. They all kind of just teased me, like, ‘Oh, yeah. Right. Sure.’ So I just decided that I was going to do that. And I started saving every penny from baby-sitting and mowing lawns and doing whatever I could to save money to take flying lessons.

Now, I knew nothing about airplanes at all. So when I was 16, I went out to the airport and took my first introductory flight. And, you know, I remember the instructor walked me around the airplane and showed me all the components and was talking about it, and then we get in and he taxis it out and gets it on the runway and he says, ‘OK, you’ve got it.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t have it, I don’t know how to fly!’ And he says ‘I’m going to show you.’ So I put my feet on the rudder pedals and held the controls and he told me to put in the speed on the throttle, and at a certain airspeed, pull back. And I did that, and my heart’s pounding and I rotated into the sky and I have this overwhelming…wow, they’re going to pay me to do this? And that’s where that started, it just, like I had that awe-inspiring moment.

And then I went to my career counselor and she goes ‘no, they don’t let women in the military, you can’t do this. You should think of another career.’ So I went back to the airport and asked them, ‘what do I need to do if I want to fly?’ So that’s how that kind of started, just because I was told I couldn’t do that.”

iT: That’s amazing. So I’m sure now that you’ve been doing it a while and are a full-fledged international pilot, people think that you’re in some glamorous line of work, living the jet set life you’d see in movies. But what’s the reality of it?

KP: I think that mysterious, jet set, glamorous lifestyle was really when the men were doing it. They would come home and be pampered by their wives and taken care of and then they’d disappear into this mysterious world of flying this airplane into the sky. Well, now the women are flying and we come home and take care of the kids. Now we know what’s going on.

Karlene at work as an international pilot.

iT: What’s the day-to-day life look like to you?

KP: It’s going to vary between types of airlines. My lifestyle at an international airline on an international airplane is completely different than someone flying domestic or commuter. And so, for the commuter lifestyle, it’s really busy. Sometimes, you’re doing two, three, four legs a day where you’re doing takeoffs and landings and reloading an running to gates and getting more people on and reloading.

My lifestyle, on an international airplane, quite often, they pay me to sit, when I’m on reserve. Reserve and domestic little airplanes, they call you all the time last minute. Because there’s so many legs and segments of a flight that anything can happen. But on an international airplane, you get this one. This [Boeing] 747 is going to take off and fly across the world and the crew is going to be there, and there’s not a bunch of those going on a day. And on reserve, my day is… I don’t even go to work. They just pay me to stay home. That would be a typical reserve day on an international airplane. When I do fly, we kind of feel the pain of all the passengers going through security, but we do have our own entrance.

But there’s fatigue, you’re tired, you’re on the clock. You land in the morning and you’re going to fly out in the morning so you try and get a little nap but you don’t want to sleep too long or you’ll be awake all night. So there’s sleep struggles.

iT: And the best parts?

KP: I have to tell you, even today, I’ve never given up the love of this, the appreciation. Because even today when I go out and walk around that airplane, I look at this huge airplane and I’m always in awe like, ‘Wow. Somebody built this thing. Someone with intelligence built this. And on the 747, how do you take 700,000 pounds of metal and get it to go into the sky? It’s amazing, it’s awe-inspiring to me. So every time I walk around the airplane to do my preflight, it’s amazing.

I still have that feeling. And every time I take off, and add the power and rotate, I’ve got a smile on my face. And every time I see the sunrise or the sunset or look at the stars, I look out and I just appreciate the beauty of this. That’s the good part.

When not in the cockpit, she’s out exploring or spending time at home.

On my layovers, if we have a long layover, which international often does, I like to explore the city and meet new people and so it is still an adventure and a love for me.

Before Sept. 11, one of my favorite things to do was to take my break and just go out of the cockpit and go walk through the cabin. And, you know, just say hi to the passengers. And now we can’t do that anymore, we’re limited. If I’m not operating first, I might stand at the door and hand out wings to the kids. And sometimes to the adults, if they’re in a good mood. I love to do that.

But the typical day, really, on an international flight is probably, you could say you pretty much living two days in one day for what you do. Its kind of, sometimes, surreal. I’ll get home and be talking to my husband, and I look out and go, ‘I can’t believe I was just in Amsterdam this morning. Or was that yesterday? But I just got in today…’ That kind of thing.

There are always things that are going to break and you’ve got challenges and weather. You just really have to learn how to deal with life, things that are beyond your control. You just do the best that you can, and [try] not get wrapped around it. And that goes for passengers, too. Don’t get wrapped around the I-have-to-get-there attitude, because you don’t have to get there, you have to get there safely…sometimes you can kind of absorb all of the painful feelings from passengers cause they’re not happy with whatever.

iT: What did it look like to be a woman raising a family while working in such a male-dominated industry? How’d you balance your career and family?

KP: My grandmother’s generation was all about ‘you had to take care of a family.’ And then it shifted to ‘oh, we can have women going into the working world,’ but you had to make a choice: family or work. And then we shifted to a ‘we can do it all’ environment. And that’s where I came in. In the early days of this, it was kind of expected that we really did do it all, and did it all by ourselves. And, so, if I could go live my life over or tell anybody any advice in this, it would be to get the help. Get the housekeeper, get the nanny that will be there when you come home so you can get some sleep.

I kind of just came home came in and jumped right into the family. So there were many sleepless nights for me at homefront because of that. And then trying to get caught up on the housework and the laundry, I’d have to stay up all night to do it. Which is really unrealistic. Cause I’ll tell you what: the men flying never had to do that.

I fly with guys who go ‘oh, yeah, I go home and I can’t do anything for like three days, and my wife takes care of the kids, keeps them quiet.’ And I just laugh and go ‘yeah, I’m flying home from Tokyo tonight and they’re gonna be waiting for dinner.’

So for me, at the time, it was just the era of you do it all yourself. And you could, and I did. But that does impact your health. You can’t do it all. You need to take care of yourself. In today’s world, we don’t have those unrealistic expectations of women. In today’s environment, it’s such a fantastic opportunity to have a career and a family, too.

iT: You’re in the middle of a doctorate program–what are your hopes for that as you continue your career?

KP: I’m getting a Ph.D. in Aviation and I’m focusing on safety. [I’m] really addressing current industry issues with human performance and automation and what’s happening in this automated world and how we’re performing. I kind of think that they’re going to try to get rid of pilots in the future, and I’m going to try and be a voice to try and keep that from happening. But we’ll see. So that’s what I’m doing, I’m addressing pilot performance and automation.

I’m giving these kids at 12 years old free flights and they want to become pilots and now I’ve got to make this industry better for them. I’m aware of it through this research and so I’ve got to bring some awareness to this so that they have a good place to work. And in today’s world, it’s kind of scary to think, ‘OK, I’m going to invest $250,000 of education into a career where the industry might be trying to get rid of pilots.’ What are the salaries going to look like?  Will there be jobs?…I’m educating myself so that we do have a career.

iT: You’ve been in this game a long time. What’s your best advice for any other women out there considering getting into the aviation industry?

KP: There are so many resources available. To start on the ground floor, there’s a group called the Ninety-Nines, and they’re pretty much the general aviation, female pilot group. The Ninety-Nines have chapters worldwide, and even local. And so you can reach out there. And they have lots of scholarships to get started. Or simply go to your local airport and they have what’s called FBO, or Fixed-Base Operator, and you can go in there and take your first flight lesson. And that’s what I would recommend. Go take that first introductory flight and see if you love it.

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