By Barbara Muehlhausen
I had finally caught up with her. Katha House was on a layover at Midway airport in Chicago and offered to give a tour of the place she feels most at home – the cockpit of Richmor Aviation’s Falcon 50 jet. It’s hard to find a time when Katha is in one place long enough to have a leisurely conversation, and this was a treat. I arrived at Signature Aviation and found her waiting at the front door. Next to her were two last-minute guests who would be joining the tour. As she has done for so many, she met these corporate pilots, one of them a woman, and was sharing some thoughts on careers and offering ideas for networking.
Katha’s 23 years as a corporate pilot began at a time when few women flew for pay, muchless paid corporate flying. Among jets listed in her logbook are: Dassault Falcon 10, 20, 50/50EX / 900/900EX, Hawker HS125; Westwind IA-JET; Gulfstream 1159A; and Challenger 601. Like many others, she started her professional career as a CFI, teaching airplane, single and multi-engine, aerobatic, instrument, and seaplane. She remembers the past reputation of corporate pilots; pilots who could always be identified by their polyester suit, pager, and candy machine diet. They had flexibility, but rarely time for a personal life. It was a time when flying corporate was mostly a stepping-stone, a way to pay one’s dues on the way to the airlines. The field is changing. Now there are more predictable work schedules, ops manuals, CRM, and standardized training and operating procedures. With initial and recurrent training as expensive as it is, employers of corporate pilots do not want to see their training dollars fly out the door to the majors, and the field is fast becoming a specialty of its own.
And that’s fine with Katha; she is proud of her specialty. And her lifestyle is better served by not spending three to four days per month bidding for a workable schedule, which can happen when flying for the majors. She remembers the challenges of flying corporate, especially a female flying corporate, and has worked hard to build networks of people dedicated to bettering corporate flying and to mentoring new female pilots. She was among those promoting quality of life issues at the International Operator’s Conference a few years ago. As one of the charter members of Women in Corporate Aviation (WCA) and Women in Aviation International, she also promoted mentoring and support for women corporate pilots. Other than noting that a degree in computer science might help deal with new cockpit designs, her advice for anyone seeking a career in corporate aviation, especially for women, is straightforward. Do not take disappointments personally, and work to cultivate proficiency and an attitude that promotes success. The conversation that flowed from this simple wisdom grabbed my attention and my funny bone for the all-too-short afternoon.
Don’t take disappointments personally.
Katha maintains that corporate aviation jobs are, by nature, personal. Many times, jobs are awarded based on personal likes and dislikes, the buddy system, and/or caprice. Katha has been offered entry level positions far below her qualifications, denied a position because “wives wouldn’t allow” a female pilot, and turned away because she “would ruin the flight department.” She once was told that a job was no longer available because the order for the new Falcon had been cancelled. This was said while she was looking through the window at a new Falcon hangared in plain view. It can just as easily work the other way. She has been offered positions by luck, not just because she had the qualifications, but because she had been in the right place at the right time. What was important, she says, was that she not allow the refusals to impact self confidence; to not take them as a reflection on her qualifications. There’s always the chance a woman pilot may intimidate someone; it’s not the pilot’s fault. As with other professions, there are sometimes vast amounts of insecurities hiding behind pilots’ licenses.
There has always been an element of “hanging around a place and having coffee until they hire you,” although Katha and her colleagues at WCA are working hard to improve that situation by providing a formal place for networking and support in the midst of this unique employment environment. Katha strongly recommends that new pilots find a mentor – even if the contact is only by phone.
And Katha doesn’t limit mentoring to women. She offered this tip for working with co-pilots. Katha likes to put a new pilot in the left seat on an empty leg so the new pilot will know what she is looking for. And she is not afraid of them wanting her job. “Everyone is going to want my job,” she says. But “two well-trained pilots are better than two engines,” so that’s where she puts her focus.
She makes another observation that seems to sum it up. “Make your own luck and know when to make a change. Don’t carry that cross too long; it only proves you have a strong back. Too many women stay where they got their first job and will never be able to get to the level of competency, confidence, and respect that they could achieve if they would leave and start new at a higher level elsewhere.”
Cultivating proficiency and an attitude that promotes success.
In many ways, not taking disappointments as a professional fault is, itself, the result of an attitude that promotes success. Katha believes there’s a lot of wisdom in the Herb Kelleher (founder of Southwest Airlines) philosophy: “Hire for attitude; train to proficiency.” A chip-on-the-shoulder or proving-oneself attitude is not helpful, only making would-be employers wary. She believes in proficiency and a can-do attitude that shrugs off obstacles. She started cultivating that attitude early. While Katha emphasizes that each person needs to find her unique way of manifesting a successful attitude, much can be learned from listening to the stories that illustrate Katha’s style.
Katha says she started late in the flying business. She had wanted to learn to fly when she was a student at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), but her dad discouraged the idea because she wouldn’t be able to get a job. It was a realistic assessment for the times. However, for a woman whose face beams every time she talks about aviation, most especially her Falcon 50, it’s a sure bet that the idea of flying wouldn’t end there. Life placed aviation opportunities in her path, but it took strength, focus, talent, and a sense of humor to seize them.
Katha attended MTSU for a while, then married. Somewhat later she noticed a special two-for-one offer for flying lessons at a local FBO – perfect for she and her husband – so at age 23 she started flying. When she went for her private pilot check ride, the examiner told her, “Women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen.” Good with pithy comebacks, Katha retorted, “Yea, but when you’ve mastered that, you go on to other things.” And, Katha added, after that “the checkride was on.” The examiner tested her mastery of the aircraft in every possible way he could imagine, and Katha’s skill prevailed over his skewed skepticism.
Later on, an instructor and airport owner saw Katha with her Cessna by a maintenance hangar at a neighboring airport. They asked if she was entered in the precision (time and fuel) contest at their local airport. She said, “No,” and they couldn’t pass up a tease, asking if she could fly her 172 well enough to have the nerve to enter. Challenged by the question, Katha stopped in and paid her $25.00 entry fee. She flew the precision portion of the competition and won. She had no intention of adding extra fuel to some lingering gender-related competition (from the local Air Force Base) by entering any more events, but her two-year old son changed that. He was really cranky and needed a nap. Katha knew that if she settled him in the airplane, the hum of the engine would put him to sleep and the time waiting in line would help. So she paid her $5.00 and entered the spot landing contest just to get that nap in – and won hands down. She brought home two large trophies that day and her son got a good nap. The airport manager offered her a flight instructor’s job on the spot, so she got her CFI and taught at the flight school for a while.
Life’s unpredictable turns led to Katha becoming a single mom with two sons to support. She recalls some career advice offered as she left a difficult marriage situation and forged out on her own. At one low point it was suggested that she could work at McDonalds. She decided that no way would she grill hamburgers when she could fly – it came easy for her – and thus began her professional career in earnest. She moved with two very young sons to South Carolina and ran a flight school. The DPE at the flight school was also a chief pilot on a King Air. They had ordered a Westwind and it was due to arrive in a couple of months. He was impressed by the knowledge and skill level of Katha’s students on their checkrides, and asked if she would possibly be interested in being a part-time copilot on the jet. She jumped at the opportunity, splitting her time between the Westwind and flight instruction.
The reason Katha was ready for this opportunity was another story in itself. Prior to the Westwind’s arrival, Katha had started riding to Nashville in a 1965 “C” model Aztec. She was just riding along so she could visit her parents. One day the pilot asked if she was multi-engine rated. After hearing a quick “Yes,” he asked if she would like to fly the leg back. Of course she flew without hesitation. After a few of these visiting trips, the pilot and owner of the Aztec called her in. They knew she wanted to get her ATP, and had come up with an idea. They suggested she fly the airplane for two weeks while Johnny, the only pilot, went on a vacation – overdue by nine years. Their employees had become comfortable with Katha flying. They offered to furnish the airplane and fuel for Katha’s practice and checkride for the two weeks work. Katha flew the trips, Johnny got his vacation, and Katha got her ATP.
Katha smiled as she reminisced about her first trip in the Aztec into a small NC strip with an NDB approach. She had to fly the missed approach and went on to Raleigh, the larger commercial airport with the ILS, some 30 miles away. They landed, the passengers got out, and as Katha held her breath for the comments about landing at an alternate airport one passenger said, “You know, Johnny always has to come to Raleigh this time of year because the fog is so bad in the mornings.” With this confirmation, she never doubted her decisions again. It was a lesson in flying single pilot. You fly yourself, you teach yourself, you do what you know is right because YOU are taking care of YOU. Even in the two-crew operation of a Boeing 777, the crew takes care of themselves, working together to obtain a satisfactory outcome. The passengers just happen to be riding along during the process. As the saying goes, “takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory.”
That Aztec job led to being copilot on the Westwind and a copilot on a different King Air 200. All were just backup part-time positions. One of the King Air passengers, an attorney, who flew with Katha during this time owned a Beechcraft Baron 58. Unhappy with his present situation, he was looking for a different pilot. As Katha recalls, “I got a call from the King Air chief pilot and was told to show up at the attorney’s office. ‘Now dress professional, I’ve built you up and he thinks you walk on water.’ ” Nervous at the statement, she showed up and was hired to fly the Baron. For insurance purposes, she had to take a checkride with the chief pilot of the FBO who managed the aircraft. Luckily, she had twice flown a Baron with the company that owned the King Air. She got the Baron manual and studied it fiercely. The next day she showed up at the chief pilot’s office, ready to talk systems. They had never had a “woman” fly anything there except Cessnas and trainers, and this “WWII pilot” was tough. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop outside the office door. The systems “discussion,” lasting three hours, ended and they came out of the office and headed toward the airplane. The actual checkout was uneventful, as Katha put it. They were not fast friends, but smiling upon exiting the aircraft. She was, in fact, taking an aircraft off of their schedule. It did work out, however, and she quickly gained their respect. She continued to fly the part-time copilot job on the Westwind during the time she flew the Baron, since they did not need anyone very often. Her first trip on the Westwind was as a “flight attendant,” since she had never even seen the inside of a corporate jet. On the next trip the return was an empty leg, and she was put in the left seat. As she was taxiing, (the Westwind is notorious for oversensitive handling on the ground) she turned over a coffee cup. With a lump in her throat and an iron grip on the yoke, she rotated and climbed out of Atlanta Hartsfield. With the wheels in the well, she was so relieved to find it was “only an airplane.” She leveled out at FL 190 for the 120-mile trip back and quickly had a reality check. She was also going to have to land this beast on a runway less than half the size of Atlanta. She asked a few pointed questions and the pilot told her he would help her with follow through and with the reversers. “Oh yeah, those reversers.” This was different than the King Air. He had helped her on her ATP and they had gone over the operation of the Westwind in a ground school environment, but this was the real thing and the regular copilot was watching from the couch in the cabin. She thought he was the bravest soul on earth. As it turned out, the landing was also uneventful, but she was glad it was over. She recalls, “There are two things you never get to do twice. You never get to make more than one first impression, and you never get to fly a jet the FIRST time more than once. Make it good on both counts. DO YOUR BEST.”
The kind of attitude Katha had been cultivating came in very handy at this point. She began her career at a time when few women flew corporate, and she was sometimes viewed with curiosity. She remembers a time when her son, James, was seven or eight years old and flew as an unaccompanied minor to join her. When her son deplaned, the captain was with him because he wanted to meet the young man’s mom. It seems the DC9 captain thought he would give his young passenger a treat and take his picture in the cockpit on an interim stop. “I bet you’ve never been in an airplane like this before,” he said. James looked around with an experienced eye, then said, “No, not one this old.” The surprised captain discovered, after further questioning, that this young man’s mother flew jets with EFIS cockpits and he decided he just had to meet her.
Time moved on and the Westwind was on the block, but didn’t sell, and the owners decided to move it to another city – with just the chief pilot. Katha looked for a job and found one through JPI with Unisys in Trenton, NJ. The day she accepted that job was the day she changed her life again. She went to Flight Safety and got a type rating in a Falcon 50. She would never see the inside of the Falcon until after school; her first trip was with passengers. The company moved her into a corporate apartment. Between trips she found a place to live and waited for the chance to have her sons join her. It wasn’t easy, but she found a townhouse with a nature trail and lots of kids their age in Bucks County, PA, just nine miles from Trenton. She found babysitters and had a close neighbor with sons as a back up. As she explains, “I had three backup babysitters, and if all else failed, the boys could always take their sleeping bags over to Mary’s house.” As they got older, 12 and 15, she allowed them to get themselves off to school when she would leave the house at 5:00 AM or earlier. Somehow her sons never missed a day of school, and their friends could not understand how they could be responsible for getting themselves to the bus on time. She claims she was lucky to have good kids.
Katha started flying for Unisys in the mid-80’s, and enjoyed it very much. But times changed and the company downsized the flight department to just one airplane and one helicopter, and fewer personnel. Katha’s position was one of the ones eliminated, but she says it was the best thing that happened to her. In the ten years following that job, she learned an incredible amount. She always thought she wanted that Fortune 500 job with security. She would like prospective corporate pilots to know, however, that the most valuable flight time spent early in her career was the single pilot multi-engine for hire. “That’s when you mature in an airplane,” she says. “The most useful lessons do not come from a book,” she says. They are, rather, the ones you teach yourself as you get through tough situations.”
Cultivating an attitude that promoted success meant that Katha had to deal with some interesting gender-related situations. From the time Katha first started piloting corporate jets until a couple of years ago, she had long, blonde hair and would wear it up. In the recent past, a passenger observed that he thought she looked like Ivana Trump. “If I were Ivana, I’d be sitting in the back,” was her humorous comeback. Nowadays, if mistaken for a flight attendant, she is likely to reply, “Thank you. That means you think I’m young enough and thin enough (to be a flight attendant).”
Early in the game, she tended to ignore jokes about her “having the cockpit rearranged by the time we landed,” or “painting the cockpit pink” by well-meaning captains. She once asked another woman pilot how she handled harassment. Did she do anything about it? “Hell no! I grade it!” her friend quipped. Katha and her friend did several ocean crossings in different jets one year. Her friend, Jenny, called it, “the blond leading the blond.” Yet Katha and other professional women pilots didn’t get where they did by being meek in the face of opposition. So where was the line they wouldn’t cross? “I will never compromise professionalism or safety,” Katha says, and she means it. That commitment cost her a job once. This situation severely compromised safety, and Katha declined to comply. But, as Julie Andrews said in The Sound of Music, Katha believes that when God closes a door, he opens a window somewhere. As has happened so many times in her life, a window did open, in the form of another job the very next day in fact. It was an interesting assignment in Geneva, Switzerland. She does admit to being the grocery coupon queen during some very lean days, though. Those boys were her priority.
Gender will probably always play some kind of role in cockpit interactions. Katha encountered her share of the challenging side of gender differences, as have the majority of other women pilots. But another story tells of a promising future on lighter side of this issue. Katha has a checklist when starting to prepare for the landing phase of her flight: call for the descent checklist, pressurization checked, pull the throttle back, roll the thumb wheel forward – and reach for her purse to put on lipstick. She likes to look presentable when she greets deplaning passengers. She recalls a trip with one male copilot who had flown with her on many assignments and knew the drill well – probably too well. They were enroute, about halfway to their destination. The air was a little dry so she reached for her purse and applied some lip balm. In her peripheral vision she noticed her copilot beginning to turn down the cabin pressure. She caught his eye and asked why he was turning down the pressure when they had more than an hour yet to go. A sheepish look crept across his face as he stammered, “Uhhh … uhhh … I ..I…thought…..” He had seen her applying the lip balm and thought it was time for the descent checklist.
The lessons that Katha learned built proficiency, and she learned some of her most interesting lessons in Cali, Colombia. She had been offered a monthly contract to fly an IA-1124 Westwind jet at a time that was just right both for her and her family – and she seized the opportunity. She learned to file a three-page flight plan in Spanish, and how to scare up someone with proper authorization stamps because the cartel had stolen the one at the main desk. She learned to either fly “industrial strength” NDB approaches or hit mountains because it was the rare airport with an ILS or localizer approach installed. The equipment was there; it was just fruitless to install it because the cartel would make sure it was missing or inop by the next day. She learned to cope with terrible airport signage. She recalls a time in Bogota piloting the Westwind. One night she was taking the taxiway to the departure runway, and staying to the right to miss the potholes. Suddenly her copilot exclaimed, “Oh my God, you passed Bravo!” He had been reading the checklist and looking down. There were no signs marking Bravo. This was a big deal because the narrow strip of tarmac was going to end with grass. Katha verified that the area was clear, and then alternately engaged forward and reverse thrust. Her copilot and the plane’s owner watched with slack-jawed surprise as she completed a beautiful three-point turn, back-taxied to Bravo, and then back taxied onto the assigned runway for departure. “You do what you have to do,” she says.
She recalled another trip crossing the Indian Ocean from Australia. “I made the initial contact call to the Indonesian Center when a very deep voice eerily came back, “GOOD AFTERNOON, CAPTAIN HOUSE. WELCOME TO BALI.” “This sent cold chills down my back. I later discovered our handler’s son was a controller and had allowed his father to answer my initial call. ” I was thinking Twilight Zone or something. I knew I had that Southern accent, and I was living in Atlanta at the time, but this was not Atlanta. Who could possibly know me”
Another occasion demonstrates lessons learned because of her can-do attitude in the face of obstacles. As she puts it, “Don’t be afraid to see what’s obvious.” She was flying the attorney-owner in his Baron 58, and ready to depart Rutherferton, NC one clear Easter morning. The engine wouldn’t start; the electric boost pump had failed. No services were available at the small airport or, for that matter, for miles around. Using what she calls “housewife technology,” she started to analyze the problem. With training as an A&P mechanic in her background (she completed the written but moved before she was able to take the practical exam), she reasoned that if she could circumvent the failed electric pump and get the engine started, the engine-driven pump would take over and the flight could be safely continued. She removed the p-leads, then one of the plugs. Fashioning a funnel out of a piece of paper, she drizzled gas into the cylinder, replaced the plug and the p-leads, and started the engine. The first try didn’t work, but it was obvious she was on the right track. After repeating the process once more, the engine roared to life. This engine would flood easily on hot day, so she flooded it and did the “hot start” procedure. The remainder of the flight was uneventful, except for one astonished on-looker offering her a mechanic’s job.
Katha used creativity in cultivating a success-oriented attitude. She recalls a time when it was the norm for corporate jets to spend a lot of time on the ground because of lost slots. She was in Pisa, Italy, trying to get a slot to Heathrow, and there were none available for another five or six hours. She was talking with another pilot who liked her “Save the Children” company tie. She had been instrumental in selecting it for the company – a whimsical airplane motif designed by kids. His admiration for the tie gave her an idea. “If you get me a slot, I’ll give you the tie.” He did and she kept her promise.
Creativity came in handy on another flight from Bogata to Buenos Aires via Ascension, Paraguay. At FL310, Katha found herself too low to communicate directly with Montevideo and didn’t like her fuel burn at that altitude. Another airliner was relaying her transmissions to flight center, including her multiple requests for a higher altitude. Finally the airliner captain told her, “The reason you’re not getting a higher altitude is because we’re above you at 350. We have you 10 miles ahead on the TCAS. ” Katha talked with him a bit, discovering that both crews were headed to Buenos Aires. Then she got an idea. “If you climb to FL390, I’ll buy you a beer in BA.” After a short pause the captain said, “OK. Where are you staying?” They discovered that their crews’ hotels in Buenos Aires were right around the corner from each other. “Standby,” he said. Katha then heard him ask center for FL390, and she subsequently got permission to climb to FL350. After their arrival in Buenos Aires, she and the crew settled the aircraft and proceeded to their hotel. When they arrived, the person at the desk said, “There are some airline pilots looking for you.” It was the airliner crew, come to claim their beers – which they did – along with some pleasant conversation in the bar.
By the time our afternoon was over, Katha had woven together a treasure trove of stories that amply illustrated her advice to aspiring corporate pilots, and she sagely noted that “Being a leader will not make you popular; leadership and honesty will.” She could, however, have added a third point to her advice – a point I’m sure you’ve already observed in reading these stories. It also helps to have a great sense of humor.