Latina American Airlines’ first captain publishes book of poetry by female pilots

A woman in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft is still a rare sight to behold. Airline passengers got used to “Here is your captain speaking”, coming over the intercom in a baritone voice. Flight safety instructions are most often announced by a flight attendant. But gender currents in aviation have changed over the past few decades, and Captain Linda Pauwels has been at the forefront of change.

Pauwels has been a pioneer in the industry since the early 1980s when she became the youngest cargo plane captain, flying a 707 for military cargo carrier, Southern Air Transport. In 2000, at age 37, she became the first Latina to order an American Airlines commercial flight. Currently, she is a control aviator for the Americans, instructing and evaluating Boeing 787 pilots. Her most recent achievement is to become the first person to publish poems written by Amelia Earhart, aviator and fellow aviation pioneer.

Earhart’s unpublished poetry appears alongside works by other female pilots in Pauwels’ latest book, Beyond haiku: women pilots write poetry. That’s right, Pauwels is also an author! Its previous versions include Latinas in Aviation: Stories of Passion, Power and Breakthrough in the Aviation Industry and the first book in the Beyond Haiku series, Beyond haiku: pilots write poetry.

The first one Beyond haiku book originated from an internal forum hosted by the American Airlines Pilots Union, where commercial pilots discuss different topics. While studying job stress among airline pilots for a doctoral program, Pauwels discovered artistic expression, like writing poetry, as an outlet. This prompted Pauwels to launch a poetry thread on the forum in 2015, titled “Morning Haiku”.

At first, many male pilots looked up on the poetry thread, but it began to take hold. Pauwels published all types of poetry: ancient poetry, poetry about war, poems by men, poems by women. And the pilots started to participate by posting their own poems.

During the pandemic, Pauwels organized five years of pilot poetry in the first book. It was illustrated by the children of pilots, aged 7 to 17. Proceeds were donated to the union’s Relief and Scholarship Fund to help families of pilots on leave due to COVID-19.

By giving an interview on this first book, Pauwels had the idea to make a series of it. The next collection of poems would be written by female pilots and the next by military pilots. The final book would showcase the different seasons and experiences of a pilot’s life. To compile this next book, she published a Poetry Submission Request that was circulated among women pilot organizations such as Women in Aviation, The Ninety-Nines, and The International Society of Women Airline Pilots, as well as internal forums.

Fifty-eight diverse female aviators answered the call. Pauwels included at least one excerpt from each submission. The book features female pilots from 10 different countries ranging from teenage girls to 80s. It was also a family effort. Pauwels and his daughter Nathalie, who is a naval officer, also provided observations.

“I just wanted to do something to honor us as women who fly, and I really wanted to introduce people from different regions. We were fortunate to have different cultural components and different types of flights, not just commercial flights. The first book was all about airline pilots. This one has all types of drivers. And I really wanted the community to feel who we are, why we like to fly and what things are important to us. That’s how it happened, ”explains the pilot turned author.

So why does Pauwels like to fly? According to her, she loves the feeling of “being in the air and seeing the majesty from above”. She also notes the interactions between the pilots when the door is closed in the cockpit. “Over the years I guess they leave marks – good marks – connections that we all have that are very unique among pilots.”

Connection is what made it important for Pauwels to highlight female pilots in this book. “I see the effect,” she said. “I wanted to do something really unique. I didn’t just want to have a book of poetry. I wanted it to be a community effort. She also wanted to influence the next generation of female pilots.

A handful of adult artists and 26 young artists aged 7 to 17 illustrated the book. “I’ve always enjoyed working with young people,” says Pauwels, who also has a graduate degree in education. “I wanted to give young people the opportunity to participate and have their work published. And their work is amazing. In the first volume, it was really good. This one, it is truly amazing. And then, it makes the book interesting for younger kids who may be considering this for their careers. So there is layer upon layer of that, ”she explains.

Opening “the eyes of young people to the possibilities that exist”, as Pauwels puts it, is a layer. Another layer supports aspiring female aviators. The product of Women pilots write poetry go fund aviation scholarships. Another layer is the discovery of the unpublished poetry of Amelia Earhart.

As Pauwels was writing this book, a thought occurred to him in the middle of the night. She received so many entries from female pilots that she wondered, “Did women in the past write poetry? During her research at 2 a.m., she came across an article by Purdue University professor Dr. Sammie L. Morris on Earhart’s poems. Morris had discovered poems, dating back to the early 1920s, among the personal papers and other memorabilia of the admired American aviator.

Earhart was a career and aviation consultant at Purdue in 1935, just a few years before she passed away forever in her bid to become the first woman to tour the world. Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, donated the archives to the university after his wife went missing. Pauwels wasted no time in asking for permission to print Earhart’s poems in his upcoming compilation, and to his surprise, Purdue agreed.

Although Earhart wrote several works of non-fiction during his life, his aspirations as a creative writer remained relatively unknown until Morris’s discovery. Earhart’s poems of love, grief, and flight appear in the book alongside works by other female pilot poets from the past, such as Delphine Bohn, Nadine Ramsey, and Louise Thaden. In addition to Earhart’s poems, the book features a rejection slip from a poetry magazine dated May 1921. The denial is scribbled on Emil Harte, Earhart’s male pen name.

One of Earhart’s poems tells of the miscarriage of his mother’s first child. The footnotes explain that the little girl’s miscarriage was “caused when she was thrown against the brake lever of a cable car”. Regardless of gender, pilots share a common perspective and love of flying, but it is the unique experience of femininity that female pilots bring to these poems.

“You know that there are experiences that women have where they are made to feel that they are not good enough, or that they will not be successful, and that it is not something for them,” says Pauwels, “and I have included poems to this effect. I also have poems about motherhood and the difficult things about raising a family. One of the pilots decided to stop flying so that she could raise her son. These things are very specific to women. There are a lot of sacrifices when you do this professionally. You give up a lot. You are wasting time – time with your family – you are not there. Men do too, but motherhood is always something that cannot be replaced.

The mother of two would know – Mr. Pauwels was a pilot for Japan Airlines. A poem from the book, titled “Two Pilots, One Plane,” by Kelly Jeffries talks about spouses who are both pilots. It reads: “It is giving and receiving, in flight and in life.” Pauwels agrees, adding that “relations in aviation are difficult and always have been.” She gives as an example the well-documented tumultuous relationship between the pioneer of aviation, Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his wife Consuelo. The author of the much loved children’s story, The little Prince, also disappeared while flying – never to be found. His widow gives her side of the story in the book, The tale of the rose.

Pauwels loves all the poems featured in Women pilots write poetry, including historic additions, of course. But when in a hurry to pick a favorite, she chooses Peace, by active Navy pilot Erica Glanz. These are the stressors that women often carry, such as worrying about the well-being of others. And how women pilots have to get over their troubles so they can, you know, fly a plane. “I can’t break, but I will bend,” Glanz writes of the pressure. “As you sit in the cockpit and the pre-take-off checklist is complete, it’s like none of it exists,” says Pauwels, who relates to the poem on a personal level. “You know, it’s the compartmentalization that is so clear, and I think she did a remarkable job with this poem.”

Themes of strength, endurance, resilience, beauty, family, love of flight and the search for balance weave their way through the book. These are the common threads that unite the flying community. Pauwels hopes that the commonalities portrayed in the book will give pilots – and not just female pilots – a sense of peace.

A retired pilot sent a message to Pauwels via the pilot’s forum. He had bought a copy for himself and one for his neighbor’s daughter, who had just graduated as an instructor. Her post read, “I’m not much of a poetry reader, but I have to tell you that the feeling of peace I felt after reading the book is something I can’t describe. Pauwels presumes: “What he was trying to convey is that there is really no difference between female pilots and male pilots – we are pilots, and these are things we share. The bottom line for me is this: Pilots love to fly. At the end of the day, it’s really about stealing, how you feel and why we do it. And this is the common point.

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