'Did you fly this airplane?' A Latina airline captain's journey to the flight deck
The flight was over.
It was a hop to somewhere in the deep South: the Golden Triangle in Mississippi, or perhaps Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Claudia Zapata - Cardone was starting out, working as a pilot for a regional airline, flying small Bombardier jets carrying 50 to 70 people from smaller cities to the big hubs.
She was standing at the door of her flight deck, saying goodbye to the passengers as they exited the airplane.
That’s when the older woman appeared. She approached Zapata - Cardone with a question.
“She asked me if I had flown the airplane,” Zapata-Cardone recounts.
She smiled as she said that yes indeed, she had.
Then came the frosty response.
“If I had known that, I would’ve never gotten on this airplane.”
Zapata - Cardone was shocked. Why?, she asked herself. She remembers asking the flight attendant if her landing was bad.
“No, that was a great landing,” was the flight attendant’s response, she recalled.
She chalked it up to, maybe, a reflection of a previous era, when “women didn’t do that.”
But she does do that. Her comfort zone is above the clouds, and she’s been flying passengers since 2010. In fact, she just made captain. And despite that jeer, she often hears “you go, girl!” and “girl power!” from her passengers.
As the daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is one of a small number of Latina airline pilots, commanding a United Airlines Airbus A320 — a jet that’s triple the capacity of the small airliner she first flew. But she is still part of a very small minority: women are only about 6% of airline pilots in the United States.
When we spoke, she had just returned from a trip to Mexico City. She’s recently completed several legs to Houston to help with the recovery after Hurricane Dorian. Sometimes she’s off to San Francisco, Chicago or Denver, traveling from her home in Atlanta (which she shares with a pilot husband) to start her trips in Washington, D.C.
After a while, everything blends together, she says. She often carries granola bars for nutrition on the go and a Tempur Pedic neck pillow to relax on her commute. She makes the most of life on the road, looking for a hot yoga studio so she can stay in shape or a gym if that isn't available. Like many pilots, she focuses on maximizing sleep, and she has her on-the-road rituals: when she flies into New York City, she makes sure to visit Shanghai Joe’s for “out of this world” soup dumplings.
The small cockpit of the A320 is her second home. That's the life of many airline pilots. That's normal.
But Zapata-Cardone is an outstanding pilot, who has made a strong impression among her colleagues.
“She makes fantastic eye contact, always has a smile on her face,” said her mentor, Captain Barbara Andersen, a 27-year United Airlines employee.
She also remarked that Zapata-Cardone never hesitates to ask a question, taking it upon herself to improve and do better, and noted that it draws crew members together.
This stuff matters.
You would think that all of the captains and first officers all know each other before they hop on a plane. But the reality is, in many cases, the first moment crew members meet is often on the day of departure.
Flying an airplane is much like a choreographed performance, with checklists of tasks at the center. But the airlines know in order to have a safe and successful flight, crew members have to feel comfortable questioning each other, so there is never room for complacency. Creating a comfortable cockpit is a big part of safe flying.
“From the moment you walk up to the flight planning table that Claudia is at, she’s always going to greet you with a big smile and always be in a position where she can answer any questions you may have,” said James Simons, United’s Washington, D.C., chief pilot.
“And she’s already reviewed the flight and is ready to go forward,” said Simons.
Zapata-Cardone relishes every aspect of her job, making pre-flight announcements in both English and in Spanish.
But getting to this point as a leader didn’t happen without some turbulence, even though aviation is in her DNA. She needed mentors and money, and neither came on command.
Her dad worked for an airline, the now defunct People Express, and she often visited him at the airport as a child. Zapata-Cardone has pretty much done it all in the industry.
First, she worked the phones as an airline reservations agent.
Then, she tracked flight crews an as airline scheduler, fondly remembering befriending some pilots who took her up in a Cessna 172, a small four-seater propeller plane.
Zapata-Cardone fell in love with the “freedom and that bird’s eye view that you got,” she said, recalling one of her first flights.
She had seen some female pilots along the way, most coming from the military. But no one who rose through the ranks as a civilian.
Eventually she took a job as a flight attendant, at Delta Air Lines.
It was then, as a member of the cabin crew, she saw someone else doing the job she wanted, leading to a “holy cow” moment — her words.
It was near the end of a flight from Salt Lake City to Atlanta. She had taken a jumpseat in the cockpit, strapping her five-foot frame to the fold-down seat just steps away from the controls. This was allowed before 9/11: if there were enough crew members, flight attendants could be up front for take-off and landing.
The Lockheed TriStar jumbo jet was descending, for what was supposed to be a routine arrival.
But not this time.
As the 125-ton jet raced closer to the ground, it became obvious that another airplane wouldn’t be able to get off the runway in time. The tower told the captain to go around for a second attempt at landing.
Zapata-Cardone was in awe.
The captain was flying the plane, and the respect shown by the first officer and flight engineer toward their leader was obvious.
The captain was tall, about 6’5” in boots. But the captain’s height and composure weren’t the only things captivating her attention. The captain was a woman.
The crystal-clear image of the woman with long blond braided hair who piloted the plane to safety is now part of Zapata-Cardone’s forever memory.
“I remember right then and there, saying ‘I can do this. I think I can do this.”
Once on the ground, Zapata-Cardone talked to the captain, who turned out to have had that then-rare career as civilian female pilot rather than military. “Absolutely you can do this. You go out there and you do it,” the captain told her.
Zapata-Cardone said to herself, “you know what? I’m making this jump.”
The nudge was nice, but the transition from flight attendant to pilot wouldn’t be cheap. It ended up costing her about $75,000 for the needed certificates and ratings.
To do this, she picked up extra hours as a flight attendant, she took out loans and used her tax refunds to pay for flight training.
Just like flying a jet, there were some bumps along the way, including the September 11th attacks. Her flight school went out of business.
“It was devastating, because it was a very huge financial setback,” she recalls. “That was a huge moment of doubt. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
With some help from her parents, she developed a system that allowed her to thrive.
“I continued working a lot of hours, saving up money, tax-return checks, yearly (pilot) rating. And then the cycle would start over again.”
Some people were subtly dismissive about her “cute little hobby,” suggesting that “instead of wasting your money and getting all those ratings, check with Boeing, because you may not be able to fly Boeing aircraft because you’re too short.” Zapata-Cardone didn’t take the detractors seriously.
She now sits in the coveted left seat in the cockpit and will soon be getting four stripes on her uniform, the highest rank on the plane.
Claudia is also an ambassador, active in minority recruitment, at a time when airline pilots are in strong demand due to retirements.
She doesn’t always realize it, but she catches the attention of young women and girls when she traverses through the concourse in her uniform, and the symbolism is strong.
Just like the tall woman who inspired her nearly 20 years ago, Claudia knows other girls can see themselves in her.
"We tell young girls, 'you can be a pilot,' and there is still that perception that no, only boys can be a pilot," she says. “I’m proof. 'See, I’m right there in my pilot uniform. See the pictures of me in the cockpit,' and all of the sudden this world opens up to them.”
“Now it’s open to anyone of any ethnicity or gender as long as you have the drive and the passion, it’s available to you,” said Simons, who is a pioneer himself as one of the first African-American captains at United.
Having achieved an aviation pinnacle, I asked Zapata-Cardone what keeps her up a night.
“I want to be a good captain. I want to be a good mentor, I want to be a good role model. I want to make sure that I continue to do a good job,” she replied.
While she can’t rule out one day flying a bigger aircraft that’s capable of flying over the oceans, her next adventures are a bit more grounded.
She’s planning on school visits, helping the Latino Pilots Association encourage the next generation to consider aviation as a career, including programs with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She knows that in order for the next generation to soar, it needs strong pioneers in the present.