Sky Captains

Forget the adventure and romance, say two gay pilots. Flying is often just a job

If indeed every stereotype contains some grain of truth, then First Officer Janice Anderson is living proof that airline pilots are tall, dark, and handsome. A 10-year veteran of American Airlines, Anderson is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, strikingly dark, and seriously handsome.

Captain John Cook, on the other hand, is too short and too blonde to fit the stereotype. A gentle man who eases you into conversation with earnest blue eyes and a mesmerizing southern lilt, Cook, in another age, might have been a patiently prodding investigative journalist--the career Cook says he'd have chosen had he not gone into aviation and taken a job with Northwest Airlines.

Both Anderson and Cook know a bit about stereotypes. Both are gay and have been involved in the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA), an organization established six years ago by a small group of pilots concerned about job discrimination, harassment, and homophobia within the airline industry. NGPA now has 600 members in 48 states and eight foreign countries, and has made significant progress in battling discriminatory practices against HIV-positive crew members and establishing an education fund for aspiring gay and lesbian pilots. NGPA's Minnesota chapter has 10 members.

However, most of the time, Anderson and Cook admit, being gay isn't particularly germane to a pilot's daily work. First and foremost, both say, they're highly trained professionals in an extremely demanding job, and flying is just a job. Both Anderson and Cook are quick to demolish the image of pilots as swaggering individualists whose days and nights brim with high adventure and sex. That's a Hollywood invention, they say: Forget the exotic locales and the romantic allures; just give us a 14-hour layover so we can get a good night's sleep and breakfast before take-off tomorrow. But the notion that carting hundreds of people in million-dollar machines at 600 miles an hour five miles above the earth is "just another job" doesn't exactly--well, it just doesn't fly.

Like every other airline captain on duty in the industry, Cook lugs around a black, rather large, square, clumsy-looking leather valise. "It's not our lunch and it's not video games," Cook explains as he opens it to reveal a pair of three-inch-thick manuals--the cockpit operating manual and the training and operation manual--and two smaller manuals containing approach plates (i.e., diagrams) for every airport in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.

"Oh, and one more thing," Cook says, holding up a colorful, plastic placemat-sized map of the United States. "I bought it for $2.95 at GJ's Supervalu, just so I can see where I am."

The operating manual contains detailed information about every system on the aircraft, as well as procedures to follow in case of emergency. (For engine fire it instructs, "Fly the airplane. DO NOT HURRY.") Cook knows the manuals by heart.

"Flying is physically, mentally, and technically demanding," Cook says. "Intuition and experience are a big component of any flight. If we think something is wrong, it probably is. You have to pay attention to those 'nagging feelings.'"

A native of Georgia who claims to be a distant relative of the 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook, the 39-year-old Cook has lived in Minneapolis for nearly a decade. He made his way into commercial flying the traditional way: through the military. The son of a military-turned-commercial pilot, he learned to fly in college at Tulane University, and then entered the Air Force, where he flew jets for eight years. Northwest recruited him before he'd even left the service.

As a reserve captain on DC-9 flights, Cook fills in for pilots who are ill or otherwise unable to fly. Being "on call" 24 hours a day, much like a doctor, he literally keeps his suitcase packed and sitting by his kitchen door so he can take off whenever a call comes. His schedule, he says, is both a blessing and a curse: Its sporadic nature allows him several days off at a time, but makes it almost impossible to plan activities. "I've found out I'm a homebody," Cook says. "I like routine more than I thought. It's frustrating to try to plan things with friends, because there's always a chance I might have to cancel."

Working as a reserve captain also means Cook rarely encounters the same crew more than once. "I never know how to answer the question of whether or not I'm out at work," he says. "I say yes and no. Being gay isn't a fact that I hide if people ask me, like if I have a date on the weekend, but my work conditions and work environment are very different than most other people's. If I worked in an office every day with the same people, I would be out fairly quickly."

Pilots as a group are generally conservative in nature, Cook notes, but he says he's never felt uncomfortable--much less discriminated against--on the job because of his sexual
orientation.

Not far from Cook's grand old house in Minneapolis' Tangletown area is the residence of First Officer Anderson (she and Cook have never met). Anderson lives with her partner of 11 years, tattoo artist Kore Grate, and two yapping terriers. Ten years into her career with American, Anderson is a first officer, i.e., co-pilot, on a McDonnell-Douglas 80, a narrow-body jet. "I can't wait to be a captain," Anderson enthuses.

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