Sky Captains

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

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.

Her path into aviation could not have been more different than Cook's. In 1980 she was a freshman majoring in special education at the University of Minnesota when she realized she was burned out--exhausted by the rigors of working with autistic children. Though her lifelong fascination with avionics led Anderson to dream occasionally of becoming a pilot, she dismissed flying as a career option. "I always thought you had to go into the military to be a pilot," says the 38-year-old Anderson. "And as a gay person I had a very negative view of the military."

But her academic advisor suggested that Anderson consider the four-year aviation degree then available at the University of Minnesota. She completed that program in 1984, spent two years as an instructor at Wings, Inc., a St. Paul flight school, and was hired as a pilot for Mesaba Airlines (a Northwest commuter line) in 1986. Two years later, she signed on with American Airlines, where she is one of fewer than 200 women among the carrier's 9,500-plus pilots.

On a typical work day, Anderson begins as a passenger at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. There she hops the first available flight for her one-hour commute to Chicago, where American Airlines is based. She uses the hour to rest and prepare mentally for the long workdays ahead. (She's often gone for three days at a time.)

Anderson considers readiness an essential part of a pilot's job. "The potential for danger is very real," says Anderson, "but if you're prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally when you go to work, you do the best you can. You have to go through a mental checklist of how you are. I clear my mind so that when I'm rolling down the runway I'm not distracted, thinking about when the builder might come to the house, or a fight I had with my girlfriend."

The technical tasks demanded of a cockpit crew require that the captain, first officer, and flight engineer follow rigid protocols in communication. While flights rarely allow much time for chit-chat and Anderson works with a new crew every month, the first officer has occasionally had the time and opportunity to come out to a few coworkers, mostly flight attendants. "The gay male flight attendants and I look at each other and go 'wink, wink,' and it's great," Anderson says. But with most pilots, she says, "You can't just meet someone and say, 'Hi. I'm Jan and I'm a lesbian.'

"Most pilots see my ring and ask what my husband does. If I don't trust them I say I don't have a husband, and if I do, I tell them my partner is a woman and that we've been together 11 years and she's a tattoo artist and runs a successful martial-arts school."

Though Anderson spends much of her workday shuttling between cities, she says that in addition to camping, hiking, and horse-back riding, one of her favorite pastimes is traveling. This summer, she and her partner will travel to China, to study TaiJi and other martial arts. And if the opportunity were to ever arise, Anderson says, she'd gladly pilot international flights.

Cook, on the other hand, has had his fill of overseas travel. While in the military, he traveled extensively, including one around-the-world trip transporting the chief of the U.S. Central Command. The homebody in him now prefers spending time in his garden, catching up with friends, and pursuing his life-long avocations--writing and photography.

But flying, for Cook as well as the rest of us with earthbound jobs, still possesses some enigmatic element. "My pilot friends and I look at planes when they take off and it's still a bit of a mystery," he admits. "Sure, I can tell you about avionics and why it works aeronautically, but really, it's still magic."

NGPA speaks for gay and lesbian pilots

Six years ago, a small group of pilots banded together to form the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA), an organization committed to working within the airline industry on behalf of gay and lesbian aviation professionals. NGPA has 600 members in 48 states and eight foreign countries. There are 10 members in Minnesota.  

Thanks in part to the efforts of NGPA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently instituted a change in its policy regarding medical certification of pilots who are HIV-positive. The new policy, which went into effect in November 1997, allows pilots who are taking HIV medication but remain healthy to maintain their eligibility to fly. Previously, FAA rules required that pilots taking medications for HIV, heart disease, or other medical conditions be automatically grounded and forced into medical retirement.

According to Ron Swanda, NGPA executive director, the new policy came after an NGPA-member pilot waged a years-long effort to persuade the FAA that he should be allowed to retain his medical certification to fly. Swanda, writing in a column in the NGPA magazine, said the policy change "could positively impact the lives of all pilots infected with HIV, and opens doors and career paths that many pilots had previously thought closed for good."

In addition to its advocacy work, NGPA has also established an education fund which provides scholarship assistance to gay men and lesbians as they begin their careers as pilots. According to Janice Anderson, a Minneapolis pilot who serves on the NGPA's scholarship selection committee, the first scholarships will be awarded later this year. To date the organization has raised $6,000 for the fund.

NGPA publishes a quarterly magazine, hosts national and regional gatherings, and maintains a resource and referral list of gay and lesbian aviation organizations worldwide. The association can be reached by phone at (703) 660-3852 or by E-mail at [email protected].

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