For pilots, the sky's the limit

When they were kids, these three women wanted to be pilots. Now they've reached their goal and are living their dreams ... in the air.

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Have you ever watched a plane soar through the sky? Did you ever wish you could ride on it ... or even fly it? A fascination with aviation has led these three women pilots on amazing flight paths of their own.

Meryl Getline, professional pilot since 1973

Ms. Getline, a captain with a large commercial airline, knew from the age of 4 that she wanted to fly. Her dad was an aerospace engineer, always flying off on business. She was eager to fly, too. "To shut me up, my family sent me to San Diego from Long Beach," she says. It was her first ride on a commercial airline, and she knew she wanted to do it again.

At 16 she persuaded her family to let her fly to Germany and then on to Austria to study German. She made friends with a French girl, who invited her to Paris. Getline studied French in Paris and Russian in Leningrad.

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By the time she was 18, she was fluent in German, French, and Russian, and had achieved her aim of traveling all over the world. But she was no closer to flying a plane herself. Whenever she boarded a plane, "I would visit the cockpit," she says, "and ask loads of questions: 'What's this? What does it do? How does it work?' They would say maybe when I grew up I could be a stewardess [flight attendant]."

On her first flying lesson, she got sick. The instructor told her she'd never make it. Another instructor, seeing Getline's determination, agreed to give her more lessons. She went on to earn her private, commercial, and instrument licenses.

Getline knew that to be hired as an airline pilot she would need to show a lot of hours on her flight record. At that time, the military did not allow women to fly. But by joining the Army, Getline was able to get herself on different types of aircraft as a passenger. She would tell the pilots she had a commercial license, and they would let her fly. Soon she had an impressive number of flying hours.

When Getline left the Army, she faced a different problem. In those days, "Meryl" was sometimes mistaken as a man's name. When she showed up for her first interview she was told, "We're not ready for a female pilot."

Getline vowed then to be the most qualified pilot she could be, so no one could refuse her. She first worked for a small airline company, acquiring as much flying experience as she could, and getting her flight engineer rating and her rating to fly a large DC-10 aircraft. Getline became the first female - and youngest pilot - in the US to get her DC-10 captain's rating. Finally, in 1985, she was hired by the company that had initially rejected her. Capt'n Meryl, as she is known, is still there.

You can read more about Getline's experiences in her book, "The World at My Feet: The True (and Sometimes Hilarious) Adventures of a Lady Airline Captain."

Bettina Jenkins Bathe, professional pilot since 1988

Ms. Bathe, who lives in Canada, is the author of a series of children's books about the adventures of Violet the Pilot. When she was in kindergarten, her friend's dad, a pilot for Air Canada, gave a talk at her school. "He was really nervous so he focused in on me since he knew me," says Bathe.

When she got home, she announced, "I'm going to be a pilot!" Then she found out that her mother and her grandmother's brother were once pilots.

Bathe's mother was from Austria. They would fly there in the summer and to Florida in the winter to escape the cold weather in Toronto. "Spreading [my] wings and flying gave me the appetite to constantly learn," she says.

Bathe decided a pilot's life was for her, but her teachers and others suggested that she aim for being a stewardess instead. "In my teens, people said, 'You'll never do that,' " she recalls. She set out to prove them wrong.

During the day she worked at her mom's travel agency. Before and after work hours, she would take flying lessons and attend ground school to learn flying regulations and meteorology (study of weather). She also learned how to navigate, read charts, and work an airplane's flight computer.

After two years she obtained three types of licenses: one for flying small private planes; a commercial license, which allowed her to fly jumbo jets; and an instrument rating, which showed she knew how to navigate at night and during bad weather using cockpit instruments.

Bathe got the inspiration for her books from her own travels. Aimed at readers ages 3 to 8, the stories feature Violet the Pilot on adventures in different countries, with a different language, musical instrument, and type of air travel in each.

She often visits schools to read her "Violet the Pilot" books. "I love meeting girls and boys of all ages getting excited about flying," Bathe says.

Lysa Wollard, professional pilot since 1996

Ms. Wollard is a flight instructor and owner of Ahart Aviation Services in Livermore, Calif. She remembers that when she was a kid, "My dad got his pilot's license. Mom worked full time, so Dad would combine taking care of the kids with his flight time." He would pack his three daughters into the aircraft and set off. "We'd go ... up to Canada. We did fun things."

Ms. Wollard decided to get her flying license after finishing college. She began working at the flight school where her dad was chief pilot. She ran the flight school for five years and bought it about three years ago.

Wollard has an 8-year-old daughter who is already showing a keen interest in flying. Wollard takes her flying on two- or four-seat planes. "She takes over and really [dislikes] it if I try to touch anything!" her mom says.

Wollard enjoys teaching people to fly. In the US,you can learn to fly if you're at least 11, fly by yourself at 16, and get your license when you are 17. Wollard has taught people to fly before they could drive!

Female flight firsts

The most famous female aviator was Amelia Earhart. In 1922 she set an unofficial women's flying altitude record of 14,000 feet, and in 1928 she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger.

In 1932 she became the first woman (and second person) to fly solo across the Atlantic. She was also the first person to cross the Atlantic twice by air.

Here are a few other "firsts" of women pilots:

In 1911 Harriet Quimby became the first licensed woman pilot in the United States. Less than a year later, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

Bessie Coleman was the first woman to earn an international aviation license and the world's first licensed African-American aviator (1921).

Jacqueline Cochran broke the sound barrier in 1953.

In 1963 Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut, was the first woman in space.

In 1971 Louise Sacchi flew a single-engine plane from New York to London in 17 hours and 10 minutes, setting a world speed record that still stands today.

In 1973 Bonnie Tiburzi became a flight engineer on a Boeing 727, the first woman in the world to earn that designation.

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space (1983).

In 1986 Beverly Bass became the first female captain for a major US airline. That same year, Ms. Bass, copilot Terry Claridge,andflight engineer Tracy Prior became the first all-female crew when they flew an American Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Dallas/Fort Worth.

Eileen Collins was the first female space shuttle pilot (1995), and she was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission (1999).

Sources: 'Skystars: The History of Women in Aviation,' by Ann Hodgman and Rudy Djabbaroff; Websites: www.aa.com/content/ amrcorp/corporateInformation/facts/femalepilots.jhtml; www.women-in-aviation.com/Featured_Women; www. ninety-nines.org/index.html; www.iwasm.org

So you want to be a pilot?

Here's advice from those who have done it:

1. Study hard in science and math.

2. Have a backup plan, even if you are passionate about flying. Most airlines require you to have a four-year college degree, but they don't care what subject you major in.

3. Next time you fly, ask to visit the cockpit. It's a great way to get a bird's-eye view of piloting and to ask questions. You can't do this while the aircraft is in flight, but most pilots will welcome you before takeoff or after landing.

4. Read everything to do with aviation, from flying magazines to books such as "The Magic School Bus Takes Flight" and "Violet the Pilot."

5. Take a lesson for beginning fliers to see if you actually like it.

6. Get involved in mechanical things: Help fix the family car or change its oil, and start to figure out how things work.

7. Don't give up. If you are passionate about what you want to do, go for it!

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