When the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA), then known as the Gay Pilots Association was founded in 1990 their first few meetings were very discreet events held in Key West, Florida and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Owing to the timbre of the times, closeted airline and military pilots and aviation enthusiasts from around the country stuck to a first name basis, identifying one another only by wearing shirts with airplanes on them. Twenty-six years later much has changed for NGPA and the LGBT community at large, but NGPA’s mission of proudly representing the issues and concerns of thousands of LGBT aviators through advocacy, education, outreach programs, and career and social networking events nationwide has remained steadfast. In fact, to hear NGPA executive director David Pettet tell it, twenty-six years in, NGPA is just getting warmed up.
“When I took over as executive director in 2014 our membership was quite low, I think the recession and the economy being what it was in the US contributed to that, but in some ways NGPA was trying to figure out what role it was going to have both in the aviation community and furthermore, the LGBT community,” says Pettet. “So, I had the fortunate opportunity to communicate with our founding members to learn about some of our history and the reasons [behind] why they wanted to start the organization in the first place and one of the co-founding members said the mission was very simple: if we could just help at least one person then there was a reason we should exist. So, I kind of brought that back into the board of directors … that philosophy of instead of trying to figure out these great events that we could put on, which we’ve excelled at, to put the focus back on membership.”
And it seems to be working. Pettet says NGPA now has nearly 2,000 paying members, up from 700 in 2014. “We’ve also grown our constituency of people receiving our publications – by being allies with NGPA, not necessarily full paying members – and we now reach 4,000 people today. So, clearly the growth has been explosive for us and I think one of our biggest challenges at the moment is … keeping that philosophy of focusing on the membership but managing our growth and where we go from here.”
An A330 first officer at Hawaiian Airlines, the Honolulu-based Pettet joined NGPA in 2008 and also served on the organization’s board of directors prior to becoming executive director two years ago. So, when it comes to the NGPA, Pettet has literally seen it all. And though there have been some huge advances made on behalf of LGBT rights in the US over the past decade – including much-needed amendments this past January to the FAA’s outdated medical certification guidelines for trans pilots that were championed by pioneering trans pilot and NGPA member Jessica Taylor – Pettet says there is still much work to do.
“Many of our initial members were in the military, so, the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy being eliminated [in 2011] I think contributed to some of our growth and acceptance … and SCOTUS’s ruling about gay marriage last year was huge. But it’s interesting because, not only in our country, but, in the world, the opposition to the LGBT community has become even more outraged now because of the [progress] our community has made,” says Pettet.
Citing the hateful messages NGPA continues to receive on social media and the uptick in virulently anti-LGBT legislation that has been rearing its ugly head in states like Mississippi and North Carolina as recent examples, Pettet says that overall, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag for the LGBT community of late. “It feels like we took a couple steps forward last year in our country but we have now taken several steps back, or at least people are trying to make us step back.”
NGPA’s website features a homophobia and transphobia incident reporting form. “It’s very detailed and it’s anonymous, and it’s for our membership to report to us if something happens at work [and] recently we had an FAA Airline Medical Examiner (AME) office discriminate against someone that was gay. So, it doesn’t just … happen with employers and we need to hold the FAA accountable for who they’re allowing to issue medicals, same goes for checkrides and the designated pilot examiners signed off by the FAA,” says Pettet.
“A lot of people think [LGBT discrimination exists] only in the crew environment at the airlines, but, it’s well beyond that. It’s in flight schools, universities, and, yes … from a LGBT standpoint, the airlines are very friendly to our cause [and] very supportive … and it’s better than it was 25 years ago, and even probably in the last decade … and we’ve had these wins, but [much more needs to be] done. And I’m not declaring war against anyone because I don’t think we’ll get to where we want to be if that’s the mentality we have.” But Pettet says that’s why NGPA’s emphasis on advocacy and LGBT education is so important moving forward.
“You know, 30-plus years ago everyone thought that you could get AIDS by sharing the same toilet, but being HIV-positive does not affect your ability to fly an airplane … and there are HIV-positive pilots … and the FAA has recognized that,” continues Pettet. “But they’re still operating under the procedures that they developed more than 20 years ago which is a cognitive test that has nothing to do with that at all. So, these are just some of the advocacy things that are long-term goals for us and something that, unfortunately, doesn’t change overnight.”
But if attendance at NGPA’s annual Industry Expo in Palm Springs – which featured pilot recruitment sessions with representatives from nearly every major US airline including Delta, Alaska, United and American – is any indication, change is definitely in the air. And this year, in keeping with NGPA’s core philosophy of helping even just one person, the Expo was open to the general public as well.
“If we’re fighting for equality [and] we’re fighting to be the same as our colleague next to us who isn’t LGBT, why would we close our doors to an opportunity like getting hired by an airline by saying: ‘Oh, no, you’re straight, you can’t come.’ So, again, we’re trying to look big picture here and create a culture within the aviation industry where it doesn’t matter if you’re LGBT. If you need a job, let us help you. If you need a scholarship to learn how to fly, let us help you. It doesn’t matter if you’re LGBT, we just want you to be our friends and to respect and educate yourself on our community.”
Speaking of education, Pettet says NGPA’s scholarship and college university outreach initiatives are also booming. Since 1999 NGPA has given well over $250,000 in aviation schooling scholarships and this year alone the organization is on track to give away another $81,000. This past January NGPA also started their first official college group at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, which has one of largest, most reputable aviation programs in the country. Aside from hosting fundraisers and welcoming NGPA member guest speakers to share their stories with the students, the group also offers students a safe place to call home during what can often be a very difficult time in their lives.
“Speaking for myself … I was not out to my family when I attended my first NGPA event, so, having and meeting some people at the event who lived where I lived in Minneapolis, that I could connect with afterwards really helped,” says Pettet. “You never sit down and say: ‘Will you be my mentor?’ That’s not how mentorship happens. It just happens, you connect with people and they see your needs and they come to your needs without you even having to ask. We want this group to be that safe place for students, you know, coming out to their families, [whether] they’ve just come out or they want to come out, they really need that support and NGPA can certainly be that.”
“I’m really big on follow through and mentoring,” he adds. I think it’s extremely important and in the past it’s been really great that we were able to give people some cash to help with their aviation schooling [because] they are the future of the aviation industry and they’re also the future of NGPA. But I wanted to start before we give them that cash and I want it to be throughout their entire career so that they’ll turn around and pay that forward. That starts at universities and flight schools and the more people we educate and show them that we are no different than them, the better I think we’ll continue to get socially as a country.” And, if Pettet has anything to say about it, a planet.
NGPA boasts members in South Africa, Australia, Asia, all over the Middle East, membership in some places where people can be imprisoned just for being gay, “where there is certainly a lot more discrimination than we ever have had here in the United States”, notes Pettet, and that’s why one of NGPA’s goals moving forward will be to expand their reach around the globe in the next few years.
“We’re not a national organization. NGPA is the worldwide LGBT community. We just had an event in June in Toronto that was our first international effort and as of two months ago, we started up our first local chapter in the UK.”
Aside from offering NGPA members (and non-members alike) a chance to see what NGPA is all about before committing to attending larger, costlier events in other cities, NGPA’s local chapters and affiliates also bring the LGBT aviation community together, particularly in times of crisis.
After the recent mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida for instance, two NGPA members who are trained in crisis training for airline incidents and other tragedies were on a plane to Orlando within hours of the attack,
“They worked with a few airlines that were effected down in Orlando and some of our other NGPA members who [held] a support dinner, just to get people in the room talking, and going down to the memorial site and … grieving together and having that council from trained professionals. You know, that’s a critical point to NGPA is we’re not just an organization that has two events a year, we do monthly activities at our local chapters … which can be found in most major cities. And in my opinion, these local chapters are sometimes even more important, because that’s where the true camaraderie and networking comes in. That’s really where that helping that one person philosophy is really taking place,” says Pettet.
And if NGPA is spreading that much LGBT love and education on a local and national level, one can just imagine the good they’ll do on a global scale.
“I was asked recently: ‘What’s your long term vision for NGPA?’ And beyond our important things like scholarships and giving money out, I would really like NGPA to not have an advocacy committee in our future [because] that would mean that being LGBT doesn’t matter anymore and I think that should be our country’s goal and the world’s goal,” explains Pettet. “Then we can just be a really great organization that loves to give money away to aspiring aviators and get together for social networking opportunities. But, unfortunately, that isn’t the case today.”
For more information on NGPA, please visit their website here. (http://www.ngpa.org)