It is easy, when on a flight, not to think about the pilots beyond their ability to get us from point A to point B safely and comfortably. They are a voice on the PA system giving us information about our route. They are every little bump and every rough landing. They are a flash of white shirts when we disembark and glance into the cockpit, wondering at the many buttons and lights and dials and screens. The airliners are marvels. The pilots’ struggles up the professional ladder, lonely hours, and unconventional personal lives are incidental.
Erika Armstrong’s book A Chick in the Cockpit lays out for the reader the difficulty of becoming a pilot, especially if you’re a woman. It is, in effect, two books linked together by her life story and a strong feminist message. The first half describes her battle to become a captain – the scramble for flying time, the sexism doled out by certain captains and by one memorable woman who she says chose pilots based on how much like a pilot they looked (male, handsome, tuft of grey at the ears), and the urge to downplay her femininity to fit into a boys’ club. The second half lays out in unflinching terms an increasingly abusive relationship with her husband and her ejection from flying.
Both halves of the book are also tied together by being structured against the stages of a flight and what to do in an emergency. Preflight and takeoff sequences open chapters on her beginnings as a pilot, while different emergency scenarios and how to handle them introduce chapters on the abuse she says she suffered. It is an unfortunate stylistic choice that serves the latter half of the book well, but makes the first half difficult to engage with. However, the reader that tolerates Armstrong’s personal timeline made nonsensical by her chosen structure, her chatty style, and occasionally cartoonish depictions of characters will be well rewarded by a moving story of a woman stripped of her pilot’s wings wrestling through an abusive relationship.
Armstrong clearly knows a lot about aviation, not just how to fly but also its history, and she happily heaps this information onto the reader, who, more likely than not, happily receives it. Her enthusiasm builds a personal connection with the reader, and also makes it even more heart wrenching that she can no longer fly. Not only are we given a spectacularly detailed insight into the life of a pilot, but we are also made privy to the life of an abused woman.
This is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of A Chick in the Cockpit: marrying the particulars of a pilot’s career with the widespread and underestimated problem of domestic abuse, and proving to us that the woman in charge of hundreds of souls and a gravity-defying craft, and the woman soaking up blood from a head wound with a diaper can be the same person. Through this book, pilots and abused women become more than passing thoughts.
Chantal Berendsen is a travel enthusiast working at an insurance company that facilitates, among other things, travel enthusiasm. She is based in London.