Menu Search
Home Flashback
Flashback

Remember when? Quick hits of history prep you to vault forward by considering in full how things used to be.

Flights of Fancy

Captain Pussy + Queen of the Air, Yvonne Cunha

Why you should care

Because what it took to take all of that “no” and hear nothing but “yes” is the stuff of which champions are made.

BW image of Yvonne at the cockpit of plane

Recently a WestJet pilot received a scribbled letter of complaint courtesy of a passenger and delivered via cocktail napkin. Complaining passengers and airline discontent is nothing new, newsy or noteworthy, but what made it so in this instance was the fact that the flier of the previously friendly skies was in high dudgeon over the fact that the pilot was a woman.

Captain Pussy would have been amused.

You see, Yvonne Cunha, known as Captain Pussy by friends and foes alike, was, at the age of 28, the first female pilot to fly a Boeing 707 full of actual human beings. And even if history is rife with tales of female derring-do — Amelia Earhart, the African-American aviator Willa Brown and even the first American woman to pilot a major commercial flight a few years after Cunha, Emily Howell Warner — the reality of it was that Cunha’s road was neither easy nor bump-free.

She took to the air with a plane full of people who didn’t have the slightest idea that history was being made.

From the benign (having to design her own uniform) to the more bellicose (male colleagues telling her she should stay in the kitchen, pregnant and cooking for her husband), Cunha was ringed by the kind of hostility that so often accompanies Change. Yes, capital C. Which seems strange in 2014, cocktail notes notwithstanding, because it’s not like she was suggesting that they add a tampon machine to the cockpit or something. She just wanted to fly the plane.

But when you consider the fact that women still can’t drive cars in Saudi Arabia it makes a little more sense that the Sotramat Flying School in Antwerp, where Cunha, who is Belgian, applied for pilot lessons in 1969, told her they were only accepting women for stewardess training (2014 translation: flight attendant training). Finally, Trans European Airways (TEA), a fairly new airline at the time that was looking for an edge, put out an all-hands-on-deck call to women and black folks. PR stunt or not, it meant that in 1974 Cunha made TEA first officer, and she took to the air with a plane full of people wanting to go to Rimini, Italy. People who probably didn’t have the slightest idea that history was being made.

Plane taking off from runway during the day

1969 Boeing 747

She was soon promoted to captain and pilot of a Boeing 737, and in 1985 she rode the Big Kahuna: Cunha made her way into a very small club as one of the first few female captains on the Airbus 300. She kept it up until eventually retiring in 2005 after about 25,000 flight hours (the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that FAA regulations limit flying time of airline pilots of large aircraft to a maximum of 100 hours a month and 1,000 hours a year, just to give you a little perspective).

Taking off on her last flight, Cunha said to VLM magazine, “The airline industry has changed tremendously over the past decades, and I’m very proud to have been a part of it. It is time for new challenges, but I will always remember the past 40 years.”

Damned straight.

And though the intervening years have not seen quite as much progress as Cunha’s early and strong start would have led us to expect — the International Society of Women Airline Pilots estimates that 4,000 of the world’s 130,000 pilots are women, and only 450 of those women are captains — women are braving the long hours away from family and the sometimes poor pay, and they’re flying their asses off.

And Cunha now?

She lives a relatively quiet life on the ground in Schoten, Belgium, with her husband, and occasionally with her grandkids. At press time, however, there are no reports as to whether she cooks for him at all.

Join The Conversation

What do you think?

BW headshot of Eugene

Meet The Author Eugene S. Robinson

Eugene S. Robinson digs that which can be dug from the business end of culture cool + aims to look as stylish as possible while doing so. He also has a "sunny" personality. And, yes, you can keep those quote marks right where they are.

Back To Top