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First female airline pilot took special ‘strength tests’ to get hired

fly1aBonnie Tiburzi took her first flying lesson in 1960 at age 12. By the time she was 17, she could fly circles around most of the adult, male students at her aviator father’s flight school in Danbury, Conn. But when she told her friends, family members and teachers that she wanted to be a commercial pilot, they said airlines didn’t hire girls.

“Daddy thought it was cute and adorable … but didn’t take it seriously,” the now-68-year-old Tiburzi tells the Post. Her high-school career counselor was more dismissive. “She said, ‘That’s a great ambition, but you’re going to grow up to be nothing.’”

Tiburzi proved them wrong. In 1973, at age 24, she became the first female commercial airline pilot when American Airlines hired her. More than four decades later, the retired aviator continues to advocate for women. She mentors girls who are interested in STEM careers and speaks at educational conferences. In February, the Film Independent organization and American Airlines announced the Bonnie Award, named for Tiburzi, which will give $50,000 to a different female film director every year.

“When I started, I didn’t have the benefit of mentors or [women’s] organizations,” says the 68-year-old Upper East Side resident. “I want to make sure that young women now have that guidance and support [that I didn’t have].”

In 1970, Tiburzi — after a stint as an au pair in Paris, where she spent all her free time taking flying lessons — moved to Florida. There, she taught students (mostly guys) how to fly, and relentlessly applied for pilot jobs. In three years, she received only one note of encouragement, from American Airlines, telling her to keep updating her résumé. In 1973, they hired her: The only women out of a class of 214 new employees.

But it wasn’t any easy flying after that. When Tiburzi arrived in Dallas on her first day of orientation, she was shocked to find she had a roommate — named Joe. She didn’t have a uniform and had to design her own. Some naysayers wondered whether she was strong enough to steer a plane, so she had to go through special strength tests.

“They thought of me as quite the novelty,” she says.

Her first day flying into Chicago O’Hare International Airport, she was told that women weren’t allowed in the pilot’s lounge. Fortunately, her team members felt differently, and wrote, under the “Male crew members only” sign, “and Bonnie, too.”

“That was endearing — it made me feel like I belonged.”

I want to make sure that young women now have that guidance and support [that I didn’t have].

While more women were hired in the late ’70s and ’80s, Tiburzi was still breaking ground. She recalls when she got pregnant: “I went to tell the chief, and he said, ‘Oh gosh, we’ve never had a pregnant pilot before,’” Tiburzi says. She took the whole nine months off, but three weeks after her son was born, she got a call from her boss telling her she needed to come back to work.

“My husband was great,” she says of her spouse of 34 years, Bruce Caputo. “And I would do turnarounds so that I could come back the same day.”

Tiburzi retired her pilot’s wings in 1999, deciding after nearly 25 years that she wanted to witness her kids’ teenage years firsthand. “I still have my wooden propellers, but I haven’t looked back,” she says. Now Tiburzi — who also hosts foreign ambassadors at her home for bridge games and likes to walk around Central Park with her friends while “planning on saving the world” — is focused on making sure other women can follow her footsteps.

“People told me my whole life that I couldn’t be a pilot, but I would always respond with, ‘Why not?’” she says.

 

5 / 5 stars     

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