She flew a record-breaking US flight, but it was kept secret for years

Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get the latest news in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.

Lynn Rippelmeyer’s reach for the sky started from an unlikely place.

“I grew up on a farm in the 1950s. There were no women flying, there were no female airline pilots. I had an interest in aviation because there were airplanes flying overhead, and I thought how much fun it would be to see the world from up there. The closest I could come to pretending that was riding my horse up to the top of these limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, about a mile away from the farm, and imagine that the horse had wings — like Pegasus — and could soar and fly over the fields.”

So, she did the next best thing: become a flight attendant. She got hired in 1972 by TWA, then a major airline, and started working on the Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747: “It had just come out, and TWA was one of the first airlines to fly it. I loved how it looked,” she says.

However, she was mostly curious about how it worked: “If I started asking questions about what was going on in the cockpit and asked [the flight crew] about their jobs and the airplane, we could have an almost intelligent adult conversation, and I could sit up there and enjoy it, so that’s what I did.”

At the time, flight crews on large aircraft were made up of two pilots plus a flight engineer, who was easier to talk to because his seat was positioned behind those of the pilots. So, Rippelmeyer says, she could ask even more questions and learn even more about switches, hydraulics and engines.

The next summer, she got serious about her passion and started taking flying lessons in Vermont, on a small Piper seaplane: “I just loved it. It was the closest I’ve ever been to being addicted to anything.”

In 1975, she learned that the first two female airline pilots in the United States – Bonnie Tiburzi at American Airlines and Emily Warner at Frontier – had been hired. Encouraged, she started the career pilot program for the role of flight engineer in Miami. She obtained her first commercial license in 1976.

A historic moment, kept secret

Rippelmeyer and Captain Emilie Jones before a flight with Air Illinois, where they became the first all-female crew of a scheduled flight in the United States. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer
Rippelmeyer and Captain Emilie Jones before a flight with Air Illinois, where they became the first all-female crew of a scheduled flight in the United States. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer

Rippelmeyer’s first cockpit job came just a year later with a small commuter airline, Air Illinois, as first officer on a Twin Otter — a 20-passenger turboprop regional plane.

The airline already had a female captain in its ranks, but upon hiring Rippelmeyer, the owner told her that they would be never flying together. “I asked why, and he said, ‘Well, we have to have a man up there in case anything goes wrong, don’t we? And we also don’t want to scare our passengers away, do we?’ Because he was the owner, he could make whatever rules he wanted. And at that time, there was no law or regulation against it, so we just went with it.”

However, with only three airplanes and about 20 pilots, keeping the two women from flying together was a scheduling nightmare.

“One day, we just had to — Emilie, the captain, was already there, but her first officer was sick and there was nobody else that could get to the airplane on time but me,” Rippelmeyer said.

She had the dispatcher call the owner of the airline and heard him screaming through the phone: “He said I could take the flight, but we couldn’t make any announcements and we had to keep the cockpit door closed. Nobody had to know there were two women in there. So that’s what we did.”

It was December 30, 1977, and that was the first scheduled flight in the United States with an all-female crew – but it was kept a secret. At least, “since nobody died,” Lippenmeyer says, the two were no longer intentionally kept apart and flew together many more times.

However, her days at Air Illinois were numbered: “The pay for being a first-year pilot wasn’t even enough to make rent,” she says. To make ends meet, she was still working as a flight attendant, resulting in a grueling schedule: “I couldn’t do both. I tried for about a month and there should be a rule against it. But at Air Illinois, I had a goal: I needed 1,000 hours of gas-turbine flight time. And once I had that, there really wasn’t any more reason to hang out there.”

Too short to be a pilot?

Trans World Airlines (TWA) was founded in 1930 and ceased operations in 2001, when it was absorbed into American Airlines. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer
Trans World Airlines (TWA) was founded in 1930 and ceased operations in 2001, when it was absorbed into American Airlines. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer

With enough flight experience in her pocket, Rippelmeyer could take a crack at bigger airlines. One of them — the now defunct Ozark Air Lines — rejected her at the end of the interview process because, they said, at 5’4” she was too short to be a pilot: “I knew I wasn’t, but again, they could make whatever rules they wanted.”

She got hired by TWA as a flight engineer, flying on the Boeing 727. The airline had two other female pilots, and they got along well. However, they all got furloughed just a week short of being off probation: “You can’t wait to get off probation, because your salary doubles — the first year at any airline is poverty,” she says.

It was a blessing in disguise.

Rippelmeyer found a job at a cargo carrier called Seaboard World Airlines – as first officer on the Boeing 747, flying out of JFK on transatlantic routes.

“It was a very unique situation, because in most airlines, you started as a flight engineer – like I did at TWA – and then you worked your way up,” she says. “But at Seaboard, they had professional engineers. Guys that did not have a pilot license and didn’t care about upgrading to pilot. So when you got hired as a pilot, you immediately went to the first officer seat.”

The year was 1980, and Rippelmeyer had just become the first female pilot to fly the 747. “I didn’t even think a woman could do that,” she says, because the male pilots she had worked with had told her it would be too difficult – psychologically and physically.

“They had kind of convinced me there was a physical aspect to it. They told me that on four-engine airplanes, if two engines went out on one side, no woman would have the strength to push the rudder down to keep the airplane flying straight.”

But Captain Carl Hirschberg, an experienced pilot who was her superior and flight instructor, was excited about having a 747 female pilot and told her that she could. Better yet, he showed her how to do it.

“In the simulator one day, he said we’d have an engine failure on takeoff, and then a second failure on the same side. And that’s not supposed to happen. It never happens. The first officer doesn’t have to demonstrate that. But I didn’t have time to think about it — I just had to deal with it.”

“I came back around and landed with the two engines out. And it wasn’t as good as he could have done it, but I managed it. My leg, from pushing on the rudder so hard for two engines, was just shaking. I couldn’t stand up. Why would you do that to me? And he said, ‘Because I’m not having you up there thinking you can’t do something that you can. And you’re welcome.’ ”

Breaking records

While working for People Express, Rippelmeyer became the first woman to pilot a transoceanic Boeing 747. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer
While working for People Express, Rippelmeyer became the first woman to pilot a transoceanic Boeing 747. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer

The dream didn’t last long, because Rippelmeyer was furloughed once again: “I was 30 years old at this point, didn’t have a job, wasn’t married, didn’t have an income. Flying was not working out. I was wondering if I had messed up my life.”

Luckily, the deregulation of airlines — which removed federal control over routes and fares — led to an influx of newcomers on the market, and among these was an airline called People Express, which flew from 1981 to 1987: “I started out as a first officer on the 737 and since I got hired at the very beginning, it was less than a year before I became a captain. I got to be one of the very first female airline captains in the world.”

Later, People Express started flying the Boeing 747s and in 1984, Rippelmeyer became the first woman to captain a jumbo on a transoceanic flight, from Newark to London Gatwick. “Beautiful weather, lovely ride, nice landing. I walked through the cabin and people were congratulating me. There were all kinds of celebrations, TV, radio and photographers waiting for the arrival. Everybody was very, very gracious and wonderful about it. It was quite something,” she says.

Rippelmeyer briefly flew the Boeing 727 before People Express was acquired by Continental in 1987.

The uncertainty that came with the merger caused her to take time off to go sailing through French Polynesia and then settle in California to marry and have children. After a hiatus of almost 10 years, a divorce and a move to Texas, she returned to the skies in 1998, finding ingenious ways to balance family and work life.

“My two sons and I moved to Houston where Continental had a base. I returned to flying domestically on the 737 to be able to be home with my children more. The kids were only 3 and 7. Initially, I thought I needed to find a live-in nanny,” she says.

“But there was this one flight to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that checked in at 9 a.m. and got back at 4 p.m. — so I would be able to drop the kids off at school, go to work and pick them back up. It was a difficult approach into the airport, which required extra training. It’s a visual-only landing onto a short runway at a high altitude surrounded by mountains and has no electronic guidance. The chief pilot called me to ask why in the world I wanted to fly into the most dangerous airport we had. I told him it matched my kids’ school schedule.”

“So that’s what I flew for the better part of 12 years until the kids were old enough, and it worked out great. I could drop them off at school and get to the airport and fly to Central America - it’s only two and a half hours from Houston. It was fun once you got used to it.”


A more recent picture of Lynn Rippelmeyer in the cockpit of a 747. 
 - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer
A more recent picture of Lynn Rippelmeyer in the cockpit of a 747. - Courtesy Lynn Rippelmeyer

Rippelmeyer’s flights to Tegucigalpa also led to what she calls her “retirement job” – helping the people of Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. After meeting missionaries on board her flights, she began bringing in supplies donated by friends and family. She then created a nonprofit called ROSE (Roatan Support Effort) to support clinics, schools, community kitchens, sports programs and an animal shelter.

Her last flight as a pilot took off in 2013 on a Boeing 787 with United Airlines, which had merged with Continental Airlines the previous year.

“My first 747 flight was to London and then my last 787 flight was to London,” she says. “It was a perfect flight. The crew was fantastic. The layover was great. The weather in London was beautiful. And I thought, this is as good as it gets – and for the first time, I’d rather be doing something else. My heart was in Honduras with the nonprofit. So, when I got back, I told the chief pilot that I wanted to retire.”

Rippelmeyer, who has written two memoirs – titled “Life Takes Wings” and “Life Takes Flight” – is nostalgic about the 747 and never quite warmed up to the more modern 787, which she calls “a flying computer” that is repaired with a laptop rather than a toolkit.

“It’s pieces of electronic equipment talking to other pieces of electronic equipment, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “It usually works. It’s much lighter in weight and uses less fuel, which is fantastic. Maybe I just never flew her long enough to be attached to her the way I was with the 747.”

She reckons that things have improved for women’s careers in aviation: “Now all women who want to be airline pilots have that opportunity. Aviation schools and airlines are accepting female applicants just as willingly as males. I don’t see any discrimination against women any longer,” she says.

“Maybe if there is any left, it’s because there are still some old schools of thoughts that say a woman should be home with her children. But I think that’s gradually going to change.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at