Interviewsand Articles


Flying the Big Ones : A Conversation with Barbara Ganzkow

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 7, 2013



I met Barbara Ganzkow at a family party. She was with my son-in-law's father and I curious to make her acquaintance. I soon found she was lively and easy to talk with. Did I know she’d driven to the party in her 1958 Austin Healy? 
     Really? I'd had a ’58 I told her. It was yellow, and a great car - especially for an 18-year old. We were chatting away I'm not sure why, but I asked, “Are you a pilot?” It was one of those shots in the dark and when the come to me, often I just try them out.
     “Not any more.” 
     It wasn't like I was expecting this answer, but I was only half surprised. Immediately, I imagined her with a Piper Cub, and asked "What kind of planes did you fly?"
     Barbara is quite petite, and in response first, her answers were a bit vague. She wasn't saying what kind of plane she flew. 
     "Hmm..." I thought. This was all the more intriguing and I persisted, "What kind of flying did you do?"
     To this, in the most off-hand way, she mentioned that she’d been a commercial pilot. This time I was surprised.
     “Commercial? So what does that mean? Airliners?” I asked, almost sarcastically. By now I was in territory beyond anything I could have imagined.
     “No. I didn’t fly people. I flew air freight.”
      This stopped me.
      In my mind's eye, all I could see was a big FedEx DC10. It was way too much to take in. But after a few moments, I rallied. I thought, "Okay, why not aim straight for the jackpot?" I'm sure I must have squared my feet before I asked, "Did you ever fly a 747?”
      Without the slightest hint she was letting me in on something mind-blowing, she answered, “Oh, yes. I’ve flown 747s.”
( I later learned Barbara was the 7th woman pilot hired for Flying Tigers, becoming one of only 40 women of the 150,000 pilots flying for commercial carriers in 1978. )
     I'd come to the party expecting just a nice family get together and now I was suddenly floored!
      Looking at this petite woman, the very idea of her piloting a 747 was almost impossible to believe. But without a doubt, I knew she was telling the truth.
     Isn’t life amazing?
     Clearly, what I'd uncovered required an interview. And a few weeks later we met at her house. Barbara was showing me around when I noticed that she started using some pilot lingo. It was time to begin the interview… 

Richard Whittaker:  So you’ve done a lot of flying - serious flying.

Barbara Ganzkow:  I have, but I’ve been retired for nine years now. Anytime I’m on an airplane I always turn to channel 1, because you hear the pilots talking. I pretend I'm one of the boys up in front.

RW:  That's not much of a stretch, right?

Barbara:  I do know what it’s about.

RW:  When I learned that you used to fly 747s, that just blew my mind.
[FedEx purchased Flying Tigers in 1989]

Barbara:  It does for a lot of people when they first meet me. I used to be a flight attendant with TWA back in 1970. TWA almost wouldn’t hire me as a flight attendant because I was really tiny, like 105 pounds. They didn’t feel like I could even do that job, let alone later on did they think I could wrestle around a stretch DC-8, a 727 or a 747.
     In fact, every time someone would meet me and find out that I flew airplanes, they would go how did you reach the rudder pedals?
     A lot of times women were not hired by the major carriers. They had a height requirement of 5’8” or above. That was one way they were able to keep women out of the cockpit. But I would look at a Japan Airlines captain and we stood eyeball to eyeball. So now with any of the airplanes, that’s all doable.

RW:  So in 1970 you were a flight attendant?

Barbara:  It was a “stewardess” back then with TWA. Even in high school I wanted to be a flight attendant. It sounds silly, because it doesn’t seem like much of a dream to aspire to. However, back in the early 60s in the Midwest basically you were  going to be a nurse or a teacher, or you got your MRS degree, meaning you got married.
     I wanted to travel. I wanted to fly. And flight attendants were making decent money. I didn’t want to teach, didn’t want to get married and didn’t want to have babies. I went to college and graduated with a degree in sociology. Then I came to San Francisco and worked at City of Paris and hated it.
     Around ’75 or ’76 I found a job as a flight attendant for Flying Tigers. A lot of times you would sit in the cockpit, meaning the airplane was empty. I would watch the guys do their thing and I was like "Hmm, I think I can do this." It sounds like a naïve assumption. I didn’t have a boyfriend or a husband or a father, or anybody who was in aviation. At that time I was living in San Francisco, and I flew out of the San Carlos Airport.

RW:  As a flight attendant you flew out?

Barbara:  Well actually, no. I got my private pilot’s license at San Carlos Airport.

RW:  You just signed up to learn how to fly?

Barbara:  Right. You go to ground school and then you get a flight instructor. So I did that.

RW:  How was that learning to fly?

Barbara:  It was very hard. You know what was the most difficult about it? 

RW:  What?

Barbara:  It was the jargon. Was I understanding the radio? The flying aspect, I was good at that. So I got my private license. I went to my mother and said, “I’m going to need a lot of money!” Because women were not allowed to fly in the military. I didn’t care for the military, anyway. Okay, so then I went through general aviation and in general aviation you pay for all your own ratings. 

RW:  All your ratings?

Barbara:  Ratings: private, instrument, commercial, flight instructor, multi-engine, flight engineer ratings, yada, yada. And my mom believed in me. If you get one person to believe in you, Richard…(emotion comes up).

RW:  Then you’re okay.

Barbara:  That’s what this is about. It can be your mom, a lover or whoever. You respect them and they respect you. They keep you going. It brings tears to my eyes, because my mother was wonderful.

RW:  That’s beautiful.

Barbara:  So I started getting my commercial rating. Then I wanted to go work for Flying Tigers. At that time they had 800 pilots. Bob Prescott, who owned the company, paid their pilots very well—more than a United pilot or American Airlines.
     By then, I'd flown passengers as a flight engineer, so I didn’t care if I was flying boxes or people. Just show me the route, show me the airplane and the money, because flying big equipment all over the world and getting paid very well to do it is fun. It’s a small group and we were based out of San Francisco.

RW:  That’s great. I’m tempted to go back to your mother, because it touched such a deep current of feeling. There is something special there with your mother.

Barbara:  I know I'm going to start crying again. (gets some Kleenex) She would stay up with me until 2 a.m. with a cup of coffee. [shows me a photo of her mother and herself ]

RW:  She looks great.

Barbara:  She was 80, and I was 50 then. I had a college degree and a thousand hours of Cessna 150 time.

RW:  That’s a lot of flying, isn’t it?

Barbara:  It’s a thousand hours, but it’s still a tiny airplane that goes like 70 knots. There were so few women flying then.
     I came in under the minority program, basically. They had to hire women. The chief pilot with Tigers would say, “Well, if we have to hire women, we might just as well hire good-looking ones.”
     They were so sexist back then, Richard. Unbelievable. Things have progressed so much now.

RW:  What were your ratings by the time they hired you?

Barbara:  Let me put it this way. The airplanes back then, the DC-8, had a three-person cockpit: captain, co-pilot and the flight engineer. Navigators were passé by that time. So no matter what your level of expertise, you started out as a flight engineer.

RW:  And that means?

Barbara:   If walked into the cockpit you would see the captain here [gesturing] the co-pilot here, and the flight engineer working what they call the panel An airplane is like a city in the sky. It’s got hydraulics, pneumatics, pressurization, fuel, people...

RW:  Electrical, plumbing.

Barbara:  Yes. So, I was the one who worked the panel as the flight engineer. And that was hard for me, because understanding hydraulics and pneumatics - I didn’t even know how to spell pneumatics.

RW:  Well, hold on a second. You talked about flying a little Cessna that goes 70 knots. And now you’re in a big jet. So something happened in-between that little plane and this big jet. You had to learn some stuff, right?

Barbara:  Yes. But that's how I started out in commercial flying. It’s extremely hard. I had a multi-engine rating, but that was just a turbo-prop.

RW:  Okay. Let's take it step-by-step. You start flying a turbo-prop that has two engines. What’s the next step up, rating wise?

Barbara:  Well, I never got the rating. They knew I was inexperienced when they hired me. At the time you could have an associate’s degree and 2,500 hours of flying or a college degree and 1,000 hours. They picked me because they needed women.

RW:  Okay. So you’re a flight engineer and you’re watching all the systems in the plane and making sure everything is running.

Barbara:  I'm running all the checklists and doing the pre-flight of the aircraft and the post-flight - and all the paperwork, getting all that kind of stuff.

RW:  Okay. Making sure there's fuel in the plane?

Barbara:  That was all part of my job. I talked to the mechanics. 

RW:  That’s a lot that you’re responsible for.

Barbara:  It is. I got hired as a minority, but minorities still have to perform. You can’t just pull over to the side of the road.

RW:  How did the training for flight engineer work?

Barbara:  There was ground school—15 guys and me. So like the second day in class, I’m going, “I'm so over my head on this deal. I’ve got a degree in sociology. This is engineering. But I just said I’m not leaving.

RW:  Part of you said, "No way," but the other part said, "I’m not quitting."

Barbara:  I’m not leaving. The instructors knew I was out of my element. But if you ask for help, and you’re sincere about it and you also have the intelligence to do it, people will jump through hoops to help you succeed.

RW:  You did get help?

Barbara:  Yes, and I kept losing weight.

RW:  Because you were anxious?

Barbara:  I was anxious. We got fitted for our uniforms. I went in and it was a French guy. He'd say, “Mademoiselle, you are like a leetil doll.”
     I said, “I’m scared to death.”

RW:  You had a lot courage.

Barbara:  I had to! Plus my mom spent a lot of money.

RW:  It’s hard for me to imagine the situation you were in.

Barbara:  Richard, I look back on it and I don’t know. I just had this goal and was willing to do damn near anything to make it happen.

RW:  So how did it start to work out?

Barbara:  I'd say to myself, "Please God, don’t let me *$%! up." I was constantly on my toes. Constantly. At that time, there were seven women with Flying Tigers. I think there were eight with American, ten with United. There were only about 40 women in the United States flying for the major carriers.

RW:  Out of like how many pilots would you guess?

Barbara:  This is back in 1978. United had 10,000 pilots. Altogether, I'm sure there were over 150,000 commercial pilots at that time.

RW:  Wow. And only 40 women. That’s amazing. 

Barbara:  Yes. So everywhere I went they knew who I was. You really had to be cool. You know? So that just keeps you on your toes. The other thing I want to tell you, there was an African-American man who was hired in my class. We’re dear friends. I think he was the fourth Black male pilot hired, and he's still is flying, by the way.
     He said to me—this is back in the 70s, “I’m going to be just like a flower on the wall. Nobody is going to know I’m around.”
     I said, “I’m a woman, and I'm blond and petite. We will always be under the microscope!”
     They'd call me C7 and him N1. Do you know what that meant?

RW:  Well, N1. I can guess.
Barbara:  And do you know what the C means?

RW:  No.

Barbara:  Think of the nastiest thing you can call a woman.

RW:  Jeez. Okay.

Barbara:  Yeah. So sometimes when I’d get on the airplane— because you had to do the pre-flight and get everything all done— sometimes I didn’t know the guys, and I’d go, “Hi, my name is Barb Ganzkow, C7.”
     They would start laughing and everything was okay. You know? That’s how I survived. I got the job. I was the flight engineer. Then I moved up with seniority and became the first officer.

RW:  That's co-pilot, right?

Barbara:  Correct.

RW:  How long before you moved up to first officer?

Barbara:  Well, there was a stagnation period with all the airlines and I was laid off for two-and-a-half years in the early 80s - as were many other pilots. Last hired, first laid off. But my position on the seniority list was maintained.

RW:  Okay. So then how many years pass before you became a co-pilot?

Barbara:  So I was a flight engineer on a DC-8.

RW:  Those had four engines, right?

Barbara:  Right, like a Boeing 707. They both came out in 1958 or ‘59. And after that I was a flight engineer on a 727. Then I was a flight engineer on a 747. Finally I got senior enough to co-pilot the 727, and then co-pilot on a 747.

RW:  Wow. Does that meant you’d fly the plane sometimes?

Barbara:  Yes. The captain would say, “Hey, you want to fly this around?” I’d say, “Sure!” He wouldn’t let me do anything dangerous.

RW:  So a lot of these planes had auto-pilot, right?

Barbara:  Yes.

RW:  So when is the pilot actually in control? T

Barbara:  Now everything has changed. But back when I was flying we prided ourselves on flying it all ourselves. Once we got up to altitude with four hours of straight and level, say from San Francisco to New York, we’d put it on auto-pilot. But that was up to our discretion.
     The captain would make his decision. Maybe he would do the first take-off and landing and I'd work the radios and do all the checkpoints, and stuff like that.
     Let’s say, we were going San Francisco to Chicago - then Chicago to New York. The captain would make the first take-off and landing from San Francisco to Chicago. I would work the radios and he would fly the airplane. Then the next leg was my take-off and my landing. But that was at the Captain’s discretion. Anyway, that’s what we did.
     I mean the captain could decide at any time he didn’t want you flying. And there were guys who would be pissed off. Sometimes there were personality conflicts. But that never really happened to me.

RW:  What was it like for you on some of those first times when you were actually taking off and landing the plane?

Barbara:  Oh, it was wonderful!

RW:  What are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had flying these commercial jets?

Barbara:  Flying an approach into Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong was always something else. The airport is gone now, but everybody said it was the most difficult approach of all the airports. There was one just runway, and it was out on the Bay of Hong Kong. You had to make this steep descent [gesturing] and key-in on a checkerboard painted on the side of a mountain at 700 ft elevation. You were on a 747 and the wind is blowing usually this way [gestures].

RW:  A crosswind?

Barbara:  Always! And there were also these tall apartment buildings. You'd make your descent like this [gesturing]. You'd fly to the checkerboard and then you'd have to make a steep 30-degree turn. And we're at only 700 feet! That’s not a lot for a 747. And depending on where the wind is coming from, you'd have to crank the son of a *$#@! around and keep bringing it down, bringing it down. You couldn't be too short, and you couldn't be too long, either - or you'd land in the bay. You had to be on the centerline and you have to get it down, get it down, boom! It was so much fun!

RW:  Wow! You liked that?

Barbara:  I did, because you had to be just right! No messing around! There’s a part of me that likes to have a really good time and be like loose, but not when it came to that.

RW:  Not if you wanted your life to continue!

Barbara:  I know. That’s what grabbed my attention about the industry. There was no messing around. I like that. And that's how it was at Kai Tak airport. Hong Kong was really fun.

RW:  I’ve watched commercial jets landing in a strong crosswind on YouTube. You’ve had to do that?

Barbara:  Oh god, yes!

RW:  You have to have the plane sort of pointed into the crosswind.

Barbara:  They call it "the crab."

RW:  And when you hit the runway, you have to straighten it out.

Barbara:  You have to kick it out of the crab with the opposite rudder and put the wing down. It’s a real dance, and you can’t be floating. There’s also a wind factor.
     So this is the runway [showing with her hands] The airplane is coming in like this. Let’s say the wind is coming this way. Here’s the wing. So you’re coming like this, the wind is coming this way—you’re coming down, coming down. [gestures] You kick the rudder and put the wing down and land on the left truck, meaning the left wheels. Boom! boom! You have to be on center-line. You have to be on the first third of the runway. If not, it’s an automatic go-around because you won’t have enough runway to stop.

RW:  Wow!

Barbara:  It’s basically exhausting.

RW:  You obviously had to keep a very close eye on the air-speed, because if you go too slow you stall. Then you crash, right?

Barbara:  Yes. And if you go too fast, then you’re too high. And you might get wind shear to deal with. That’s really scary.

RW:  Did you ever run into problems with that?

Barbara:  A couple of times.

RW:  [she hands me a book] Flying Tigress by Norah O’Neill, another pilot.

Barbara:  Norah was the first female pilot hired by Flying Tigers.

RW:  And she was a friend of yours?

Photo, left to right: 1st, 7th and 3rd women pilots hired by Flying Tigers - Nora O'Neill, Barbara Ganzkow, Sandy Wiederkehr

Barbara:  Yes. We flew together. I was the flight engineer and she was the first officer. One time we flew together with this flight captain—a lot of guys were kind of intimidated—but he was a pilot who really knew his stuff. He was really happy that he was flying with us.

RW:  You mean some pilots were afraid you would show them up? Or just didn’t think you were competent?

Barbara:  All of the above. That was kind of how it worked. But a lot of them were great guys. In fact, all the years I flew I never once had an altercation.

RW:  That says something about you as well as them, probably.

Barbara:  Politically I have very liberal leanings, but a lot of pilots are very conservative. So I wouldn't bring the subject up because what problem am I solving if he gets angry?

RW:  Right.

Barbara:  They all saw me as a little sister. And did they maybe want to have a little…? But the last thing you need is a bad reputation. They would be more than happy to write on the bathroom wall. You know?

RW:  I follow you. So you flew commercially for how many years?

Barbara:  I got hired in ’78 and I left in 2003. I went down an escape slide and had to go out on an early disability.

RW:  What happened?

Barbara:  We were taking off out of Indianapolis at 2 a.m. on a 727 and we had a main cargo fire warning light come on in the cockpit. It also came on in the flight engineer’s panel, which is very bad.
     Fortunately it was a clear night, so we popped up to about 3,000 feet. I got on the radio and said, “Indianapolis. This is Fedex 109. We have potential in-fire and we need to come back around and land. Have all the emergency equipment standing by. There are three souls on board. We’ve got 50,000 pounds of fuel.”

RW:  Oh my gosh.

Barbara:  Yeah. If you have a fire onboard and it’s in the cockpit, you can’t see the instruments. You’re a dead person. You know?
     We came back around and landed on the runway. All the emergency equipment came around. We had to evacuate the airplane. The flight engineer opens the main cabin door and I’m the first one out the door.
     I’d gone down those slides before in training, but they were halfway inflated for training purposes. The new ones can hold a 400, 500 pound guy. Anyway, I went down the slide about 90 miles an hour and when I came off the slide I went up in the air and hit on the runway a couple of times.
     As it turned out, it was a faulty light.

RW:  So you flew about 25 years.  How many flights do you think you were on as a commercial jet flying? Just a rough guess.

Barbara:  Hundreds and hundreds. A thousand, maybe. I had a great time. I mean a lot of times, it was very stressful, because I was always under scrutiny - which you should be. But in addition, I was a minority and felt I was held to a higher standard, because everybody was watching me.

RW:  What were some of the hardest things, some of the best things?

Barbara:  I do think it’s a lot easier for women now. I try to remember there were tons of women in World War II flying cargo airplanes. And women before me pushed for that right to fly. I think the biggest thing is that if you have a dream or a goal, it has to be realistic. I mean you have to have common sense with regards to what you’re capable of.

RW:  I talked with a military fighter pilot a few years ago. I asked him about his experience as a pilot. He said, “I was a little different. I became a pilot for aesthetic reasons.” I asked, “Do you mean for the beauty of it?” He said, “Yes, for the beauty of flying.”

Barbara:  Yeah. It’s special. I can’t tell you how many gorgeous sunrises and sunsets we saw. I mean, stunning, stunning—just magnificent! Plus you’re going to other cultures, too.

RW:  When you’re up there in the sky, you probably would come across all kinds of atmospheric situations where the light…

Barbara:   Oh, the Northern Lights! Yes. And the thunderstorms! You'd fly over them. You couldn’t fly through them. There was an element of fear and danger.

RW:  From the thunderstorms?

Barbara:  From a lot of things.

RW:  Like what?

Barbara:  Well, bad weather, flying into something—or if you had a problem with the airplane, if you lost an engine.

RW:  Besides that landing at that airport in Hong Kong, what were some of the more dramatic moments you’ve had flying?

Barbara:  The radar that we had back then, and this was in the 80s, really wasn’t that good. You never mess around with thunder storms. You give them an extremely wide berth—fifty, seventy-five, a hundred miles— because the fallout from that storm, that’s what will kill you.

RW:  You mean there’s extreme winds and so on?

Barbara:  Winds, yes. And hail and wind shear, and the sky is falling, says Chicken Little. Well, you don’t want to mess with it. But usually it’s not one thing that will get you. It’s usually two or three or four things. Before we'd take off, let’s just say, from San Francisco to New York and the weather is s*&$##@ in New York. If that’s what’s happening then it’s usually s*&$##@ all up and down the east coast.
     So you go, okay, we’ve got enough fuel for a 45-minute alternate. Then you get on the airplane, “Oh god, there’s an issue with a fuel pump—it’s working, but there’s been a write-up on it.” So that’s a second thing. Then there’s something else where you just kind push it back.
     Now, all of a sudden, I’m on alert, because two or three things compiling might add up to the perfect storm. All of a sudden, everything is kind of quiet, because we’re all thinking the same thing. But we’re not saying anything, because nothing bad has happened. There’s no need to discuss. So it’s just like, hmmm.

RW:  Yes.

Barbara:  And before the captain was always right. The co-pilot and flight engineer wouldn't doubt his word. But now if you’re not happy with what the captain is doing or thinking, then you have the right and the responsibility to speak up. “I’m not comfortable with this concept.” You know? You to do it diplomatically so there’s always an open channel of communication.

RW:  How do you feel having achieved your aim of becoming a pilot and having overcome the anxieties and all of the challenges? What’s it like for you today?

Barbara:  I feel extremely proud. I look back and I’m going I did that? But I’m still Barbara, tou know? I always get the biggest kick when I haven’t met somebody or somebody is being a little snotty—whether it’s a woman or a man or just thinking they’re really special. You know? And they go, “What do you do?”
     I say, “I fly airplanes.”
     “What, little airplanes?”
     Then I just put that ace down. You know? You hold it like this [so no one can see it]. Then, off the cuff I just go, “There’s my card. Where’s yours?” I always kind of like that.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine            


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