Our First Female Pilot
LET’S RUN DOWN A FEW KNOWN firsts. Paul Cornu made the first free flight in a rotorcraft. Capt. James Green was the first downed pilot to be rescued by a helicopter and Hanna Reitsch was the first female helicopter pilot.
But while chatting with some flying friends, a question came up: "Who was the first woman to fly police missions in a helicopter?"
Of course, the place to go for information on female chopper drivers is Whirly-Girls, the international association for women helicopter pilots. President Lisa Brand pointed me toward Lakewood, Calif., where I found Monica McIntyre–law enforcement’s First Lady of Helicopters.
McIntyre flies for the City of Lakewood’s Sky Knight Program, which began in June of 1966, making it the first regularly scheduled, day/night, law enforcement helicopter patrol program in the world. Her career as a patrol pilot began in 1980 as the result of hard work, but her interest in aviation began by accident.
"I had to take an elective in high school, so I took Aero-Science because I thought it would be easy," recalled the 52-year old pilot. "I had no interest in flying." As it turned out, the class was the equivalent of ground school. Before she knew it, she had developed a love for flying.
By 1975, she was a certified flight instructor at Long Beach Airport, Calif. Shortly thereafter, however, she married and quit flying to become a "conventional wife and mother."
When the marriage soured, she found a job as a receptionist at a flight school, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her. "The manager there heard I used to be a CFI and loaned me $4,000 to reinstate my license."
In 1978, she added a rotorcraft certificate, and immediately began instructing in the Hughes 300 and flying charters in light turbines. A couple of years later, she heard that the Sky Night Program was looking for helicopter pilots and asked about the qualifications. "You qualify," is all they said. All of a sudden, Ms. Monica McIntyre was the very first female law enforcement helicopter pilot.
She has since amassed about 13,000 hr. of flight time.
When asked if she experienced any particular problems being the first woman law enforcement helicopter pilot, McIntyre obviously struggled to find an answer. "I look at the big picture, and it’s all been good," she finally replied. "I think because I loved what I was doing so much, I didn’t notice if there were any challenges."
As for being a woman in the testosterone-dominated world of police work, her observation was that she had no difficulties. "The reason I had no problems [as a female police pilot] I think was because I was a civilian female, as opposed to sworn," she explained. "I was no threat to take a [sworn deputy’s] job away."
The City of Lakewood employs two full-time and three part-time reserve pilots to operate the Sky Night Program’s three Schweizer 300C helicopters. Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs are contracted to fly as observers.
With twenty-four years of service, some as a full-time pilot and some as a part-time reserve pilot, McIntyre is a little uncomfortable about the prospect of retiring. "I think about retiring, but I’m afraid I’ll miss flying."
While trying to identify the first woman police pilot, I found several other female police pilots whose careers began when lady pilots were still a novelty. Many are now out of the field, but are still afraid to talk about their experiences for fear of retribution from their former agencies.
One pilot, who asked not to be named, pointed to sexual harassment as her biggest problem. Characterizing it as "rampant," she said that what she experienced "couldn’t be printed in a respectable magazine." Speaking of her former agency, she was not optimistic about improvements. "I doubt if it has changed much,"
Other female police pilots reported their own instances of off-color remarks and uninvited flirtation.
Fortunately, many current female police pilots seem content. Officer Laura Johnson, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Park Police, had been a Park Police officer in Washington, D.C. for five years when she first saw her department’s helicopter land for a medevac mission. She was so impressed she applied for a position as a flight paramedic. In 1991, she was sent to the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., to receive 10 months of initial rotorcraft flight training alongside military personnel. She now flies one of the Park Police’s two Bell 412SPs, and 206L helicopters.
"People would kill to be in my position," said Johnson, who did not have any horror stories about her treatment in the police aviation community. "I’m fortunate."