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Information in this article, originally published February 4, 2006, was corrected February 7, 2006. Stephanie Wallach, the first woman pilot to reach the mandatory retirement age of 60 at Alaska Airlines, commanded an MD-80 on her final flight last week. A previous version of this story said she flew a Boeing 727.
For this aviator, the sky has been her only limit
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Stephanie Wallach made Alaska Airlines history Wednesday when she hung up her captain's hat following her final flight. The Medina resident became the first female Alaska pilot to reach the Federal Aviation Administration-mandated retirement age. She turns 60 today.
It was one of many firsts that have highlighted Wallach's flying career. She was one of the first 10 female commercial pilots, the first woman to pilot a Boeing 727 passenger jet and a founding member of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.
What she wanted after studying French and philosophy at Wells College in New York was a job that didn't involve typing.
She became an assistant film editor. She was developing a career and saving a bit of money when she started thinking about taking a trip. Instead, she took her first flying lesson.
"I fell in love with flying," Wallach said. "I was obsessed. "
She plowed through lessons and studies, earning advanced ratings. Film editing was left in the prop wash as she became a flight instructor and ferried planes for people. On a whim, she drove cross-country with a friend to Los Angeles. She stayed. "There was an airport every five minutes and I could fly all year around, which I couldn't do in New York," she said.
Next came flight engineer school. Although she had enough credentials to be an airline pilot, the engineer rating was required in the 1970s. It cost $5,000. "That was a lot of money in 1974," she said. With that rating in her log book, Wallach applied at the airlines. She was the second female pilot Braniff hired and the only woman in training class. Within two years she was first officer on 727s, flying out of New York to South America and throughout the United States.
Licenses: 625,581 total pilots; 36,757 women (5.88 percent)
Commercial pilots: 121,856 total; 5,807 women (4.77 percent)
First (verified) female commercial pilot: Helen Ritchey, Central Airlines, hired Dec. 13, 1934; forced to resign in October 1935 because the all-male pilots union refused to let her join.
Source: The International Society of Women Airlines Pilots, Women in Aviation
When she found another female commercial pilot lived in her apartment building, Wallach and Beverly Bass became instant friends. They were founding members of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, referred to as ISA+21. (The 21 stands for the number of commercial women pilots when they started the group. Today it has nearly 400 members.)
Being a female pilot in the early years came with challenges.
Passengers sometimes assumed she was a flight attendant, something Wallach learned to treat lightheartedly. She would hand them a pillow or blanket in passing and would relay a request for a drink to a flight attendant.
The most difficult part was the rumors in the piloting community.
"A classmate called me with one rumor, which wasn't true, that I had been crying during an approach in bad weather," Wallach said. "I heard that Sandy, the other Braniff woman pilot, had turned the wrong fuel valve and dumped fuel at the gate. She hadn't." In one-on-one situations, Wallach found the male pilots supportive and helpful. When she was testing to move up in rank, they volunteered their books and their expertise.
Although the pilots knew Braniff had financial woes, Wallach was stunned when the airline shut its doors on May 12, 1982. Three days later she discovered she was pregnant.
"No one would have hired a pregnant pilot in 1982," she said. "Now they do."
After her son was born, Wallach looked for a flying job.
Alaska hired her in September 1983, and she moved to Washington. She had to start at the bottom of the seniority list again and work her way through the ranks. By 1990 she was a captain.
Her hobbies have been few. Being a single working mother — her son, Tommy, graduated from college this year — and keeping up her house have consumed her spare time. She still speaks fluent French and is a big baseball fan.
Friday she relished the memory of her final commercial flight as the pilot in command. For career pilots, the final flight represents a rite of passage as important as a student pilot's first solo.
Friends and family were aboard Flight 457 from San Diego to Seattle Wednesday to help Wallach celebrate. The flight crew announced the special event and when she landed the MD-80 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the passengers burst into applause.
Kevin Finan, executive vice president of operations for Alaska Airlines, said the company is proud Wallach reached retirement. Of Alaska's 1,445 pilots, 56 are women. "Stephanie is a terrific aviator," Finan said. "She's been a wonderful role model for all pilots and for women."
Wallach says she's not sure what retirement will hold.
"Maybe a little travel," she said.
Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company