No, not every woman pilot falls in love with her flight instructor

Flying Magazine’s columnist is 58 years behind the times, and her editors should have caught it.

Sarina Houston’s tweet first drew my attention to this jaw-dropping column in Flying Magazine.

In its August 2018 issue, Flying Magazine published a piece by its longstanding “Unusual Attitudes” columnist, Martha Lunken, titled “Romance on the Runway.”

Spoiler: the title refers to an episode recounted to Lunken by “a rather famous old aviator friend” who once had sex on the runway at the Santa Monica Airport. He was a 19-year-old flight instructor, his partner was his 30-something female student, and the airport was cloaked in dense fog.

That’s it. Apparently Lunken’s friend did not describe any dramatic lead up to the event (as he ostensibly put it, “we kinda liked each other”) or any post-coital consequences. And since that’s hardly adequate material for a two-page column, Lunken spun her assignment into a much more sweeping argument: that nearly every woman who learns to fly falls in love with her flight instructor.

I’m a helicopter pilot, not an airplane one, and I rarely see Flying. This column came to my attention via Sarina Houston, who shared an image of the print article on Twitter with some choice lines highlighted. Like this:

“I still believe that any red-blooded American girl who comes out to the airport because she’s crazy about flying and takes lessons from a real live man sitting next to her will likely not only learn to fly but be smitten, enthralled and bewitched by him.”

Or this:

“If you’re a heterosexual female and you’re not crazy about the guy showing you how to do it — well, there’s something wrong with him or you.”

I would like to take a moment here to point out that there’s something wrong with this column. Not that I really need to bother, so far as Houston’s followers on Twitter are concerned. They have plenty of memes to convey just how baffling and anachronistic Lunken’s statements are.

In fact, I found it so hard to believe that these words were actually published in a widely distributed magazine in 2018 that I subscribed to the Texture app just to make sure (I didn’t really feel like giving my money directly to Flying at that point).

Yep, that actually does say August 2018.

I considered the possibility that Lunken was writing with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and I still can’t be entirely sure that this isn’t an attempt at satire. Yet Lunken went to some lengths to emphasize that she meant what she said, and damn the torpedoes:

“I think I’m already hearing outraged dissent, denial, protests and objections from the #MeToo group. . . . Am I concerned? Uh, reread the name of this column and remember that I’ve cheerfully taken on the Civil Air Patrol, the Ninety-Nines, the FAA, ‘warbirdians,’ the Quiet Birdmen and Lord knows who else.”

There’s so much wrong with Lunken’s column that it’s hard to know where to begin criticizing it, but perhaps I’ll start with her dismissive reference to the #MeToo group. Lunken appears to believe that #MeToo is nothing more than political correctness run amok — a bunch of hysterical gibberish from women who, unlike Lunken herself, refuse to accept that there are innate differences between men and women. As she explained to those of us who are in denial:

“Given the many exceptions, most guys don’t have a passion for nursing, running daycare centers or selling houses. And women don’t usually become licensed pilots because most women don’t have that (blessed) hard-wired passion for flying airplanes.”

(Uh, would any of the male flight nurses among my friends like to weigh in here?)

But let’s step back and remember that the #MeToo movement began with women sharing personal accounts of sexual assaults, up to and including violent rapes. These were stories they had never shared before because the men who committed the assaults were powerful and respected. Or because the women thought that no one would believe them. Or because they feared they would be blamed and shamed.

There are women among my family and friends who have concealed the sexual violence committed against them for all of these reasons. There are almost certainly such women among your family and friends, too. The point of the #MeToo movement was to reveal just how pervasive sexual violence is in our society — and how even women who have escaped sexual assault routinely endure more harassment than their fathers, sons and brothers can imagine.

So Lunken’s column is at the very least in poor taste, even as an ironic spoof. But her argument could also cause real harm if anyone were to take it seriously (obviously no one in my Twitterverse does, but I can only imagine that some paying subscriber of Flying might).

When I was working as a flight instructor, I fielded a couple of threatening phone calls from women who believed that I had designs on their boyfriends, my students (I didn’t). Even today, I know of helicopter operators who won’t hire women as pilots because the mere presence of a pair of breasts in the cockpit would be “disruptive.”

When “the world’s most widely read aviation magazine” — as Flying likes to call itself — perpetuates the idea that a female pilot can’t train with a man without swooning over him, that makes it harder for us to do our jobs and harder to advance in our careers.

But even worse, imagine the consequences of a male flight instructor in a position of authority believing that all of his female students are so smitten, enthralled and bewitched by him that they dream of making love to him on the runway numbers.

I wish this were hypothetical. It is not. Over the past several years, a low-time pilot friend of mine has endured extraordinary harassment at her place of employment, which began with her instructor and supervisor describing their flight lessons as “dates” and informing her that he told other attendees at a conference that they were married. How much of her subsequent poor treatment might be attributed to the fact that she was not smitten, enthralled or bewitched by him — she simply wanted to fly?

In her column, Lunken references her own nearly 58 years and more than 14,000 hours of teaching and receiving dual, testing pilots and crewing airplanes. That’s a remarkable career, and I’m sure she worked hard to achieve it. But that doesn’t make her sweeping generalizations legitimate, any more than if they had come from a 58-year, 14,000-hour male pilot.

Perhaps Lunken, at this point in her long career, no longer cares about staying relevant. But Flying certainly should.

As the harried editor of an aviation magazine myself, I’m going to give Flying’s editors the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to assume that, rather than praising Lunken for her column, they let her lazy writing slide because she turned it in so close to deadline.

But they shouldn’t have. And if I ever do the same, I hope someone calls me on it, too.

Helicopter pilot and special projects editor at MHM Publishing, often exploring the world by air

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