Meet Mitzi Saylor
Captain for United Airlines
Growing Up and Career Journey
One of my current full-time jobs is flying as a Boeing 737-300 Captain for United Airlines, based at the San Francisco domicile. I also serve as the Human Factors Chairperson for the Central Air Safety Committee in the United Airlines branch of the Air Line Pilots' Association. Each of these positions requires different skills in the field of aviation. Besides the obvious flying skills required to be an airline pilot, I must also employ skills in communication, rapid decision-making, resource and task management, multitasking (doing several things at the same time), and interpreting and applying weather charts and forecasts. Skills required for the Human Factors position mostly involve researching scientific studies and communicating in the form of report writing. Communication is a skill common to both positions, and it is one I constantly try to improve.
I credit my father for sparking my interest in aviation, he was very enthusiastic about airplanes. I remember watching the Thunderbirds roar overhead as I sat on his shoulders when I was three, but the strongest memory I have of the sheer joy of flight was during an overseas flight to Tokyo a couple years later after he passed away. I had a window seat over the wing and at one point during the flight, the aircraft was banked into a turn. I remember looking straight down the wing into the beautiful blue ocean, thinking of every possible word for "Cool!" in my five-year-old vocabulary.
For the next 10 years or so, I kept badgering my mom to let us travel somewhere by air. I didn't understand how expensive it was for our very limited budget. I also told her I was going to be a stewardess someday. There was an occasional trip, but not enough to satisfy my constant desire to be in an airplane. I started working at a dime store when I was 16, and two years later I had saved enough money to buy myself a trip to Kansas to see my friends graduate from high school. Of course, I was more excited about the flights than the graduation, but I didn't tell my friends that.
When I wasn't thinking of airplanes I was doing a lot of typical things that girls did, and a few not-so-typical things. My mom remarried another Air Force fella when I was 9, and we moved about every 2 years. This made it difficult for me to participate in many activities, but I managed to keep busy. I played the piano, read many books and teenybopper magazines, embroidered, baked, sewed my own clothes, penciled my way through many game magazines, had a few horseback-riding lessons, and traveled many places with my parents (especially when we were based in Germany). I rode a small motorcycle around whenever possible, caught lizards, and raised a few batches of frog eggs. I joined the Girl Scouts while in Germany, which introduced me to many fun things in life, including nature hikes and Boy Scouts. During my last couple years in high school I played flag football and was a Song Girl (cheerleader).
During the summer after my first year of college at Santa Clara University, I drove by what used to be Fremont (CA) airport. It finally dawned on me that if I wanted to be in an airplane, I could do so by becoming a pilot. I decided I wanted to be an airline pilot. My mom wasn't too happy about the idea, but my step-dad was supportive. Slowly I worked my way through a private pilot license, time and money limiting me to 3-4 lessons a month. My mom arranged for a lunch meeting with a United Airlines B727 Second Officer, Larry Jobe. He provided me with lots of good advice, including the suggestion that I change colleges to San Jose State University and attend their aeronautics program.
I followed most of Mr. Jobe's advice, which resulted in my participation on the SJSU student flight team, a job working for the SJSU Foundation at NASA-Ames, and a Bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Flight Operations with a second major in Psychology. I enjoyed the curriculum in the aeronautics department and was given the Vincent E. Morinan Outstanding Student of Aeronautics award during graduation. I was fairly successful on the flight team, capturing first place in the Navigation event, both regionally and nationally, as well as the regional and national Top Woman Pilot awards. My work at NASA also sparked a new interest in the area of Human Factors research, so much so that I began to feel a conflict for my future plans to be an airline pilot. I found that I loved the scientific atmosphere and the type of people committed to a career in research.
Shortly before graduating college in 1986, I changed job positions to the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), and shortly after graduation I acquired my instrument rating, commercial pilot license, and multi-engine rating. Over the next several months I also acquired part-time jobs flying skydivers and flying traffic watch for KGO. I worked at ASRS for 2 _ years, loving every minute of it, and I looked into some graduate programs related to human factors or experimental psychology. However, at some point I decided to pursue the aviation career first, with the hopes of later going into the field of research. I purchased a share in a 1956 Piper Apache to start building multi-engine flight time, and I quit the traffic watch job in order to have time to fly the plane.
I applied to many airline, commuter, and cargo flying companies, and in 1989 I began DC10 Flight Engineer training with United Airlines. In 1991, I checked out as a B737-200 First Officer and sold my share of the Apache. Eventually I got to fly with Larry Jobe who was then a Captain on the 737. This time I bought him dinner. In 1996, I graduated from SJSU with an interdisciplinary Masters Degree in Human Factors and Ergonomics, and later that year I checked out as a B747-100 First Officer. In early 1998 I completed the upgrade to the Captain seat of the B737-300.
Takeoffs and landings, exploring new cities and sites, and the smell of burning jet fuel are what I like best about my job. Crew meals, hotel rooms, and passengers who refuse to believe that airplanes can't fly into severe weather are what I like least about my job.
My other full-time job is as a mother and home manager. I first became interested in this profession when I became pregnant. Skills required for this job include patience, teaching, communication, rapid decision-making, resource and task management, multitasking, and interpreting toddler babble. Spontaneous hugs and kisses from my son are what I like most about the job, bills are what I like least.
My husband and I live on 2 _ acres in the Gilroy, CA area, with our 2-year-old son and one-year-old puppy. My husband has a builders' assistance shop for experimental aircraft at Watsonville airport, and I do what I can to support him in his business. In June 2001 we purchased a GlaStar, a kit-built aircraft with a Czechoslovakian engine.
Our son occupies 95% of our time outside work, so right now we don't do many of the things we used to do before he came along, but somehow we manage to squeeze in a few activities. We enjoy a very occasional hike or movie, the annual San Francisco Bay-to-Breakers race, an occasional visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (we are members), and a yearly trip up the Northern California coast. We've been participating in the Hayward Air Race for the last 4 years, and this year we plan to have even more fun flying the course in our own airplane. I also manage to keep involved with the regional college flying competitions each year, something I've done since my time on the SJSU student flight team. I have been Chief Judge for the Navigation event for most of the last 8 years.
Time and health permitting, I eventually plan to return to some past activities: traveling, scuba-diving, backpacking, leisure reading, arts-and-crafts, and impromptu luncheon flights. I may even attend some astronomy and marine biology courses, other areas of interest to me.
I believe that if you are strongly and passionately interested in a career goal, it will be easy for you to do what it takes to achieve the goal. You will easily learn the associated concepts and skills, and you will either hurdle or find a way around any brick wall that gets in your way. You will also achieve your goal in a fair and honorable manner because any cheating along the way will only burn bridges and cause the future demise of your goal.
I want to emphasize that I chose my airline career because it interested me to my core. I did not choose it to prove that a woman can be a pilot. I am often congratulated for being a woman pilot while my male copilots are ignored, and I always feel uncomfortable about this. We all deserve to be equally congratulated, regardless of gender; everyone has worked hard to achieve the goal. That being said, my advice to students who wish to pursue a career as a professional pilot is: you must be interested in the mechanisms of flight. An interest in the supposed glamour, pay scales, presumed prestige, and travel benefits will not be enough to get you through the years (sometimes decades) of studying, training, starvation, sleep deprivation, and job instability you may have to endure to reach your goal. You gotta love the plane.