When Donna Garrett was growing up in the greater Los Angeles area, it didn’t seem strange that her mom worked as an airline pilot. Because her dad had the same profession, captaining an airplane seemed like a normal thing to do.
“It was the boring job that my parents did when they went to work,” Donna, now 26, laughs.
In fact, mom Suzy Garrett was blazing a trail across the skies as one of the first female pilots for regional US carrier SkyWest.
As Donna got older, she began to take notice. Inspired by her parents’ passion and the freedom they enjoyed to explore the world, she decided to pursue her own career in flying.
Fast forward to September 2019 and Donna was operating an airplane alongside Suzy as SkyWest’s first mother-daughter pilot team.
That flight took place over a year ago, but in recent weeks, Donna and Suzy’s story has unexpectedly gone viral, with photos of the duo, smiling proudly in the cockpit, spreading across social media.
“We knew it was really special,” says Suzy, who was celebrating 30 years at SkyWest when she paired up with her daughter.
She remembers “everybody else’s reaction” as being one of the most heart-warming parts of the experience.
“I was really surprised – as surprised as now it’s gone viral – but even that day, I haven’t had my picture taken that much since my wedding! Passengers taking pictures with us, rampers, flight attendants…That just helped make the day even more special, the support was really wonderful.”
The pair had hoped to repeat the experience in 2020, but their plans were halted by the Covid pandemic. Right now, Suzy is in Los Angeles and Donna is in Chicago and, like many families, they’ve not been able to spend much time together this year.
Defying the stereotype
While the image of the two sharing a flight deck captured a happy moment in aviation, it also symbolized a milestone on the tough journey faced by many women pilots – one of the reasons the pair think their story resonated across the world.
Suzy Garrett began working for SkyWest in 1989. She’d dreamed of becoming an aviator ever since she fell in love with air travel on her second ever flight, from Arizona to Los Angeles, when she was in the eighth grade. Looking out the cabin window, she was captivated by the sunset.
But the path to achieving that goal didn’t seem that clear.
“Back then women weren’t really pilots, and pretty much the military was the only way of becoming one, but I wasn’t tall enough for the military,” says Suzy, who is 5 feet 1 inch. (1.55 meters).
Determined to succeed, she enrolled in aviation school at Mount San Antonio College in California in 1984. Later, she worked as a flight instructor for a few years before getting her first job at SkyWest.
Over the course of her SkyWest career, she’s flown Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner turboprops, the Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia and now the Bombardier CRJ200, CRJ700 and CRJ900 NextGen.
Thirty years ago, aviation in America was dominated by White men and today, the landscape is little changed. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, 92.5% of professional pilots are male and 93.7% of professional pilots are White.
Organizations including Fly for the Culture and Sisters of the Skies are working to make aviation more accessible by championing scholarships, upping representation and providing mentors for underrepresented groups in aviation, particularly Black pilots.
Suzy says she didn’t face any discrimination in the cockpit, and she felt she had “the same amount of opportunities” as her male counterparts.
Any snide remarks came from those less familiar with the job, but Suzy has experienced “comments, maybe from passengers or people in the terminal.”
“Outside of the profession, I’ve had to win over people,” she says.
She’s become used to seeing a look of surprise flash across passengers’ faces when they realize she’s the one who just landed the aircraft.
While aviation still has a glaring diversity issue, Suzy says it has been cheering to see attitudes change during the three decades she’s been flying. To think she may have helped inspire young women to enter the industry is also gratifying, she says.
“That’s been really nice, and to know that it’s actually inspired my daughter was the icing on the cake.”
Donna started to flying in college, after her pilot dad taught her the ropes.
“I just absolutely fell in love with it,” she says.
She later studied at two flight schools in Southern California, finished up her training in Michigan and built up her flight hours by working for smaller companies, including Scenic Airlines, which runs aerial tours of the Grand Canyon. She joined SkyWest in April 2019.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize how much of a pioneer in this field my mom was until pretty recently,” says Donna.
“I grew up seeing her in this role, and it wasn’t until I was much older, and actually pursuing this career myself that I realized how rare her position is in this field, and I realized that what she was doing at her time was very impressive.”
Both women see representation as an important step in encouraging more women to train to become pilots.
“Having younger girls see women up there in the cockpit doing this, it’s those kinds of moments that will inspire women to pursue something that maybe they’d never thought was a possibility for them,” says Donna.
Both Donna and Suzy talk fondly about the time they got to fly together. From September 4-5, 2019 the duo operated a CRJ700 between Los Angeles, California, San Diego, California, Fresno, California and Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to fly with a captain that’s that experienced,” says Donna. “And then having her as my mom, we have such a great foundation of communication as it is, just working from there with our dynamic.”
Suzy added that in the flight deck, their family ties took a back seat to their professionalism and training.
“But it is really neat to look over and see her sitting beside me, and the pride and the joy that I see, and having [Donna] doing this and with me at the job,” she says. “It’s indescribable, I’m really, really proud of her, she does a fantastic job.”
The duo hopes Suzy’s son might join them in the cockpit next time. He’s a recently qualified pilot and set to join SkyWest soon.
“What I think would be really neat is to have Donna be the captain and him be her first officer,” says Suzy. “And maybe I’m sitting in the back as a passenger. I think that would be fun.”
“That would be an absolute dream come true,” adds Donna.
Donna’s brother was supposed to be joining SkyWest earlier this year, but the hire was put on hold when the pandemic hit.
“It’s definitely been a little bit of a struggle,” says Suzy, reflecting on Covid-19’s impact on the aviation industry.
Both women hope the industry will recover, and airlines will start hiring again soon. In the meantime, they hope the pandemic won’t put off young aviators striving to achieve their goals.
“In this industry, I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, different cycles,” says Suzy. “This is temporary, we’ll come back and at the end is a really rewarding career that I think a lot of people would really enjoy.”
Donna, meanwhile, advocates the importance of finding good mentors within the aviation industry, acknowledging she was privileged to have role models within her own family.
“If you can find other friends, peers, mentors, people to help you through this challenging but very rewarding journey of getting into aviation […] having other people there, helping you through, is something that makes the whole journey so much easier.”
Slice of positivity
The duo have a few thoughts on why their story has gained a new lease of life in 2020.
Suzy suggests it could be because it offers a slice of positivity in what’s been a tough year for so many.
“Maybe something inspiring, something that’s uplifting, that is a positive note, has maybe resonated with people? And especially for the young people, where a lot of careers and aspirations have kind of been put on hold,” she says.
The story also went viral at a time when many are separated from family, not sure when they’ll next be able to be one another – so seeing a mother and daughter working together is extra heartwarming.
Suzy and Donna hope they’ll both be back in the cockpit together before long. In the meantime, they’re reminiscing about how great the experience really was.
“We worked very well together,” says Donna. “And it was just indescribable how much fun it was getting to fly alongside her, and how proud it made me to sit next to her.”