Breaking Boundaries: Emily Howell Warner – The First Female US Airline Captain

In 1934 Pennsylvania Central Airlines, which would later become part of United Airlines (UA), hired a woman named Helen Richey to become the United States’ first-ever female commercial pilot.

She took to the skies on December 31, flying between Washington and Detroit. However, her career was short-lived, and she resigned after just ten months due to discrimination from the all-male pilots union.

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
Richey waves from a Ford Tri-Motor she co-piloted for Pennsylvania Central Airlines, the first female pilot for a regularly scheduled airline. (Photo: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)

But it would be almost 40 years before another female would sit on the flight deck of a US commercial aircraft…

“Girls Can’t Do That”

Emily Howell Warner nee Hanrahan was born on October 30, 1939 in Denver, Colorado. From an early age, she had always been fascinated by aviation and had her sights set on becoming a Flight Attendant after graduating high school. 

At 17, she took a trip on a Douglas DC-3 to see what life was like in the skies and was allowed to go and sit in the cockpit. “The pilot could see how excited I was,” Warner explained, “and he encouraged me to take flying lessons. I replied: ‘Can girls do that?” 

With one look at the dazzling array of dials and switches and seeing the pilots view through the windshield, the experience changed Emily’s world.

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
Douglas DC-3 cockpit

In 1958 she started flying lessons costing her $13 per week, which she paid herself, often working 14-hour shifts at her receptionist job with Clinton Aviation Flying School, frequently squeezing in a flight before and after work.

Her determination was there; a year later, she had her pilot’s licence. She took every opportunity to build her flight experience, often ferrying new Cessna 150’s back from Wichita, and flying for traffic reports.


In 1960, she became a Flight Instructor and was soon promoted to Flight School Manager and Chief Pilot. She upgraded her aviation ratings, enabling her to provide flight instruction to the many all-male airline pilots in the area.

In 1967 she became the first woman to be appointed a designated FAA Pilot Examiner. The fact that less qualified male students she was instructing were being hired by the airlines was not lost on her. Determined, she persisted, routinely and politely, making her interest known to anyone in Frontier (FL), Continental (CO) and UA offices.

After seven years of trying, Emily heard that FL had announced a new hiring class in 1973, and she was not on the list. She marched into the airline’s office and landed an interview with the Vice President of Flight Operations, Ed O’Neil.

Though a simulator check-ride wasn’t normally required, O’Neil asked her to take one in a Convair 580, which even males found challenging to manage. After much scrutiny, she passed the gruelling test with flying colours, and Frontier finally offered her a job on January 29, 1973.

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
Emily Howell Warner on the steps of a Frontier Boeing 737. (Photo: Frontier Airlines)

Flight Crew First

This marked the opening for American women in one of the last sex-segregated occupations in the civil aviation industry. When Warner was hired, no other women were working as pilots for the major airlines. By 1978 there were about 300 female commercial pilots in the US.

Her first flight as a Second Officer took off on February 6 from Denver to Las Vegas, and within six months, she was promoted to First Officer.

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
Warner after one of her early flights.

In yet another first, Warner became the first female member of the Air Line Pilots Association in 1974.

She would become the first female Captain in the US on June 6, 1976, the same year her Frontier pilot uniform was displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
Emily’s uniform on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

When Frontier Airlines became Peoples Express (PE) in 1986, Emily transferred to Continental.

In another first, Emily commanded FL’s first all-female flight crew on June 16, 1984 when she was joined on the flight deck by First Officer Barbara Cook. She said of the momentous occasion: “I feel good about it. I figured I’d be flying with a gal one of these days.” 

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
Capt. Emily Warner (L) and First Officer Barbara Cook (R).

She left Continental in 1988 for UPS, flying the Boeing 737 and 727 and in 1990 became an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector.

A Lasting Legacy

Finally, in 2002, she retired from aviation after racking up more than 21,000 hours of flying.  

Sadly Emily Howell Warner passed away in July 2020, she was 80 years old.

Used For - AOTS Emily Warner
She left a lasting legacy on the aviation industry. (Photo: Frontier Airlines)

This incredible woman made aviation history almost every time she climbed on board an aircraft.

With great skill, grace, wit and perseverance, Emily paved the way for the thousands of women pilots that have followed in her footsteps.

Even after her death, she continues to inspire and serve as a mentor to young aviators.

You can read more incredible tales of aviation heroes in our ‘Angels of the Sky’ category.

© by Dan Air.

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