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Remembering Emily Howell Warner

Posted on Fri, July 17, 2020
  • by: Caroline Johnson
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Emily Howell Warner, 1939-2020

On January 29, 1973, Emily Warner sat across from the Vice President of Frontier Airlines at the close of a job interview. He asked her what she was going to wear, as there were no women airline pilot uniforms. Warner breathed a sigh of relief, now knowing that the interview was a success. In that moment, Warner became the first American woman to be hired as part of the permanent flight crew by a U.S. airline. Born October 30, 1939, in Denver, Colorado, Emily “Hanrahan” Howell Warner’s aviation achievements marked the beginning of massive changes for women pilots in the U.S. airlines. Her career and dedication to the aviation industry encapsulates the spirit of the first women to successfully secure a spot in the front seats of commercial airliners.

Woman in cockpit

Informal photo of Emily Howell Warner, wearing blazer, sitting in the right-hand seat in the cockpit of a small dual-control aircraft; circa early 1970s.

Just 15 years prior to her life-altering interview, Warner booked her first-ever flight aboard a Frontier Douglas DC-3. She was curious about aviation and had decided a round-trip flight from Denver to Gunnison would offer her clarity on whether or not she wanted to pursue a career as a stewardess. Warner was the only passenger on the return flight on February 3, and she asked if she could view the cockpit and speak briefly with the flight crew. As she stared out the front window of the DC-3, she thought, “This is neat.” Her excitement was palpable, and the copilot suggested she take flying lessons at Clinton Aviation at the Stapleton Airport. Emily was shocked and thrilled to hear that, as a woman, she would be allowed to fly. “His words changed my life,” Warner recalled later. Three days after her first flight, she met James E. Muncey, the Chief Pilot at Clinton Aviation, and by February 18, 1958, Emily had her student pilot’s license in hand.  

By age 21, Warner earned her private pilot’s license and went on to earn her commercial, instrument, multiengine, and instructor ratings. She worked as a certified flight instructor (CFI) in the Cessna 150 from 1961 to 1967. Throughout this time, she had taken on roles as the Air Taxi and Flight School Manager, FAA Pilot Examiner, and Chief Pilot at Clinton Aviation, along with being responsible for the United Airlines Contract Training Program at Clinton. Many of her students (mostly male) went on to pursue airline careers. She reflected on why she wasn’t doing the same and began applying for airline pilot positions in 1968.  

After applying countless times to multiple airlines for five years, Emily Howell Warner received an interview with Ed O’Neil, Vice President of Flight Operations for Frontier, in early 1973.  After several hours in a Convair 580 simulator, Emily accompanied O’Neil to an office for the post-flight briefing. He pulled a copy of Robert J. Serling’s She’ll Never Get Off the Ground from his shelf. O’Neil explained he had never read it and asked Emily if he should. The novel, published in 1971, was a fictional story of the first woman airline pilot who ultimately brought down a Boeing 737. Recognizing the slight challenge embedded in the question, Warner responded, “I wouldn’t bother with it if I were you. It doesn’t have a very worthwhile ending. There is only one thing that fictional pilot and I have in common: We both drive Mustangs.” 

Emily Howell Warner

When Frontier hired Warner, she had over 7,000 hours in her logbook (over four times the minimum hours required to apply as an airline pilot). Warner flew for Frontier from 1973 until they closed down in 1986. She then flew for Continental and as a captain for UPS on the Boeing 737 from 1988 to 1990. During the last decade of her career, she worked with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Denver as an air carrier inspector, Aircrew Program Manager assigned to United Airlines’ Boeing 737-300/500 fleet, and the FAA representative for United’s Flight Safety Action Program. Warner retired in 2002 with 42 years in aviation and over 21,000 hours of flight time.

Warner accrued a list of extraordinary achievements. She became the first woman inducted into the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in 1974. This achievement reflected changes within the industry and the increased acceptance for women in the airline industry, as Helen Richey, who flew briefly for Central Airlines in 1934, was denied entrance to the organization in 1935. Warner also became the first woman to achieve the rank of Captain for a U.S. airline in 1976, flying a Twin Otter, and she was charter member of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21) founded in 1978. In addition to her time with Frontier, she was the leader of Continental’s first all-female flight crew in 1986, and was the recipient of the Amelia Earhart Award as the Outstanding Woman in U.S. Aviation. 

Portrait of woman

Portrait of Emily Howell Warner via the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of David C. Ward.

Warner’s accomplishments are reflected in her inductions to organizations including the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983, the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1992, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001, the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014.  Aviation author Ann Lewis Cooper published Warner’s biography, Weaving the Winds, Emily Howell Warner, in 2003, and a personal account of her story appears in ISA+21’s Women Who Fly: True Stories by Women Airline Pilots. In further commemoration, Granby Grand County Airport was renamed “Emily Warner Field” in 2015. 

“Captain Emily” passed away on July 3, 2020, in Colorado. The uniform designed for her, including her pilot cap, coat, trousers, shirt, necktie, and boots, will be on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s reimagined America by Air exhibition. These artifacts are a testament to Warner’s life and career, which served as an inspiration for generations of women pilots. At the end of her interview with Frontier in 1973, Warner was not concerned with what her uniform would look like… as long as it had wings. 

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