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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."


Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Norah O'Neill

Friday's Fabulous Flyer

Norah O'Neill
747 1984

Norah’s life began the day she ran away from home to the top of Mt. McKinley after she’d learned her husband had filed for divorce, after three weeks of their working apart, and his girlfriend had become pregnant. In hindsight, I don’t believe Norah was running from anything. I think she was being pulled toward her destiny.

She’d been crushed and ready to make a change in scenery. Norah jumped at the chance to fly north and become part of a modeling shoot for skiwear. An avid skier herself, this was exactly what she needed. Being airlifted to the top of Mt. McKinley, for the five-day skiwear shoot, appealed to her on every level. But it wasn’t until she was leaving the mountain, would her life change forever.


Norah with Navajo Chieftan in Fairbanks 1974

Having flown up the mountain laying down in the cargo compartment, strapped down with the cargo, Norah insisted on sitting in the cockpit on the flight back down. That flight changed the course of her life. It gave her direction and focus.


“As I looked out the cockpit window, I felt curiosity and wonder and fear, but I did not immediately recognize the welling up of need from deep inside me…. I was in love.”

This is how Norah’s aviation adventure began.

23-years-old, and no home to return to, she’d made her decision to learn to fly. She found a nighttime job in Kodiak Alaska’s most prominent bar, frequented by prostitutes. She worked all night, slept for a few hours in the morning, and took flying lessons in the afternoon before she went back to the bar to work. Living in a furnace room of an old house, she exchanged housework for rent, so every penny could go to the airport. She learned to fly, became an instructor, then became a charter pilot.

For those of you who’ve flown in Alaska know that this type of flying either ends in death, or becoming an extremely competent pilot. Norah survived. She survived equipment failures, fatigued-filled hours of flying all night through the mountainous terrain in IFR conditions, and the torment of being a woman breaking into the male domain. To say she wasn’t accepted would be an understatement. Norah was breaking ground for all women pilots to come.

Norah's favorite airplane, the Classic 747, 1981

She eventually departed her Alaska job after she was hired by Flying Tigers—their first woman pilot. To say the boys embraced the concept of a woman would be a lie. They embraced the challenge of trying to drive her out. She was known as C-1, and the stories Norah tells in her book Flying Tigress, will shock you, make you cry, laugh out loud, and you will understand what my early predecessors went through. I know C-4 at Northwest, and those days were not fun for the ladies. But they survived, and they did make a difference for the rest of us. Those shocking stories, they're all true. And this is where truth is stranger than fiction.

Flying Tigress is one of the most captivating books I’ve ever read. It carried me down memory lane, and unearthed memories that I’d forgotten. Norah’s prose takes you into the cockpit for an instrument approach into Hong Kong, just as if you were there. If you love aviation, you will love Flying Tigress. Share a piece of history. It's a tribute and honor to the ladies who paved the way into the commercial airline world. I laughed at Norah replacing the penthouse photos with playgirl in the cockpit. I did the same at Evergreen.

The long nights. The laughter. The tears. The death of friends. She’s seen it all. She struggled with balancing motherhood and flying, marriage and trust. She fought with loneliness, the need to love and to be loved. Her story is honest, open and riveting.

Norah with children Cammie and Bren at 2009 Forest of Friendship induction

Flying Tigress is a story of adventure, humor, heart-break, sorrow, strength and survival. It’s beautiful. Her life was an adventure. We fly for many things. Sometimes we end up soaring the world in search of meaning. Sometimes that meaning is in our own back yard. We give our life to the lust of Aviation, and it strips us of everything. But it also gives back so much more that it takes.

Noah’s last flight“I contemplated the phrase I’d heard, that life was not measured by the number of breaths one took but by the moments that took one’s breath away. I thought of the other marvelous things I had viewed from the cockpit. These were God’s gift to pilots: snow crawling down the Rockies, sunrise over the Grand Canyon, the vast green mat of the Amazon jungle, the twisting silver road of the Mississippi, and the top of Everest—a cone 10,000 feet below. I had seen the Great Wall of China curving below, the harbor at Rio, the starkness of the Australian Outback, the towering plume of Mt. Saint Helen’s ash, the curvature of the earth at the North Pole the deep blue of the stratosphere. I had crossed the equator, awed by sunstreaked evenings, dappled earth, velvet night, and spun-silver clouds. I flew inside God’s weather; saw horizontal rain and contrails. On night over the north slope of Alaska, I turned off my small plane’s lights and flew, just a dark spot against the starry skies, in to the green and yellow and pink of the dancing of the Aurora Borealis.”

Wearing her favorite uniform, the cat pajamas in MD-11 cockpit over China 2002

Norah wearing her 747 flying through northern lights dress while meeting her favorite band IL Divo

Norah, it's an honor to know you. On behalf of all the women pilots, we thank you for opening the doors and standing strong while they were slammed in your face. You did make a difference in this life for many. Thank you.

Enjoy the Journey!

XOX Karlene

22 comments:

  1. Karlene, you continue to fill my bookshelf with must read books. This weeks and last weeks Friday Flyers were so interesting, I have to buy a copy. After a little searching I found Norah's website and see that she will sign a copy (http://www.norahoneill.com/tigress.html). I guess I have a bit of autograph junkie in me.
    Speaking of adding books to my collection, I'm looking forward to: Flight for Control.

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    1. Thanks Dan! Authors love the autograph junkies. You'll really love this. And, can hardly wait to sign mine for you too! Thanks for the comment.

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  2. I love this story, thanks, Karlene. What a life Norah's had, and how great that she wrote a book about it. The beginning of the story made me remember how we know we can do anything when we're in our twenties, and thank goodness! When you're investing in your future, a future you really want, living in a furnace room for a while is barely a blip on the radar! Inspiring.

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    1. I think we all need to have furnace room days. They are just a blip. One day I hope for you to meet Norah. And hope you write your story too.

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  3. Norah's book is a fascinating read that is both historical and personal. I know Norah as a friend, and believe she is a unique role model for all women. She continues to be candid and inspiring about her vulnerabilities and strengths, and her amazing life.

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    1. Thanks so much for the comment Edie. The most inspiring people are those who share the candid truths and their vulnerabilities. Her strength shines through it all. Historical and personal is the best description.

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    2. You are welcome, Karlene. And thank you for providing this article and the photos, and the opportunity to comment. It is a well deserved celebration of Norah's accomplishments.

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    3. Thanks Edie, it certainly is! She's an amazing woman.

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  4. Norah's book is a fascinating read that is both historical and personal. I have known Norah for many years and consider her an outstanding role model for all women. She is inspiring and candid about the vulnerabilities and strengths that have made, and continue to make her life so amazing.

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    1. Yes, her story is a fascinating read. I'm thinking of so many people I want to gift this too! Thanks for your comment!

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  5. What an excellent story of rebirth! I've got to get her book.

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    1. Heather, you would love this book. Especially the environment you work. You have many challenges of your own in your work. Coming close to closing that chapter. :)

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  6. Inspiring story, but when I tried to buy Flying Tigress for my Nook I couldn't find it.

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    1. Dave, we'll work on this little dilemma! Thanks, I know you're going to love it!

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  7. Amazing story.... wonderful cup half full story!

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    1. Definitely half full. As we all can live. Thanks for the comment.

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  8. Can't wait to read Norah's book and meet her someday...Kathy (C- 4 Northwest Airlines)

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    1. Hey Kathy... so now you read it, and I know you loved it. :)

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    2. Yes, I decided I don't need to write my story...Norah's adventures say it all! It was fun listening to her talk a few weeks ago; she did a great job!

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    3. YOU do too have write your story!!! A MUST!

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  9. Wonderful book! I devoured every word in 2 days while on a hot springs vacation! I feel like I know Nora, what a provocative life...

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    1. Hi Barbe, Thank you for the comment. I did too! A fabulous woman she is.

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