After 39 years and more than 30,000 hours in the air, a pioneering female pilot retires

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Capt. Pati Marsh pulled the American Airlines Airbus 330 into the gate at Philadelphia International Airport 10 minutes early, having just arrived from Madrid. On any other day, the smooth landing would not have been memorable to Marsh. But this one was very special.

After 39 years of flights to 18 countries and 44 states, of furloughs and airline mergers, 30,000-plus hours in the air, one dramatic emergency landing, and a “really big” comfort pig as a passenger, Marsh was retiring.

Not out of choice, but because she’s out of time. She has reached the FAA-mandated retirement age of 65 for pilots.

“I just had my retirement flight,” Marsh thought in wonder, as she brought the plane to a stop while air-traffic controllers offered congratulations on her final ride. Bill Sherrod, the airline’s director of flight/chief pilot in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., boarded the aircraft and announced Marsh’s milestone to passengers, who applauded then thanked her as they disembarked.

“She was a very caring and meticulous captain,” said Sherrod.

Fifty years ago, being an airline pilot was not on Marsh’s radar.

She was born the fourth of five girls to a family that toggled between Coco Beach, Fla., and Crofton, Md. Her father, Donald, worked for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the family frequently moved between the two locations for his job. By the time Marsh reached high school, the family had settled permanently in Maryland. (Marsh still lives there, in Annapolis, but her employment with American was based in Philadelphia.)

Her father flew small planes as a hobby, and Marsh was the only daughter in the family who took him up on his offer of a ride. He threw a map in her lap and, as they flew, pointed out all the landmarks — like roads and train tracks — she could identify from the air.

“It was love at first flight,” Marsh said of flying. “I just took to it and never turned back.”

No opportunities in military aviation

At age 17, inspired by the women pilots of World War II, Marsh planned to join the military so that she could fly. But when she approached Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University about enrolling in its ROTC program — a path to becoming a military pilot — her admission to the program was declined because she was female. Crushed, Marsh scored a meeting with Marjorie S. Holt — the first Republican woman from Maryland to be elected to Congress and who sat on the Armed Services Committee — to see what could be done.

The armed forces landscape was rapidly changing in terms of gender integration, Holt told her, but there were still no opportunities for women in military aviation.

So Marsh took the civilian route.

“There are going to be all kinds of reasons you can’t do something you’d like to do,” Marsh said. “The message is to persist, just keep trying, and do not take ‘no’ for an answer. Go over those mountains — do whatever it takes.”

Marsh did everything to gain flying time, including washing small planes to earn money to pay for flight costs. In high school, she would fly her friends to Ocean City, Md., or Atlantic City for the day. At the University of Maryland, where she majored in geography, she joined a flying club and organized group trips to the Bahamas for winter break. She even became a flight instructor.

After college, Marsh took on myriad flying gigs — transporting mail for the U.S. Post Office, cancelled checks for banks, and car parts for auto businesses — until she landed a job with Gannett, the media company, as a corporate pilot. From there she was hired by USAir in 1981.

She was only the 10th female pilot hired by USAir. Today, only about 400 women are among the 15,000 pilots who fly for American. (The two companies merged in 2015.)

“About three weeks later, I was furloughed when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers,” said Marsh. “This was a good lesson for me: Things can change very quickly.”

The furlough didn’t last long, and Marsh was soon back in the air.

Marsh’s go-for-it ethos served not just her career, but, over time, many of her nieces and nephews, who were wowed by her intrepid spirit, generous nature, and unwillingness to let gender impede her dreams.

“Personally and professionally, she taught me a lot of life lessons. It was invaluable to have such a strong female role model in my life,” said nephew Peter Ide, 52, of Arlington, Va. “She really lifted me up.”

Marsh, an accomplished sailor, often took Ide out on her boat. Those adventures inspired a love of the sea that led to a career in charter fishing. She even loaned him money for his first boat.

Marsh’s niece, Sarah Pilli, 32, recalled how Marsh helped pay her tuition at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, which helped sow the seeds of her professional success: She is currently vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives.

“I don’t think I would have had the education that she set me up for, the career path I now have, and the passion I have for the aviation industry,” said Pilli, and for travel. “She took me along on her really exciting adventures,” including ski trips to Colorado and scuba diving in the British Virgin Islands.

It was during an airline-sponsored ski race at in Aspen that Marsh met a fellow pilot, Jack Stephan, now 67.

“We’ve been happily unmarried for 25 years,” laughed Marsh, hinting at a possible change in that status.

While most of Marsh’s thousands of flights were as uneventful as her final one from Madrid, one in particular sticks in her mind.

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It happened in 1996, shortly after a ValuJet had crashed into the Florida Everglades after a fire had broken out on board. The tragedy had rattled the airline industry. So anxiety was high when, shortly after Marsh’s flight took off, her crew alerted her to noticeable smoke in the galley.

Marsh knew that her highly trained crew was prepared to manage any emergency, whether it be a problem passenger, mechanical issue or, yes, fire in the cabin.

“We are trained to handle them,” she said.

Her crew went into into “full work mode” — each playing a pre-determined role — while Marsh alerted air traffic control, who quickly got them back on the ground, where they were surrounded by fire rescue the moment the aircraft came to a halt.

But the fire had already subsided. Its cause?

Butter.

Back in 1996, airplane meals typically came with little pats of butter, encased in paper wrappers. On Marsh’s flight that day, the meals were being warmed up when some of the papers ignited, producing smoke.

“It ended up being the funniest thing,” said Marsh, who nonetheless could not have been prouder of the actions of her capable team and ground crew.

“It was just perfection, a ballet,” she said.

After 39 years, Marsh is sad to be leaving the dream career that has provided such marvelous memories. She wishes the retirement rules were different so she could add a few more memories to the mix.

After clearing customs for the final time as a commercial airline captain, Marsh headed to the terminal, where current and former pilots, family and friends had awaited her arrival.

“Thank you!” she said to her cheering supporters as she walked through the passage and into their arms.

“I’m going to miss this a lot,” she sighed before finally heading off with loved ones to enjoy a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant. “It’s the best job in the world.”

Tales from the cockpit

Retired American Airlines Capt. Pati Marsh looked back at some of the highlights during her 39-year career and the favorite parts of her job:

Celebrities on her flights: Actresses “Marlene” Dietrich, Cher and Andre the Giant; comedians Drew Carey and Dana Carvey; celebrity publisher John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Sports teams: The Islanders the year they won the Stanley Cup. They gave her signed posters and shirts for her nieces and nephews. There were no Philadelphia teams; senior captains got those flights, much to her disappointment.

Favorite plane to fly: Airbus A330.Favorite international airport: Rome. “You get to fly over the Alps. It is just very beautiful.”

Favorite domestic airports: San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Favorite run: The Caribbean islands.

Longest flight: Twelve hours, Philadelphia to Tel Aviv, Israel. The plane carried two crews.

Shortest flight: Twelve minutes, from Orlando to Tampa in a 737. “Those are fun.”

Favorite type of passenger: “I always appreciate the passenger who stops to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Strangest comfort animal passenger: “A really big pig. It could not fit under the seat in front of you.”

Unusual cargo: “A lot of loaves of bread to Bermuda.”

Sightings of UFOs: None, but, “I’ve seen plenty of satellites.”

Most precious cargo: Honor flights for America’s fallen heroes on their way back home for the final time.

Best advice for young women: “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want in life. And, persist.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
American Airlines Capt. Pati Marsh walks out to awaiting family and friends at the arrivals area of the international terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport. - HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
American Airlines Capt. Pati Marsh walks out to awaiting family and friends at the arrivals area of the international terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport. - HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS