Connie Tobias – An Aviation Legend Retires
by Assistant Editor Jay Selman
There are pilots, and there are aviators. When Captain Connie Tobias shut down the engines of her Airbus A321 at the conclusion of US Airways Flight 1967 on March 17, 2015, it brought to an end one chapter in a remarkable career of a remarkable aviator.
Above Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Connie Tobias in the left seat of the retirement Airbus A321.
Below Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. The Airbus A321 receives a congratulatory water cannon salute on arrival at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT).
In over 40 years of flying, Connie has logged over 22,000 flight hours and flown over 70 different kinds of aircraft, ranging from a 1902 Wright Glider (below) and 1909 Bleriot (below) to the Airbus A330-300. That, in itself, would be a career to be proud of, but the career of Connie represents so much more.
Connie has not lost any of the feistiness that must have been necessary to break through one barrier after another as a woman born in 1950. She reflects, “When I was a five year old girl, I was expected to play with dolls. I did…sort of. I lined them up at an imaginary airport waiting for the imaginary airplane that I was pretending to be! Even at that age, I was captivated by the lure of flight. In those days, of course, women were not expected to pursue careers as professional pilots.
In fact, when I went to a military recruiter in 1969 to see about becoming a military pilot, I was told rather strongly to go home and be a wife to someone. A year later, I sent a letter to American Airlines seeking employment, I received a similar response. Today, such a response would seem outrageous, but 45 years ago, those answers were generally accepted as the norm.”
However, Connie Tobias is anything but the norm. She does not claim to be a rebel, nor is she an iconoclast. She is, however, a strong-willed woman who sets out to accomplish what is important to her. She notes, “People will try to steal your dreams. I refuse to let that happen.” In 1975, Connie, always a fitness freak, set out to bicycle her way across the United States, from California to Delaware. While taking a rest stop somewhere in Missouri, she had her epiphany. “I looked up to the sky and saw a jet airliner cruising high above, leaving a condensation trail in its wake. It was at that exact moment that I decided that there was no way I could spend the next 40 years working in an office cubicle which may or may not have windows. No, that was the moment that I decided that I would do whatever I had to do in order to make the cockpit of an airplane MY office.”
Connie began to take flying lessons in 1975 in Xenia, Ohio. Later, she used a unique angle to build up time. “I washed planes at Ohio University Airport in Athens, Ohio. A freshly-washed airplane needs to be dried quickly, and what better way to dry an airplane than to fly it? I looked for any way possible to build up hours. I flew for a truck and oil field manufacturer, in and out of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. I earned my Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating and built up hours that way. I even flew as a “bird dog” for fire patrol operations, flying single-engine and light twin-engine aircraft. Basically, I did whatever I could to build up flying time.”
Connie’s big break came in 1982 when she applied for a pilot’s position that was posted at Aeromech Airlines, a regional airline based in Clarksburg, WV. She recalls with a wry grin, “The owner of Aeromech was a Greek gentleman, Angelo Koukoulis. The folks in Personnel at the airline accepted my application from Connie Tobias, probably believing that they were getting a Greek man. Of course, I was neither! In those days, female pilots were very few and far between. I was the second female pilot hired by Aeromech Airlines (below). Let’s just say I was generally not greeted with open arms into the fraternity that was almost exclusively male.”
Above Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Aeromech Airlines Embraer EMB-110P1 Bandeirante N615KC (msn 110230) is parked at the commuter terminal gate at Washington’s National Airport in Allegheny Commuter colors in February 1980.
As soon as she was checked out on the Embraer Bandierante, Connie was advised that she would have to earn an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) rating. Using pretty much the last of her meager savings, Connie passed her ATP practical with flying colors, and her written exam with an astounding 99%. Soon afterward, she learned that none of the male first officers at the airline had ATP ratings! Rather than being angry, she made up her mind that the best way to flourish in any environment was to be the happiest, most positive personality that she could be. Before long, she had built up an impressive stack of complimentary letters. While the aviation fraternity was still slow to accept her, it was apparent that the flying public loved her.
In 1983, Aeromech Airlines merged with Cleveland-based Wright Air Lines, and Connie found herself based in Albany, NY, flying the Convair 600/640. While the Bandeirante was configured for 15 seats, it was a new generation airplane. While the Convair held up to 50 passengers, it was late 1940s technology, devoid of any power-enhanced controls. “The Convair really had to be man-handled, and it was quite a challenge for someone of my size. I worked hard to develop the proper technique to control the Convair, and I believe that that helped earn respect and acceptance from some of the male pilots I flew with.”
Above Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. Wright Air Lines Convair 640 N862FW (msn 9) is seen in Miami on October 30, 1983.
Unfortunately, the merger between Wright and Aeromech proved to be a bad marriage and before long, Connie received word that the airline was on its last legs. “First officers for regional airlines were generally earning something below poverty-level wages, and Wright was no exception. I was living paycheck to paycheck, and I knew I had to do something. I had enough money to apply to exactly one airline.” She elected to put in an application to Piedmont Airlines (1st), which was known to be actively hiring women as pilots. In mid-1984, Connie Tobias was hired by Piedmont, becoming the 16th female pilot flying for the company. Today, by comparison, women make up approximately 5% of the US Airways pilot workforce.
Above Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. Ex-Northeast Airlines/Delta Air Lines Boeing 727-295 N1643 (msn 19448) displays the 1974 livery for Piedmont.
In the mid-1980s, Piedmont was growing by leaps and bounds. Connie started out as a first officer on the Boeing 727 (above), a dramatic step up from the archaic Convair. Piedmont proved to be the Land of Opportunity for Connie, and a mere 26 months later, she became a captain on the company’s Fokker F-28. In rapid succession, she graduated to captain on the twin-engine Boeing 737 and later, the larger tri-jet Boeing 727.
In 1989, Piedmont merged with USAir, later US Airways. As the airline added larger aircraft, Connie made a decision to trade in her low-seniority captain’s seat in exchange for a more comfortable lifestyle of a high-seniority first officer. Connie was able to hold a position in the right seat on the transcontinental Boeing 757 (below) and intercontinental wide-body Boeing 767. She later became a first officer on the largest and longest-range aircraft in the US Airways fleet, the Airbus A330. By all measures, Connie had beaten the odds and broken through the glass ceiling, achieving success in a field that had been considered a male world when she began her journey.
Above Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. USAir’s ex-Eastern Boeing 757-225 N604AU (msn 22199) taxies at Miami in the 1989 livery.
Some seven years ago, however, Connie suddenly found herself facing a new battle, this one against Mother Nature. She explains, “To discuss my medical challenges would take another entire article, but let’s just say I had a total of 13 medical issues. Altogether, I was out of work for six years. I was told that I would probably never again be able to pass a first class medical exam that airline pilots must pass twice a year.”
Connie took on the greatest battle of her life with the same tenacity as she faced other challenges. “I was determined to finish my airline career in the cockpit, and not in a hospital bed. To that end, over the course of six years, I required the services of 19 doctors, and was put under anesthesia ten times. This was the biggest battle of them all in my career, and my life.” But Connie has never been one to accept “No” for an answer, and in typical fashion, she fought back. First, she literally clawed her way back into a healthy body. Once that was accomplished, she worked unceasingly to bring her flying skills back up to speed.
Above Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. Airbus A319-112 N765US (msn 1371) painted in the 1997 color scheme departs the runway at Charlotte.
Finally, in 2013, she was restored to flying status with US Airways, on the Airbus A320 family (above). After being off flying status for six years, she was required to fly in the right seat for six months, but in July of 2014, Connie Tobias once again earned the right to wear the four stripes of a captain on the Airbus.
As inspiring as the story of her airline career is, there is much more to the story of this aviator. She explains, “You might say that an aviator has a love affair with the sky. I love flying, and as airliners become more and more automated, it is easy to get a little bit bored. Sure, there are times when I get to exercise and challenge my piloting skills, but I wanted to do more piloting…more aviating…than what airline life was offering me. I began looking at opportunities outside of the airline environment to get my piloting fix.”
That search took Connie to the Collings Foundation, a private non-profit educational facility dedicated to the preservation and public display of transportation-related history, including historic aircraft. For an aviator like Connie Tobias, it was a dream-come-true. “The Collings Foundation gave me the opportunity to fly all sorts of exotic aircraft, from a McDonnell F4D Phantom II (below) to a 1909 Bleriot XI Monoplane. Of course, in order to fly these aircraft, I had to earn a variety of ratings and endorsements, including seaplane and glider and taildragger skills. I also took an extended course in aerobatics and upset recovery. Ironically, while flying the Phantom was one heck of a kick in the pants, it was the Bleriot that required the greatest challenge and the most research…and opened the most unique of doors for me.”
It started with Foundation founder Bob Collings running into Connie one day and remarking, “You know, you look like Harriet Quimby. Will you portray her and, while you are at it, learn to fly the Bleriot?” Quimby was an award-winning photojournalist as well as a movie screenwriter who was also interested in aviation. On August 1, 1911, she became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States. The following year, she became the first female to fly across the English Channel. There is a saying that it is a lucky man who hears opportunity knock, but it is a wise man who opens the door. Obviously, the same applies to a woman, and Connie Tobias proved to be an extremely wise woman who opened the door that led to her parallel career and unique claim to fame. She took Bob Collings’ suggestion and developed a presentation of the life and accomplishments of Harriet Quimby, which she has performed for audiences around the world.
She says, “It is an honor and privilege to be in a position where I can be an inspiration to future aviators, especially girls and young women. In the days when I was breaking into the aviation world, there really weren’t many female role models I could emulate. I’d like to think that between my own accomplishments in aviation and my portrayal of Harriet Quimby, I can inspire others to dream big.”
Flying the Bleriot required intense preparation. Connie relates, “One day, I was watching the movie ‘Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines’. As the movie concluded, I realized that all of the pilots had one thing in common. They all crashed. It was a stark reminder that those early airplanes were very crude in their design, and extremely delicate to fly. I wanted to fly the Bleriot, but I wanted to make darned sure that I was successful. I spoke to the folks at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, home to a number of pre-World War I airplanes including another 1909 Bleriot. The Bleriot guru at Old Rhinebeck suggested that I contact another expert in Texas, and I kept following one lead after another, taking in as much as I could about flying an aircraft that was controlled by powered wing warping. Wing warping was a system for lateral control of early aircraft, and basically a precursor to the aileron.” Connie even referred to Louis Bleriot’s writings in her quest to understand everything she could about the Bleriot and wing warping. In the end, she did, indeed, fly the Bleriot, and she flew it well.
Success begets success. The popular concept is Six Degrees of Separation, that we are connected with anyone in the world by six or fewer steps. In the aviation world, it is closer to Two Degrees of Separation. In 2003, the owners of the Wright Flyer collection were looking for pilots to fly both the 1902 Wright Glider replica and the exact replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made the first powered flight. Thanks to her exposure flying the Bleriot, Connie Tobias was selected as one of a handful of pilots to fly the Glider. She wow’ed the organizers by using her skills honed by her tons of research, including hang gliding, by choosing the proper moment to fly the Glider in a near-perfect hover on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, NC. Of those pilots, only Connie had previous experience flying an aircraft that utilized powered wing warping. Late in 2003, she became the first and only woman to fly the 1903 Wright Flyer exact replica. When asked what airplane in her logbook was the most memorable, she answers, “The 1903 Wright Flyer. After all, how many men or women can say that they flew that airplane?”
Connie’s commitment to inspiring students with Quimby’s story along with her involvement in flying the 1903 Wright Flyer and 1909 Bleriot has won her special recognition from The National Aeronautic Association and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Connie has appeared in numerous documentaries, is a Distinguished Graduate of Engineering, holds the Medal of Merit from Ohio University, and has been inducted into the Amelia Earhart Forest of Friendship. She has been generous in her donations to a cause near and dear to her heart, a scholarship fund at her alma mater, Ohio University. The scholarship assists young men and women in pursuit of a career in aviation. She says, “I remember what it was like trying to break into the aviation world with an empty bank account. There were several times early in my career when I was literally down to my last few dollars. If I can help young men or women avoid some of the financial struggles that I went through, I am happy to do so.” This scholarship is appropriately named The Harriet Quimby Scholarship.
Above Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Connie poses with the cabin crew on her last flight with US Airways.
Now that Connie Tobias has retired from her airline job, what does she plan to do with all that free time? “Free time? What free time? My last flight with US Airways was on March 17. The following day, my birthday, is being spent packing for a long-awaited trip to a gala birthday party in Paris. I leave on the 19th, and will spend a little time touring Europe. Once I get home, I will have plenty to keep me busy. I plan to do some hiking, learn another language, and play the piano better. I’d love to continue to fly small airplanes and regain those skills. I still have my instructor’s rating, so that is a possibility. I still have a dream of flying a Bleriot across the English Channel. There is a possibility that the Wright airplane collection will be going to China, and if it does, I plan to go over there for that. I have also thought about flying for the Collings Foundation. And, of course, there is still a demand for Harriet, so I plan to continue portraying her as time permits. I expect to have a full dance card for the foreseeable future.”
If that is not enough, Connie is involved with the following organizations”
International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA), Ninety Nines (99’s), Women in Aviation International (WAI), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Aviation Advisory Board and Board of Visitors – Russ College of Engineering – Ohio University, National Alumni Board of Directors – Ohio University, National Aviation Hall of Fame – Board of Nominations
Free time? What free time? We can all learn from the life of Connie Tobias. US Airways is losing a senior captain, but aviation is not. No way.
Copyright Photo Below: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Fellow female pilots come to salute Connie on her last airline flight and her arrival at gate D7 at Charlotte.