In Memoriam: Emily Howell Warner, 1939–2020

July 3, 2020

Emily Howell Warner, the first woman hired as a permanent pilot by a U.S. scheduled commercial airline, helped open doors for women in an industry still heavily dominated by men.

Born Emily Joyce Hanrahan in Denver, Colorado, Warner aspired to become a flight attendant before she had ever set foot on an airplane. During her first flight, the pilot invited her to visit the cockpit, an experience that inspired her to pursue flying lessons instead. Within a year she earned her pilot license, and by age twenty-one she was a full-time flight instructor.

Warner continued to climb the ranks and began seeking pilot positions with commercial airlines in the late 1960s. Even though she was well qualified, having logged more than four times the minimum number of flight hours required to apply, Warner faced repeated rejection until Frontier Airlines offered her a job as second officer in 1973. This portrait, taken that year by an unknown photographer, shows Warner standing in front of an airplane and gazing into the distance with a bright smile that suggests the pilot’s confidence and optimism.

Warner achieved many more “firsts” in aviation history over the course of her long career, becoming the first woman promoted to captain by a major US airline (1976) and the first commander of an all-women commercial flight crew (1986), among other accomplishments. Toward the end of her life she observed of her unwavering love of flying, “You don’t lose that—looking out and seeing that world in a different way.”

Smiling woman with short hair standing in front of a jet
Emily Howell Warner / Unidentified Artist / 1973, Gelatin silver print / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of David C. Ward