Emily Warner, Pioneer Woman Airline Pilot, Flies West

American Aviation Has Lost a Giant

Emily Hanrahan Howell Warner — born in Denver, Colorado, October 30, 1939 — made history. The first female pilot hired by a major U.S. scheduled airline, Emily took her final flight west on July 3, 2020.

Bea Khan Wilhite, former president of the Colorado Aviation Historical Society and Emily’s good friend, writes: “We never believe that anybody has ended life, and particularly for pilots. We believe they fly west, and they continued flying. Emily flew west July 3, and she will be missed and lovingly remembered.”[1]

Captain Billy Walker, Emily’s longtime friend, echoed that: “She is now flying on a westerly heading no doubt enjoying the smooth air and a bright star to steer by.”


                                                                   Emily Warner (left) and the author/blogger Sarah Byrn Rickman

“Do You Think I Could See the Cockpit?”

Emily took her first flight at 18. Becoming a stewardess piqued her interest, but she had never flown in an airplane. A friend recommended she take a flight to see if she actually liked flying.  She took a roundtrip Frontier Airlines DC-3 flight, Denver to Gunnison and back. As the only passenger on the return flight, she asked the stewardess if she could see the cockpit.— In 1958, that was possible.— The captain invited Emily up front.

Emily was hooked. She wanted to fly the plane, not be the attendant.

First step, she earned her private pilot certificate. She didn’t stop there. She forged ahead and earned her commercial, instrument, multi-engine, and instructor ratings. Then she went for the big one, the Airline Transport Pilot rating — the coveted ATP. Over 15 years, she taught a lot of other pilots — male pilots — how to fly. She dreamed of flying airliners. Then one day, opportunity knocked.

Her friend Captain Walker relates how, first, she had to show she could handle — “hand fly” — the controls of one of the most difficult airliners  in use in 1973.

But Could  She Handle Engine Failure on Takeoff?

Walker writes: “The Convair 580 — a very powerful, twin-turbine powered, 53 passenger aircraft — was extremely heavy on the controls.” Emily climbed into the simulator. “Sophisticated for its time, the simulator was very real.” The test: could Emily handle the stiff controls? Could she demonstrate basic instrument flying with some emergency procedures thrown in. And … she would have to “fly the airplane” in the case of an engine failure on takeoff. *[See end of this post for the link to Captain Walker’s outstanding article on Emily.]

After multiple approaches, Captain Walker says that Emily was asked if she was ready to quit. “She probably was exhausted,” he added. But her answer was: “I’m ready for whatever you want to toss my way.” “If the truth were known,” he writes, “I think Emily wore THEM out!”

“From the get-go she handled her flying with savoir-faire along with the interaction of the instructor and captain monitoring her. They were impressed! Emily would not know how much until sometime later.”

Frontier Airlines Hired Emily on January 29, 1973

Three years later, on June 6, 1976, Emily became the first female airline captain. That same year, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. put her Frontier Airlines pilot uniform on display.

I [your blogger Sarah Byrn Rickman] had the pleasure of meeting Emily at a Women in Aviation conference. I was working with the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) in Centerville, Ohio. [2] On the spot, I asked Emily to be a guest speaker for one of our Women Aviation Pioneers programs. We taped the lectures before a live audience at the Miami Valley Cable Council (MVCC) in Centerville.

She said “yes.” I was thrilled!!! My boss, Joan Hrubec, Museum Administrator, was thrilled.

IWASM, from left: unidentified, Margie McDonald, Emily Warner, Joan Hrubec, Ann Cooper, Marcia Greenham

 Emily ‘Wows’ the IWASM Lecture Crowd

We drew an impressive crowd that evening. I introduced Emily and she took it from there. She told us about her career, and she talked about the strides that women pilots had made since the mid-1970s when it was all just beginning. She had the audience in the palm of her hand. They loved her!

Emily graciously answered every question from the audience. They were her total captives for the evening. As for me, I’ve never forgotten that night and how privileged I felt to have met her. I have never lost that feeling. She’s one of the greats! Posted are two photos from the event.

After Frontier closed its doors in 1986, Emily flew for Continental, and then as a captain for UPS from 1988 to 1990. She joined the FAA back in Denver as an air carrier inspector in 1990, then as air crew manager for the United Air Lines Boeing 737-300/500 Fleet. She retired from the FAA in 2002. In her 42 years in aviation, Captain Emily amassed more than 21,000 flying hours.

Among Emily’s Many Honors and Awards

Longtime member of the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots;

Charter member of ISA+21, the International Society of Women Airline Pilots;

1974: first woman to have membership in the Air Line Pilots Association;

1983: inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame;

1992: inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame;

1993: installed in the International Forest of Friendship, Atchison, Kansas: Amelia Earhart’s birthplace;

1994: the Emily Howell Warner Aviation Education Resource Center was established in the Granby (CO) Public Library;

1994: Colorado Senate Resolution 94-29: Honoring Capt. Emily Warner for her achievements in aviation history;

2000: inducted into the Colorado Wings Over the Rockies Museum;

2001: inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame;

2014: inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio.

RIP Emily! Blue skies, and tail winds!

*Link to Captain Billy Walker’s piece on Emily, below.


[1] https://www.9news.com/article/news/history/born-in-denver-the-first-female-us-airline-pilot-captain-has-died-at-80/73-8852e45f-c1ce-438e-a2b5-2108d5b2b0ee?fbclid=IwAR2lF2JtQ4Ut6CqpKjhZhiIYb00Vc0Q47d9O-_H7PsHHPMVIQWfwJ-DiZhU

[2] IWASM is now located in Cleveland, Ohio: Burke Lakefront Airport.

From Sarah: Thank you for reading my Blog, and thank you for reading my books. Here’s the Amazon link to all nine: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=sarah+byrn+rickman

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