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Russ College alumna carries on pioneering tradition of women aviators

Kelly Limpert and Adrienne Cornwall | Mar 17, 2014
New England Air Museum--Women Take Flight

Russ College alumna carries on pioneering tradition of women aviators

Kelly Limpert and Adrienne Cornwall | Mar 17, 2014


The presence of women on the flight deck has gotten a bit of recent national attention on social media, but Captain Connie J. Tobias, AAS '77, BGS '78 has made aircraft her professional home for nearly 40 years.

“I started my career as an airline pilot during the first wave of women being hired by the airlines,” said Captain Tobias, who flies with U.S. Airways. “I learned very early on that it takes a man of quality to accept a woman of equality,” she said.

Indeed, when she pursued her flight dreams, she remembers there were few women at the helm. Even today, women are significantly underrepresented in aviation careers. According to an FAA Aeronautical Center study in 2010, just less than 7 percent of pilots are women. However, the study also shows that women make up more than 12 percent of student pilot enrollment, pointing to a future where more women will take to the skies.

“I’m delighted to see an influx of young women entering the field aviation as professional pilots,” Tobias said. “I think young women need to be told and reassured that they can do anything. They need to see other women who are in the field and successful. That helps them to visualize their future.” 

Although flying was a childhood dream, Tobias first envisioned herself as a pilot while on a 3,200-mile cross-country bicycle trip from Oceanside, Calif., to Rehoboth Beach, Del. While on a water break, Tobias looked up to see a jet airplane overhead. She decided then and there that after her trip, she would sell everything and become an airline pilot.

Today, in her 39 years of flying, Tobias has logged 21,000 flight hours, completed more than 1,000 transatlantic crossings and flown 68 different kinds of aircraft, from heavy jets to helicopters.

She is also in her 14th year of historical characterizations of Harriet Quimby, the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States and the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Tobias dons a purple satin hooded suit, which was Quimby’s attire for her landmark channel crossing, for re-enactments at aviation museums and events across the country.

And in January, Tobias had the honor of escorting the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or “WASP,” a group of civilian women aviators who piloted military aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, in the Rose Bowl Parade. More than 800,000 people along the parade route glimpsed the float carrying these pioneer aviators, who range in age from 89 to 94 years old.

“Escorting the WASP and their Float in the Rose Bowl Parade and spending time with these wonderful, positive, interesting, sharp-minded, 89- to 94-year-old WASPs was an amazing honor,” Tobias said. “You should hear their stories firsthand.”

Tobais herself knows a few things about firsts for women in aviation thanks to a particular aircraft holds a special place in history as well as Tobias’s repertoire: the 1903 Wright Flyer. This challenging aircraft has been successfully flown by only a few, and Tobias is the first and only woman to have flown an exact replica.

“The 1903 Wright Flyer is a notoriously difficult airplane to fly. Consequently, few besides the Wright Brothers have been successful. I am still filled with awe from the four flights I had the opportunity to fly,” says Tobias, who also flew the 1902 Wright Glider 24 times.

The National Aeronautic Association recognized Tobias's commitment to inspiring students through Quimby's story with a certificate of honor, just a few years before her work would be sidelined from a shoulder injury that kept her from her day job as a captain with USAirways.

After six long years of physical rehabilitation, Tobias is back flying for the airline as a first officer. In three more months, she’ll enter training to once again fly as captain.

But Tobias’s professional flying career isn’t limited to commercial flights. On 9/11, Tobias was part of a World Trade Center critical incident response team -- a group of airborne first-responders. And in 2003, Tobias volunteered her services to fly troops to and from the Middle East during the Iraq war as a civilian pilot.

Looking to the future, Tobias has set her next personal aviation challenge — to recreate Harriet Quimby’s 1912 English Channel crossing in a wire-and-fabric replica of the Bleriot used in the original flight.

Considering her many accomplishments and commitment to giving back to future women aviators, it’s clear that Tobias holds true to the advice she offers to the young people she meets at her flight demonstrations.

“Pick something of value that you’re passionate about for your life’s work,” she offered. “Then the hard work won’t feel so much like hard work, and you will have a successful and happy life.”