I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with retired Captain Joy Walker, the first female pilot at Delta Air Lines. This real-life Wonder Woman began flying for the airline in 1973, fighting gender stereotypes while pursuing her love of aviation and adventure.
Captain Walker might be retired, but she is as active as ever. She represents Delta and women aviators by speaking at events and encouraging young women to aim high!
She still flies often–for fun. Her backyard hangar of planes and private air strip give her ample opportunities to go airborne.
Read on and get to know Captain Joy Walker!
KR: What piqued your interest in flying?
JW: I went to college for engineering, but was not a great student. My professor was a pilot and encouraged me to fly. I started by skydiving, but after a couple of broken legs, I realized it was cheaper to fly the plane than to jump out of it. I worked seven part time jobs in order to pay for my flight lessons.
Eventually I took a job flying in Africa as an FAA examiner for Safari Air Services, which was actually the CIA, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Two years later, in 1973, I was hired as the first female pilot at Delta Air Lines. I was a flight engineer on the DC-8.
KR: What was it like in the early years as a female airline pilot? How did people react to a woman in the cockpit?
JW: I was a novelty. People would point and stare. It took some time to be accepted as a female pilot, from both colleagues and passengers. Back then, even the flight attendants were not on my side. I remember one time after I made a bad landing, I heard a female passenger say, “With that landing, we should have known it was a female pilot.”
I also remember my hat being a big deal. They insisted I needed a special hat, that I couldn’t possibly wear the same hats as the male pilots did.
KR: We all have inner superpowers. What are some of yours?
JW: I am persistent. I don’t give up. While it drove my mother crazy when I was a girl (she said I was stubborn as a mule), it has served me well in my career. Basically, my worst trait growing up became my best asset for career success.
KR: Joy, I asked your coworkers and friends how they would describe you and here’s what they had to say…cheerful, humble, smart, confident, adventurous, caring and always willing to help others.
JW: Well, bless their hearts.
KR: Can you tell us about an influential woman in your life and how she inspired you?
JW: My mother was a tough, but kind woman. She always supported me and my four brothers, encouraging us to follow our dreams. She was a woman ahead of her time, believing gender shouldn’t matter. For example, one of my brothers wanted to take shorthand so he could be better at taking notes in school. Of course, the school wouldn’t let him because he was a guy and shorthand was for women. My mom went to school and let them have it. She believed you ought to be able to do what you’re capable of doing. Period.
KR: Your mom sounds like a wonderful role model. What else can you tell us about your childhood?
JW: I grew up in a small town near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My dad was a pro baseball player so sports were a big part of my childhood. I played baseball, basketball, archery and was on the rifle team. I think we need to encourage today’s girls to participate in athletics. In sports, we learn the value of teammates and teamwork. It’s a great way for girls to find respect for other girls.
KR: If you could have one super-human power, what would it be?
JW: To fly without a plane! Just think of the money I could save on fuel.
KR: Knowing what you know at this stage of your life, what words of wisdom would you give to your 20-year-old self?
JW: Earn money earlier in life so you can fly and buy your own plane.
KR: Any advice for other women?
JW: As women, we need to protect each other and assist each other. This is so important. If we don’t do this, we could lose all of the advantages we’ve worked so hard to earn.