A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

April 2015 

Two Captains in the Family

How a young woman was inspired by her father, and his sudden death, became one of the first female Airline Captains AND an international aerobatic pilot. 

     The world was a very different place in the 1960’s.  Looking back, it was before all these dirty little foreign wars, terrorism, collapsed economies, and massive security issues.  We could label those times “the days of innocence”.  There was still trust in relationships between people, countries and even in politicians.  Mothers didn’t worry about their children, sending them off to school or out into the neighborhood to play.  If teens missed a curfew it wasn’t the end of the world.  The parents knew all their friends.  But people growing up through the ‘90’s and into this century, face more uncertainty, more dangers, government control and even police-state mentality in the name of security.  In North America, certainly one of the biggest turning points from the more carefree and so-called “easy” lifestyle, was Sept. 11, 2001, better known as 9-11. 

     No one worried too much about hijackings and terrorism in the airlines back in the ‘60’s.  It was still possible to glimpse the workings of the cockpit through the open door until 1964 when there was an incident in California that changed all that.  A Fairchild F27A twin-engine turboprop airliner operated by Pacific Airlines crashed on approach to San Francisco one morning, killing all forty one people on board.  This crash was the result of a murder-suicide.  While the pilots were flying a manual approach, a deranged passenger entered the cockpit, shot the captain and co-pilot to death, then turned the gun on himself.  The aircraft entered a dive from 5,000’, and crashed into a quiet hillside.  Details emerged in the following days that told the story.   The FBI determined that the murderer was seriously depressed, and had marital and financial troubles.  He had purchased life insurance, payable to his wife, and planned to crash the aircraft into the ocean so it would appear to be an accident.  However the cockpit voice recorder was found and the truth was revealed. 

        The first one to die that morning was the pilot, “Ernest” Clark, the 52 year old captain.   Ernie Clark was a family man who had suffered the loss of his wife the previous year.  She had died of accidental causes, leaving three teenage girls for him to look after.  The girls were orphaned when he was killed.  The family flying legacy begun by Captain Clark did not die with him.  Fifteen year old Julie, one of his daughters, would go on to a remarkable career as an airline captain and international air-show pilot.

        For Julie Clark, the major hurdle in becoming a professional pilot was the fact that she was a woman.   By working at multiple jobs and using money earmarked for her college education, she learned to fly.  Following some flight instructing and charter jobs, she pursued an airline career.  But she was told the airlines were not hiring woman pilots.  She remained positive and kept trying.   Julie’s first major break came after college in 1976, when Golden West Airlines hired her, their first and only women pilot. In 1977, Hughes Airwest (formerly Pacific Airlines, the same airline her father flew for) hired her and she became one of the first women to fly for a major airline.  Eventually she worked her way up to the rank of “senior captain” with Northwest Airlines and flew with them until she retired in 2003. 

      Captain Julie Clark may very well have faded from the spotlight soon after her retirement.  Media attention was plentiful early in her airline career.  The biggest reason for all the interest besides the story of her fathers’ death, was the fact there were so few female pilots in those days.  Julie always said her interest in aviation came from her dad and flying became her biggest goal in life.  After a few trips with him as a young girl, she made the decision that it would be her career, too.  Despite all the problems she faced, she never gave up.  

      These days, Julie still flies and commands media coverage, now as one of North Americas best-known aerobatic pilots.  Clark’s high-energy personality and colorful, impressive flying stunts have earned her the admiration of fans worldwide and a long list of awards and honors.  Her airplane is unique in the world of airshows too.   She bought her 1956 Beechcraft T-34 sight unseen in 1977 at a government auction in Alaska.  She then flew it 2,900 miles to her home in California, and immediately started the painstaking four-year process of restoring it, inside and out.  Almost all the work she did herself.

         The T-34, originally a military trainer, is somewhat of an oddity on the air show circuit.  Larger than most aerobatic planes, it doesn’t have inverted oil or fuel systems, which demands Clark’s close attention when she’s calculating her inverted flights.  Another challenge is the airplane’s low power-to-weight ratio, which makes the controls extremely heavy during her performance.  But with the multicolored wing tip smoke streaming behind, and fireworks exploding around her, Clark’s performance is a showstopper.  

        Julie Clark has faced and defeated many big challenges in her life.  Not surprisingly, she’s become a sought-after motivational speaker.  In addition to overcoming the death of her parents, Clark has survived two divorces, and the flying-related deaths of two fiancées.  These were experiences that she says have given her the strength to continue doing what she wants to do.  She hopes that relating them will inspire other women to move forward and know they can survive.

        I met Julie in 2010 when she was performing at the Arlington airshow near Seattle.  That was before I learned about her amazing stories.  She stands out in a crowd for sure!  And not just while flying her show.  Her airplane, the glitzy trailer and vehicles that accompany her around the airshow circuit all draw attention.  But it’s Julie herself that is truly the main attraction.  Her stunning good looks, bubbly personality, and warm, friendly interaction with people are all genuine and sincere.  She happily gives interviews with the media, and patiently signs autographs and chats with fans, young and old who stand in long lineups for their brief time with her.  Julie’s high energy and enthusiasm are especially impressive when you stop to realize this woman is a senior citizen. 

         Julie Clark is an inspiration to all, young and old, male and female, who might doubt they can do what they really want in their lives.  NOTHING STOOD IN HER WAY is the title of her book published in 2004.  It is a wonderfully positive story with a lot of life lessons that go beyond her success as a pilot. 

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