By Jan Mercker
Laura Savino didn’t want to be a trailblazer. She just wanted to fly.
But when she entered the commercial aviation industry as a pilot in the 1980s, breaking barriers was exactly what was required.
The Ashburn-based author released her memoir “Jet Boss” last year. Now retired after a 30-year career with United Airlines, Savino has a new career as a writer and motivational speaker on a mission to encourage girls and young women to pursue aviation careers.
“I didn’t set out to be a groundbreaker or buck conventional wisdom,” Savino writes in her memoir. “I only wanted to be a pilot.”
Savino’s career path required hard work, out-of-the-box thinking and overcoming obstacles. It also meant being confused with a flight attendant countless times. As captain of a United flight, she recalls inviting a mother and her young daughter to visit the cockpit. After a visit full of empowering conversation, Savino overheard the woman say to her daughter, “It was so sweet that the stewardess let you sit in the pilot’s seat. When the plane takes off, she’s going to come back here and you can thank her again.”
It was the kind of assumption she’s run up against over and over again during more than three decades as a pilot.
“It was too ingrained to easily get around,” Savino said.
Savino grew up in a conservative Catholic household in New Jersey, where her parents ran a clothing store. In her memoir, she remembers her mother rushing home from work each day to get dinner on the table. Most pilots in the ’70s and ’80s had either a military background family connection to aviation, she says, but she had neither.
“I had never met a pilot. My parents had never met a pilot,” Savino said.
But Savino was fascinated by planes from an early age, inspired in part by her hometown’s proximity to Newark International Airport. But it was a nearby regional airport that truly sparked her passion. As soon as she got her driver’s license at 17, Savino drove the family station wagon to Morristown Municipal Airport, compelled by an irrepressible curiosity. At that airport, known as MMU, she took her first flight lesson in a Cessna.
“It was completely mesmerizing. It was beyond anything I’d ever pictured, and then I was hooked,” Savino said.
Savino got a job working the front desk for the flight school in exchange for lessons, conquering new hurdles one step at a time on her journey to becoming a commercial pilot.
“I just kept moving forward one very small step at a time. I had no grand ambitions. … I certainly didn’t picture myself becoming a captain with United Airlines,” she said. “I just wanted to earn enough money to go up in the air again.”
Savino was welcomed into the community of aviation professionals at the airport as she moved from her first lesson to getting her pilot’s license.
“There’s a whole community at any airport,” she said. “I was completely accepted there as a pilot.”
Meanwhile, Savino encountered resistance from her parents and hurdles from school officials and hesitated to tell school friends about her passion for aviation.
“I was a cheerleader,” Savino said. “I had two completely different worlds.”
Despite high grades and top scores on aptitude tests, Savino’s high school counselor discouraged her from taking high-level math and science courses out of fear that it would ruin her GPA. Savino had heard about Purdue University’s legendary aviation program from her network of friends at MMU and knew it was where she wanted to go. But because her high school transcript was light on STEM classes, she didn’t initially get accepted to the aviation program. But Savino had a plan: she applied and was accepted to study art at Purdue, then worked her way into the flight program over the course of her freshman year.
“It was not quick and it was not easy,” she said.
After graduation, Savino focused on logging the flight hours she needed to become a commercial pilot. She became a flight instructor, teaching at Purdue, MMU, and other regional airports. Then she started taking on charter and freight flights, often lonely, late-night assignments.
Savino scored her first commercial job with Eastern Airlines in 1989, only to have her career put on hold by the famous strike that year. Later that year, Savino was hired by Pan Am for its domestic shuttle service in the northeast corridor, piloting multiple flights each day with old-school technology.
“Everything was hand-flown,” she said. “Just that old round dial with needles.”
Savino started with United as a second officer in 1990 and got a full taste of the boys club that was aviation in that era, with airlines full of male pilots who considered themselves “sky gods,” she said.
“Certainly, there were pilots who were not happy to see me,” she said. “It definitely was a period of adaptation for everybody. Women were generally only in the cockpit to serve coffee. … I think it hurt their self-image. They had lived in an era when pilots had this reputation for being super males, very macho. And then they see me and I’m 5’3” and 110 pounds, and I could do their job and I could do their job well.”
But for Savino, the joy and exhilaration of flying made up for the obstacles.
“Pilots just really enjoy flying airplanes. I’m still fascinated by it,” she said. “The way you use your eye/hand coordination to bring it all together and be in control of this massive machine at 40,000 feet in a pressurized tube—with hundreds of people behind you counting on the fact that you know what you’re doing.”
Her job with United brought her to Loudoun in 1993 when her hub changed from JFK to Dulles. Savino raised her two sons, now college age, in Ashburn. And her memoir tackles the challenges of balancing parenthood with a demanding career, including a story about preschool moms who assumed her nanny was her children’s mom. One of Savino’s sons is studying engineering at Purdue, and the other is training to be an aircraft mechanic.
In her talks to local students, Savino said she makes a point of focusing on different types of aviation careers.
“There are so many fantastic aviation careers,” she said, and Northern Virginia is an industry hub.
As it was for most aviation professionals, 9/11 was a turning point for Savino—and the event that inspired her to launch a writing career after losing friends and colleagues on two United flights and two American Airlines flights on Sept. 11, 2001. Savino had just returned to work from maternity leave after giving birth to her younger son and was at a training facility in Denver preparing to transition from the role of first officer to captain. She watched the events unfold in a hotel conference room surrounded by colleagues and was determined to tell the story of that day from a pilot’s perspective.
“It was such a devastating time for me and my friends and family,” she said, but also a day of cooperation and solidarity as airlines worked to safely land thousands of planes under uncertain circumstances.
In addition to her writing career, Savino reaches future pilots by sharing her story. Her talks target students from all walks of life, but she is particularly focused on boosting the representation of women in aviation. While women have made enormous strides in many STEM fields, they’re still heavily underrepresented in aviation, she says. As other industries made significant efforts to bring women into their fields, aviation was left behind. The percentage of women commercial pilots grew from 6 percent to just 7 percent between 2005 and 2020 according to FAA statistics, part of what industry experts call “flatline effect.” Barriers include industry culture, recruitment strategies and biases in education, according to a 2022 report from the FAA Women in Aviation Advisory Board, but there’s an industry wide effort to grow the numbers.
“Airlines are trying hard to diversify now,” Savino said.
By sharing her story and her path to achieving her dream, Savino is working to help young women move into STEM fields and consider aviation as a viable career choice. She participates in the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum’s popular S.H.E. Can Steam Camp for low-income middle school students in the DMV. Savino has also booked speaking engagements at Loudoun schools and community events.
“I never really gave much thought to the amazing women who preceded me and opened up doors,” she said. “As I got older and wiser, I kind of became the woman I wish I knew when I was young.”
“Jet Boss” is available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Laura Savino is scheduled to do a reading and book signing at Barnes and Noble in Tysons Corner on Saturday, June 11. To learn more about Savino and “Jet Boss,” go to laurasavino747.com.