Love is in the Air: When Pilots Marry Pilots
From the moment women rightfully returned to the cockpit as airline pilots, Cupid’s arrow has proven that love is in the air. Indeed, the May 1978 Air Line Pilot article “First Ladies of the Flight Deck” highlighting pioneering female pilots noted that “more than one husband-wife pilot family” had been established just five years after women pilots made their way back onto the flight deck. (This coming decades after Helen Richey first broke the gender barrier in the 1930s.)
And why not? Other pilots understand the unique career demands, they appreciate the vagaries of the work schedule, and they know the struggles associated with career progression. But there are challenges, too—home maintenance, conflicting schedules, and perhaps child care down the line. “Time off and coordinating schedules can be major stressors,” said Capt. Paul Ryder (ExpressJet), ALPA’s national resource coordinator and one half of a “two pilot, one home” couple. “Just taking care of regular items that are normally done on a schedule—things like home maintenance or kids’ doctor appointments—can create stress.”
“Pilot personality” plays a role as well, as pilots generally tend to be “Type A” personalities who are used to being in charge. In the June–July 2016 issue of Air Line Pilot, Capt. Bill Licht (United) wrote, “Airline pilots tend to be self-sufficient and may have difficulty functioning in team situations.… They have difficulty trusting anyone to do the job as well as they can.” This can make a relationship—the ultimate team exercise—more difficult.
How do pilots married to other pilots navigate the unique challenges well enough to make the relationship work? To help answer that question, Air Line Pilot spoke to six married couples―each made up of two ALPA pilots. Added up, these couples have almost a century of experience together. None of them proclaim to have a perfect marriage or believe that they have all the answers. Instead, their stories are meant to inform, to inspire, and hopefully to provide a pathway for those already in or those considering a similar relationship.
Before there was Tinder
As with individuals in other industries, some pilots proclaim that they’ll never date another pilot. Others, however, may prefer to date pilots because they believe that only another pilot can truly understand the lifestyle. “Really, it just seemed easier to date one,” noted F/O Jennifer Buraglia (Jazz Aviation). On the flip side, Capt. Ryan Pullis (Virgin America) acknowledged, “I never thought I would find myself in a relationship with another pilot simply because there are so few female pilots out there.”
Ryan and Kat Pullis on their wedding day.
The majority of pilots likely fall somewhere in between―having no preference, pro or con, when it comes to dating another pilot. Of the pilots interviewed, only one—F/O Fallon Winslow (Alaska)—said she had a hard-and-fast rule. “I made a ‘no pilot’ dating rule very early in my career. But I’m a sucker for a man in uniform, and when I met Andy my rule very quickly became modified.” That would be her husband of six years, F/O Andrew Winslow (Alaska), who had no issue with dating another pilot. “It was nice meeting another pilot because she understood our lifestyle,” he said, “and didn’t get weird about me being gone on trips like others had in the past.”
Working together can provide some clues to compatibility as well, said F/O Karen Lacy (Delta). “I remember that it clicked for me we might actually work out as a couple when I realized how easy and natural it was to fly with him,” she said. “We work as well as a team inside the cockpit as we do outside the cockpit.”
Many of our couples reported meeting while on the job or otherwise flying—at flight school, while on layovers, through commuting, or even while volunteering for ALPA. So they learned early on how the lifestyle would affect a relationship. Still, there were challenges to overcome. Capt. Claude Buraglia (Jazz Aviation) was a certified flight instructor who met his now wife when she was a student of his. He said that he discussed with Transport Canada having someone else conduct her flight test. “I didn’t want to do it because I would have probably been harder on her, worrying about how it would be perceived,” he said.
Time to change your relationship status
Capt. Cheryl Pitzer (FedEx Express) said one of the biggest benefits of a relationship with another pilot is “understanding each other’s schedules—especially knowing that trips aren’t paid vacations.” The concept of “he/she understands” was echoed in some way by most of the couples.
“I don’t worry about him getting upset if I have an unscheduled overnight and can’t make it home when I thought I would, or if I can’t get a weekend off” because he understands that’s part of being a pilot, explained Lacy.
But knowing what the life of a pilot is like doesn’t always mean accepting it immediately, as the Winslows found out early in their relationship. “She was furloughed and decided to drive her car back home across the country solo,” explained Andrew, “but she got mad at me for being on a trip and not being able to drive with her.” At the same time, however, Andrew was able to better understand her situation while on furlough—especially after she had lost her father to cancer that same year. “Andy was my greatest support system,” Fallon admitted. “He kept me going when there were times I thought my career was over.… No one else around me understood what flying meant to me”—except another pilot.
For the Pullises, establishing a foundation of trust was paramount to the success of their relationship. “Trust was the first work-related issue we dealt with,” said Capt. Kat Pullis (Virgin America). “Once we both learned that we needed to be completely honest about what we do when we’re apart—and also how to make the other person feel completely loved—trust was no longer an issue.”
‘Will you marry me?’
F/O Cammie Nakib (Delta) and Capt. Walid Nakib (Endeavor) dated for seven and a half years before getting married. “We always said we would never get married because it would be too hard,” said Cammie. “We thought as pilots we would rarely be together at the same time and how could we raise a family? But love won out and we decided we would make it work somehow.”
The Pullises took full advantage of the perks of being a pilot-pilot marriage. “The biggest benefit when we first got married was travel,” said Kat Pullis. “We could just up and go anywhere in the world! And if one of us had a nice layover somewhere, the other would just come and join.” They admit that there were also challenges early on as well. “One of the hardest challenges was making career choices that would be good for both of us,” explained Ryan Pullis. “Our career paths may have been different if we weren’t married to another pilot. We were constantly working toward being based in the same city because if you don’t have to commute you have more time together. The fact that both of us made the other a main priority has helped our relationship be successful through this crazy career!”
Generally speaking, pilots go in one of two directions in coordinating their schedules. “Either you line up your schedules so you are home at the same time,” explained Lacy, “or you stagger your schedules so one of you is always home, but you never see each other.” Her husband, F/O Jay Cowieson (Delta), added, “We value our time together and are willing to do whatever it takes to maximize that time.” Lacy remarked that it’s not an easy thing to do, but “we’ve chosen to go the more difficult route and line up our schedules because our relationship is our top priority. It can be incredibly challenging to manage our household and responsibilities when neither of us is home, but we manage thanks to friends and family.” The relative newlyweds echoed the Pullises’ tactics in taking advantage of the benefits of their career as well, accompanying the other on trips periodically. “Even if it’s just a late-night dinner in MSP or Netflix in AMA, we appreciate the ability to tag along and spend time together,” said Lacy.
‘Honey, I’m pregnant’
That scheduling decision can change when kids come along, however. “When we had our children, we bid opposite schedules so that one of us would always be with our kids,” reported Cammie Nakib. Even then, the couple made the hard decision to sacrifice for their family, with Walid bypassing a captain upgrade for several years so he could stay as a senior first officer and bid the days off as needed. “This was important to us because we wanted to raise our children with our values and morals,” Cammie explained. Added Walid, “I was very committed to her success whatever the sacrifice; I didn’t care as much about my advancement as hers. But both of us, in our early lives, decided that family comes first.” That decision doesn’t come without negatives, however. “It was hard to find time to be together,” said Walid, “but looking to the future it’s worth it.”
Other couples may be unable to make that sacrifice, and instead lean heavily on family or a nanny to help bridge any scheduling gaps. “You need help and that’s that,” said Jennifer Buraglia. “If you don’t have family close by, you’re looking at a nanny or some form of outside childcare.” She described the added childcare challenge for pilots as well, noting that most childcare centers don’t open before 7:00 a.m. and that pickup is usually by 7:00 p.m. “And not many pairings fit that window.” She also pointed to the increased workload a child brings to a home. “Hopefully you can figure out how to share it,” she said. “It’s difficult, you can’t candy coat it. You do what you can, speak up, and say what you need to. And hopefully you can both compromise enough to find a balance to make things work.”
Even without children, there are concerns and challenges. The Pitzers own a horse ranch, “and it’s hard if we’re both gone,” said Capt. Peter Pitzer, Jr. (FedEx Express). “But if we bid opposite schedules we don’t see each other.” They, too, have to lean on others for help, relying on their trusty veterinarian for assistance when needed.
Pete and Cheryl Pitzer celebrate their nuptials.
The Winslows had their first child in early 2017 and are going through a “trial and error” process to find that balance. “We plan on working opposite schedules for a while and eventually getting some help,” said Andrew. “We can trade trips with each other and bid to work on different days to make it work.” There are still sacrifices. “The idea of flying a widebody had to go out the window for me,” admitted Fallon. “While my kids are young, I want to be home as much as possible and always within range if there’s ever an emergency.”
While challenges abound, there are still benefits involved as well. “We feel that we actually get to spend more time with our children than, say, a couple with a Monday through Friday job would,” reported Ryan Pullis. Added Kat, “We have more opportunities as a family than most since we work 12–15 days a month. We’re so fortunate to be able to have these wonderful careers and be parents at the same time!”
Happily ever after
Each couple spoke of some system of give and take, divide and conquer, or sharing of responsibilities. As their relationships evolved, they were able to determine which partner was best at which activities. Most of the couples had one partner who took care of scheduling for both—taking the time and effort to get to know the systems and figuring out the best way to reach their goals as a couple. And with Claude Buraglia being a longtime ALPA volunteer, his wife Jennifer reports, “He’s my walking contract! I have a question and he knows it.”
Communication—particularly, finding the best way to communicate as a couple—was another key. “I had to get used to Pete’s New York style and he had to get used to my west coast style,” said Cheryl Pitzer. “We set ground rules early to keep the communication open and mostly not overly emotional.”
Keeping in communication is also important, and today’s technology makes that easier than ever—no more $400 phone bills like Claude Buraglia reports receiving in the 1990s. “Skype is a wonderful tool to keep you connected,” said Cammie Nakib. “Every night when one of us was out on a trip we would at least Skype with the kids to say goodnight and I love you. As our children got older we would even do homework together via Skype.”
According to Cowieson, an important aspect of communication in his marriage is something called “positive sentiment override.” As he explained it, “It means giving each other the benefit of the doubt as opposed to automatically assuming the worst. For example, if your partner says something that could be received as hurtful, you know that they didn’t mean it that way because they would never intentionally hurt you. Instead, you ask for clarification.”
“We are each other’s biggest supporter, cheerleader, and confidant,” he concluded. “We both regard each other as the best person we know. We respect each other’s opinion, make decisions together, and support each other in everything we do.”
Walid and Cammie Nakib
Airlines: Endeavor and Delta
Years Together: 28
Years Married: 21
Children Together: 3
Advice: You have to know who you are marrying; because you’re gone from home so much you must trust that the other person will take care of things.
Andrew and Fallon Winslow
Airlines: Alaska (both)
Years Together: 8
Years Married: 6
Children Together: 1
Advice: There can be a lot of physical distance between you depending on where you’re laying over, so maintain good communication no matter what to keep your emotional distance close.
Claude and Jennifer Buraglia
Airlines: Jazz Aviation (both)
Years Together: 23
Years Married: 17
Children Together: 2
Advice: There are always lots of good things, so try to focus on those. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the negative; happiness is a choice, choose to be happy.
Jay Cowieson and Karen Lacy
Airlines: Delta (both)
Years Together: 3
Years Married: 1
Children Together: 0
Advice: Having an excellent support system of family and close friends has helped us keep our relationship healthy.
Peter and Cheryl Pitzer
Airlines: FedEx Express (both)
Years Together: 17
Years Married: 6
Children Together: 0
Advice: Things won’t change even if everyone tells you they will. They can stay great!
Ryan and Kat Pullis
Airlines: Virgin America (both)
Years Together: 17
Years Married: 14
Children Together: 2
Advice: The road is hard, but it fosters such an incredible life filled with so many amazing experiences.