Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pilot Leslie Reynolds Taylor took a dream and flew with it

SOUTH KITSAP — The take-away from the life of Leslie Reynolds Taylor is this: “You live your dream, go after your dream. Don’t let anybody or anything get in your way.”

Taylor’s was to pilot the big commercial jets. At 60, the South Kitsap resident with lime green fingernails and turquoise-tinted glasses pilots the Boeing 727s through 767s, and DC-9s.

She has flown for 43 years, the past 25 of them for United Parcel Service. Her life at its best is at the controls far above the clouds. She’s wanted to be there since she was 5, when her father put her in his Cessna.

“The thrill of putting that power to the airplane and flying that airplane is above anything you can imagine,” Taylor said.

Many along the way would have stopped her. Male captains angrily ridiculed her even as she landed planes. A few encouraged her. A few was all she needed.

“I was very blessed to have the mentors I have had,” Taylor said.


Small, shy and roly-poly, she didn’t fit in with the cool kids at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor.

“I ran with the hoodlums,” she recalled.

A lesson she learned early was grueling work brought reward.

At 16, she had scrubbed enough dishes at Pearls by the Sea to put $2,500 on a 1967 baby yellow Ford Fairlane.

At career day, she was the only girl at the pilot table.

Back then, girls didn’t fly unless they were flight attendants.

“I don’t want to be in the back of the airplane. I wanted to be in front,” she said. “I had that burning desire to fly airplanes and I didn’t want to do anything else.”

The next stop was Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, where she found just one other female in the commercial-aviation course. Like she did for the Fairlane, she called on sheer determination.

“I would stay late at school and beg, borrow and steal flight hours,” she said.

But the tests for various flying certifications at Clover Park might have been written for men, not women. She repeatedly tried and failed, until one of the instructors changed the testing technique, adding more oral questions covering the same material. She began to respond.

“Every one of those certifications I failed six times each before the seventh time, I passed,” she said.

After Clover Park, it was on to Ocean Shores. At 21, she was issued a four-passenger Cherokee low-wing, radio and cash box and told to start a ground school. The runway ran through a golf course.

“I ended up teaching 10 percent of the town to fly,” she said.

But teaching retirees how to fly wasn’t the entire dream.

“My mission was to be an airline pilot. This was just a steppingstone,” she said.

More dues-paying came with a similar stint in Palo Alto, Calif.


At 28, she landed her first commercial job as a co-pilot for Cascade Airways.

She adored flying passengers aboard her Beech 99 between small cities in Washington and Oregon.

But co-workers’ machismo was really bearing down. Her captains treated her “like garbage.”

“I wasn’t well-liked. Girls weren’t supposed to fly airplanes. I was taking jobs away from men.”

Passengers didn’t come to her rescue.

Some disembarked when they spotted the female co-pilot. An elderly woman wrote a two-page letter to Taylor’s boss complaining the flight attendant did nothing except sit in the seat next to the captain and talk to him.

“I laughed; it was the funniest thing,” Taylor said.

All that changed when she was co-piloting a Beech 1900 out of Spokane. They’d just left the runway when smoke and flames burst through the cockpit. Taylor glanced down and saw flames shooting out of a panel and wrapping around her legs.

“We had a fire,” she said.

The captain took the plane to 700 feet, circled and descended. They’d cut the electricity, opened the windows and cleared the emergency exits during those excruciating seconds on the way down.

Taylor tore the cabin curtain aside.

The white-faced passengers uttered not a word.

Taylor was honored for her courage in 1984 by the national Order of the Daedalians, an esteemed pilots’ group. She was the first woman to receive the award in its history.

Cascade went under as deregulation rumbled through the airline industry.

Her next stop was co-piloting a 737 for Sunworld Airlines out of Las Vegas. At times, it seemed that the larger the jets, the worse the guys. They accused her of sleeping her way up. Like before, she had a small cheering section and that was enough.

Sunworld also went under and by 1988 she was out of a job. She was desperate.

UPS was starting an airline and needed pilots.

“I said no way was I flying freight.”

But she soon found herself co-piloting a 747 all over the globe, hauling tropical fish, livestock and even two diamonds totaling 13 pounds.

“A weight was taken off my shoulders. Now I had a dependable job,” she said.

In 1999, she made captain.

“The very first time I got in that left seat, it was the most awesome thing,” she said.

Today, it’s easier for women pilots. They’re not such an anomaly. Many have come out of the military.


Along the way, there were a couple of marriages and a beautiful 19-year-old artist son, the light of her life.

Taylor looks back at high school and the cool kids who snickered at her dream.

“And I did it. Was it easy? No,” she said.

Today, she is single and active in the South Kitsap community, having had the idea in the first place to build the skatepark that opened in June. Many know her through the Rotary Club of Port Orchard. She keeps her pilot career quiet.

Who knows? Maybe romance will be in Taylor’s forecast. Meanwhile for fun, she travels — of all things — with her married friends. She just returned from Tahiti. South Africa’s next on the list.

“I’ll stay home when I’m old and ready to go into the ground,” she said.

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