Pilot Angela Masson (on the left in this photo from 1976) made her name as an aviation pioneer. (Photo/Courtesy of Angela Masson)

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The First Woman to Fly a 747 Keeps Breaking Barriers

Angela Masson paved the way for women in the commercial cockpit — and she holds four USC degrees.

August 26, 2019 Benjamin Gleisser

During her first flying lesson, Angela Masson ’71, MA ’75, MPA ’75, PhD ’76 could barely contain her excitement as the plane took off. What the 15-year-old didn’t expect was the Cessna 150’s door suddenly flying open when the plane was in mid-air because the instructor hadn’t shut it properly. Anyone might assume she would stay permanently grounded after the experience. Yet Masson couldn’t wait to get back into the cockpit.

Flying had been her father’s suggestion. “I wasn’t doing well in school and my family wanted me to find something positive to keep me interested,” she says. After that memorable first lesson, Masson would go on to set the record as the youngest person to fly coast to coast in a high-performance aircraft when she was 21.

First Female Pilot

She was the first female pilot licensed to fly a Boeing 747 and the first woman to become chief pilot at American Airlines, where she flew for 31 years. Today, she teaches at the St. Augustine High School Aerospace Academy and at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Every day, I try to share with my students the love of flying,” she says. “Aviation is a lifestyle. There’s something sparkly in it for everybody. It gives you a reason to wake up in the morning and play with the reality of being alive.”

Over her career, she has also cleared the flight path for other women. In her first job as a flight instructor at a military academy, her students were all men. She soon learned that women couldn’t become military pilots. The issue became her doctoral thesis topic at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

“The place where I was teaching had two bathrooms, and both were for men. So I wrote ‘WO’ in lipstick in front of the word on one of the doors,” Masson remembers with a laugh. “There was a law on the books that said, essentially, ‘Women shall not fly for the military.’ I thought, Wait a minute, why can’t we be pilots? The military’s excuse was they didn’t have helmets that would fit us.”

A female Navy pilot who flew helicopters (which was allowed, since the military didn’t consider them aircraft) entered Masson’s dissertation, “Elements of Organizational Discrimination,” into the Congressional record. The prohibition on female pilots was lifted soon afterward.

If an opportunity looks interesting, I’ll pursue it. Why isn’t everyone out there pursuing myriad opportunities? Life offers an abundance of joyous adventure!

Asked to pick her proudest moment, Masson rattles off a dozen answers. Her first solo flight. Getting her passengers to their destinations safely on every flight. Patenting the Electronic Kit Bag in 1999, a digital device now used on nearly all planes to store flight information. Being inducted into the California Aviation Hall of Fame in 2018 — “It was an honor to get that recognition from my peers, and all the people I always looked up to.”

But Masson doesn’t think of herself as a trailblazer. “I consider myself an inquiring person,” she says. “If an opportunity looks interesting, I’ll pursue it. Why isn’t everyone out there pursuing myriad opportunities? Life offers an abundance of joyous adventure!”