Emily Howell Warner, Aviatrix Extraordinare

Emily Howell Warner, Aviatrix Extraordinare
Emily Howell Warner, Aviatrix Extraordinare


by Billy Walker

I first met Emily Hanrahan Howell Warner in 1958.  She was Emily Hanrahan in those days.  I was learning some basics from Jim Muncey, a flight instructor at Clinton Aviation.  Clinton was a well-known flight school operating out of Stapelton International Airport, Denver, Colorado. Muncey, a renowned flight instructor, was the person Emily first spoke with when she went to inquire about flight lessons.  Muncey became her first instructor.   Emily also became a receptionist working behind Clinton’s counter doing customer service work to pay for her flight lessons.  There was something special about Emily that told all who met her that this was a determined young woman.  Eventually, the rest of the world would know she was unstoppable.

Emily made aviation history in 1973 when she became this country’s first female to be hired by a U.S. Carrier.  The late Ed O’Neil, then Vice President of Operations at Frontier Airlines, reviewed her application with Captain Boyd Stevens, Director of Training.  They both agreed to finally give her an opportunity that would open a door locked to women in this country.   In the seventy years since the Wright’s first flight, women had been excluded from airliner flight decks.  Many women had become pilots in the U.S., but none were airline pilots.

My own mother, Frances Emily Nesbitt Walker was the first female to learn to fly in Wyoming.  That was in the 1930’s.   Interestingly, in the ’30’s there was a single instance where a female tried joining male crews at a small airline called Central Airlines.  Central was a small commuter airline that lasted a short while*.  Helen Ritchey stayed a mere two months before being forced from the cockpit by her bigoted male counterparts.  Sadly, she later committed suicide.  *Note:  There was a later “Central Airlines” based in Fort Worth, Texas that merged with Frontier Airlines in 1967.

Several women learned to fly before and after WWI.   The biggest group of women who learned to fly became pilots during WWII.  Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs) provided relief to the military for general piloting needs as the male aviators were needed for combat flying.  The Civil Air Patrol provided similar relief.  Jacqueline Cochran, through much effort and persistence convinced General H.H. “Hap” Arnold that an aviatrix contingent could provide a much needed service to their country.  General Arnold, who had resisted using women pilots because he was not sure ” ‘whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17,’ ” finally consented and sent a telegram to many women pilots that stated: AIR TRANSPORT COMMAND IS ESTABLISHING GROUP OF WOMEN PILOTS FOR DOMESTIC FERRYING STOP.  NECESSARY QUALIFICATIONS ARE COMMERCIAL LICENSE . FIVE HUNDRED HOURS TWO HUNDRED HORSEPOWER RATING STOP. ADVISE IF YOU ARE IMMEDIATELY AVAILABLE STOP.

Arnold’s telegram produced over 25,000 applications from women around the country.  The WASPs were actually a merger of the WAFS and the WFTD.  The WAFS, Womens Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron was headed by Nancy Harkness Love, while the WAFTD, Womens Flying Training Detachment, was commanded by Jacqueline Cochran.  In all, the idea came from the British ATA developed in 1940.

Even with the advances made by the WASPS during WWII, women were still excluded from airline flying.  Much bias and resistance to such a radical interference to one of the male bastions existed then.  It still existed when Emily invaded the male dominated cockpits at Frontier.  The term “cockpit,” came into use during the biplane days when the pilot was in the open slip stream.  This was later replaced by the use of “flight deck” sometime after pilots sat in enclosed surroundings.

Reference to the “Cockpit” lingers today.  Several of the old hands at Frontier had strong views of womanhood.  Some felt women belonged in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.  Many times Emily would be faced with flying on a flight deck filled with tension.  No person could have handled being first any better than Emily.  Soon, she would have most of those bigoted pilots, albeit few in number, amazed at her abilities and professionalism.   Disdain changed to admiration, for the most part, overnight.

Emily was born in Denver, Colorado October 30, 1939.  She is one of John and Emily Hanrahan’s six children.  She has four brothers and a twin sister, Eileen.  The Hanrahans were hard working people dedicated to seeing their children have a good start in life.  Emily and her siblings went to Holy Family High School in Denver.  Her oldest brother, Jack, became a mail carrier.  He passed away in 1998.  Her brother, Dennis, became a contractor while brother, Dick, is a mechanic.  The youngest brother, Pat, is a U.S. Forest Ranger.   The Hanrahans instilled high values and taught their children that they could achieve anything they set their mind on.

After graduation from high school in June of 1957, Emily took some business courses at Emily Griffith Opportunity School in Denver and worked at the May Company during this time.  Emily’s twin, Eileen, wanted to become a nurse and went on to become a flight nurse.  Coincidentally, Eileen flew once with my father, “Pic” Walker on an ambulance flight.  She became an air-evac nurse in Viet Nam.  Eileen had made her decision regarding a career path.  Emily remained undecided as to what to do about her own career.

She thought it might be nice to become a stewardess, but was uncertain whether flying would agree with her.  At the time, one of her co-workers at the May Company in Denver suggested Emily take a flight to Gunnison where her colleague’s daughter was going to college.  Emily could stay there and fly back the next day.  This way she could better evaluate becoming a stewardess.   So, one day early in 1958, Emily boarded a Frontier Airlines DC-3 in Denver and flew to Gunnison via Pueblo, Colorado.  The next day the flight was empty except for the crew and Emily.  She asked the stewardess if it would be alright for her to see the cockpit.  She was invited up front by the captain.  The flying bug bit Emily !

After arriving in Denver, she was waiting for a bus when the Frontier co-pilot recognized her and offered a lift.  He suggested that she learn to fly.  Amazed, Emily remarked:  “Do you think that’s possible ?”   She was just eighteen and utterly captivated at the prospects of learning to fly.  The possibilities far exceeded her expectations.

The door opened by Emily has allowed hundreds of female pilot aspirants to pass through.  The number grows each day.  At America West, where I was a pilot-instructor, there were 30 female pilots in the latter 1990s.  At first, when Emily became a receptionist at Clinton, her thoughts were toward becoming an airline stewardess.    However, after Emily learned of a Norwegian lady pilot that was hired to fly for Scandinavian Airlines, her aspirations to do the same in this country were certainly piqued.

Hard work and frustration marked the next 15 years as she amassed over 7,000 hours of flying experience.  Dogged and resolute describe Emily’s quest to fly.  She accumulated FAA ratings one after the other.

Emily first earned her private pilot certificate, followed by commercial, instrument, multi-engine, instructor and, later, the coveted Airline Transport Pilot ratings.   Emily was a flight instructor at Clinton from 1961 until 1967.  By 1973, when she was hired by Frontier, Emily had been assigned duties as chief pilot, Air Taxi and Flight School Manager, FAA Pilot Examiner, and was in charge of the United Airlines Contract Training Program for Clinton.   During the 12 years Emily spent flying for Clinton, she trained numerous students that went on to the various airlines.  The irony was not lost on Emily.  She taught these students and helped them progress into the airline cockpits where she strived to be.  She would persevere but not without more frustration.

In 1967 Frontier’s Director of Flight Operations, Captain John Myers told Emily,  “You have the necessary qualifications, but I don’t know if an airline will ever hire a woman.”  The late Johnny Myers was anything but anti-woman in the cockpit.  His wife, Donna, used to be both pilot and wing-walker.  Both Johnny and Donna worked for Ray Wilson’s Flight School in the years before Ray founded Monarch Airlines in 1946.  Monarch later became Frontier in a merger with Arizona Airways and Challenger Airways on June 1, 1950. Captain Myers suggested that Emily increase her multi-engine flight time and obtain her ATP, airline transport pilot rating.  This proved to be good advice.  Emily took it to heart and completed her ATP certification in November of 1968.


Ray Wilson’s Cessna DC6

In 1973, Emily was offered a chance to demonstrate her exceptional talents as an aviatrix.  Finally, Frontier responded to another of the many resumes she had submitted.  Emily was invited to an interview and simulator check.  It was not the usual interview nor was it the usual sim check.   Ed O’Neil was an exceptional individual with the ability to see far beyond the immediate time frame.  He obviously perceived that a barrier was coming down, and women would eventually be in the cockpits of America’s airliners.  Ed recognized Emily’s potential and needed only to confirm her airmanship and strength of character.  Even if she could fly, she would have to endure the discrimination and moroseness sure to exist in the male dominated atmosphere of the airliner flight deck.  Ed, as with everyone who knew Emily, discovered she was probably the best candidate available to handle the aforementioned bias.  Now, he needed to see if she could handle the controls of one of the most difficult airliners to hand fly that was in use at that time (1973).

The Convair 580 was a very powerful twin turbine powered 53 passenger aircraft that was extremely heavy on the controls.  The 580 had been converted from piston power to turbine power in the early 60’s.  The conversion allowed the 44 passenger seats to be expanded to 53.  The gross weight was increased by approximately 10,000 pounds and the speed was more than 100 MPH faster.  The original CV-340/440 could barely maintain 9,500 feet on one engine.  In the late 1940s, the Convair 240 had originally been designed as a turbo prop.  However, turbine engine development was lagging.  Therefore, the CV 240/340/440 was introduced with piston power.

The conversion to turbine power produced an awesome improvement in performance and utility.  The 580 could lose the critical engine at take-off on a hot day at a high altitude airport, climb to 10,000 feet and cruise faster on the remaining engine than the 340/440 predecessor could go with both engines running well.  One drawback to the conversion was in flight control response.  The CV-240/340/440 control response was light, while the 580 flight controls were very heavy.  Pilots used to remark they had to work out with weights for six months to be strong enough to fly the 580.  Others claimed there were heel marks on the lower instrument panel where pilots would have to brace themselves in order to pull back on the control column for takeoff rotation.  Exaggerations for sure, but it points out that Emily, as a female, would surely have trouble flying the Convair 580.

Arriving at the Frontier Training Facility, Emily was greeted by Captain Jack Robins and Ed O’Neil.  The only one of the three who was confident of her ability was Emily.  The Convair 580 simulator was sophisticated for its time.  Of course, it did not move like the modern simulators of today.  The 580 simulator at Frontier was able to replicate the feel and sounds of the aircraft.  The cockpit display of the simulator was identical to that of the aircraft.  Although motion was absent, flying the 580 simulator was still very real.  Whether by accident or plan, Emily asked Captain O’Neil if he was going to occupy the left seat.  This was not what O’Neil had planned.  It had been some time since O’Neil had flown on a regular basis as managerial duties prevented his maintaining currency.   So, he intended to occupy the observers seat.  Robins remarked:  “Ed, that’s a good idea.”   Unable to hide his consternation, O’Neil strapped himself in the captain’s position with Emily  doing likewise in the first officer seat.  Captain Robins ran the instructor’s panel.  Robins began with the explanation of the basics on the Convair 580.  Certainly, she was not expected to know the aircraft systems.


Frontier Convair 580

The test was to see if Emily could handle the stiff controls.  They would want to see her demonstrate basic instrument flying with some emergency procedures and cross winds during approaches and the obligatory V-1 cut.  Note: V-1 is the speed where if an engine fails, the takeoff must be continued.  Prior to that speed the takeoff must be aborted.  The V-1 speed is computed based on the airport temperature, elevation and weight of the aircraft and condition of some components.  Emily had her work cut out for her.  She was highly competent in light aircraft but had zero experience in large aircraft.   Due to her unique position, she would be asked to demonstrate much more than her male counterparts would be called upon to do in a pre-employment sim check.  Being first does not come without its cost.  From the get-go she handled her flying with savoir-faire along with the interaction of the instructor and captain.  O’Neil was impressed!  Emily would not know how much until sometime later.

Even the gruff sounding Jack Robins was duly impressed with Emily’s superior ability to handle the Convair.  Finally, after multiple approaches, Robins asked an exhausted Frontier pilot aspirant if she was ready to quit.  Putting on a good face, Emily remarked:  “I am ready for whatever you want to toss my way.”  If the truth were known, I think Emily wore THEM out!

It was a grueling two-hour simulator ride.  O’Neil said something to the effect that he was not sure she could cope with all he knew would confront her as the country’s only female airline pilot.  Emily looked him square and remarked, “Mr. O’Neil, I can do the job and I want this job.”  O’Neil said the job, then, was hers but she should, in effect, sleep on it and call him in the morning.  That O’Neil had a copy of Robert Serling’s book She’ll Never Get Off The Ground with him, was not lost on Emily.  She remarked to O’Neil, “I wouldn’t bother with reading that, Mr. O’Neil.”  Ed just smiled.  Robins then went into a long list of negative aspects of being a new first officer and the problems she would face along with the other new hires.   He painted a mordacious picture of the crew room and flight deck atmosphere.  Unflappable, Emily knew she would not need to “sleep on it.”  Her foot was in the door jam !

Emily called first thing the next morning.  O’Neil simply said, “Three things are important here.  It is important for aviation, it is important for women in aviation, and it is important for Frontier. ”   To Emily, there were actually four important things.  The fourth being that she finally was given the opportunity to realize her dream.  More importantly,  if she were to fail, it would not just affect her.  There was no doubt in Emily’s mind that she was being put on notice.  Emily at once found herself personally responsible for the future.

Suddenly, she was in a fish bowl with many interested eyes focused on her.  Time would prove she was certainly an excellent choice to pioneer women into the U.S. airliner flight deck.  January 29, 1973 was Emily’s new hire class date.  Soon she would be on the “Third Man” seat on the Boeing 737.  February 6, 1973 she made history by flying with the venerable Captain Swede Nettleblad and First Officer Glen Tidwell on a flight from Denver to Las Vegas.   Upon arrival back in Denver, Emily received a bouquet of red-white-blue roses from Turi Wideroe.  Wideroe had become the first female pilot in the free world in 1961.   Several female airline pilots existed behind the iron curtain prior to that.  Emily would make history every time she climbed aboard an aircraft.  Her first flight as co-pilot was on the DHC-6 Twin Otter August 1, 1974.  I remember, because I was in the left seat.  We flew that first month together and would share the flight deck several more times in the”Otter” and the CV-580.   She performed her duties very professionally.  “Excellent” describes Emily and what she’s done for Women-In-Aviaiton.


DeHavilland DHC-6 “Twin Otter”

Emily’s first flight as captain was on the “Otter” with Steve Rosevear as her first officer.  Between 1973 and Frontier’s demise in 1986, Emily would fly as first Officer and Captain on the DHC-6, Convair 580 and Boeing 737.  In addition to being the first female pilot for a U.S. Carrier, she became the first female captain; and in 1986 she would command the first all female flight crew (two years later wrongly claimed by American).   Linda Christopherson was the First Officer on that historic flight.   As of this writing Linda (shown below) is now a Captain on the Boeing 757 with American Airlines (via America West Airlines) in Phoenix, Arizona.




Following the demise of Frontier, Emily spent two years flying the Boeing 737 with Continental.  From 1988 to 1990 she flew as a Boeing 727 captain with United Parcel Service before accepting employment by the Federal Aviation Agency as an Aviation Safety Inspector. Ultimately, Emily retired as the Aircrew Program Manager assigned to United Airlines Boeing 737 fleet.  She had been with the FAA in the latter capacity since 1992.

Along the way Emily achieved great things and has been honored nationally and internationally. In 1973 she was named the Amelia Earhart “Woman of the Year” after becoming the first Woman hired by a U.S. Carrier.   She is the first woman to become a member of the Air Line Pilots Association.  In 1976 her uniform was installed in the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum.  Then, in 1983, she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame.

In 1992 she was honored by Women in Aviation Pioneers and installed into the International Forest of Friendship in 1993.  That same year she became the first Holy Family High School Alum to receive the “Outstanding Alumni Award.”  In 1994 two additional significant honors were bestowed on Emily.  First, the city of Granby, Colorado honored Emily by initiating the Emily Howell Warner Aviation Education Resource Center in conjunction with the Granby Public Library.  Second, the State of Colorado legislature, in Senate Joint Resolution 94-29 that was titled, “Honoring Captain Emily Warner for Her Achievements in Aviation History.”

Certainly, more accolades are sure to follow.  She helped her late husband Julius “Jay” Warner, develop their mountain retreat on the Colorado River near Granby, Colorado southwest of Denver.   Jay, was an accomplished fly fisherman, and a private pilot but acknowledged Emily as the flier in their family.  Her son, Stanley was in the audiovisual business and a non-flyer.  Sadly, Emily lost her son a few years ago.  He was 31.

As an FAA inspector, Emily stayed busy.  She was active in the International Ninety-Nine’s (99’s), a group founded by Amelia Earhart, Bobbie Trout and others in 1929.   She is a member of International Society – Women Airline Pilots, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Colorado Aviation Historical Society, Silver Wings Fraternity, and Friends of the Granby Airport, Granby, Colorado where the terminal was named in Emily’s honor.

Sir Richard Branson and Emily at the National Hall of Fame Ceremony

Below:  Two very famous aviatrixes – Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter with Emily – Legends of Aviation 2016

Emily is in demand as a speaker and recently was a headliner at the Women in Aviation Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.  She usually finds a way to impart her message that determination and persistence are the two traits that helped her achieve the success she has enjoyed since that memorable Frontier DC-3 flight more than thirty five years ago.  Her message is for young and old, male or female, which applying those two traits will help any of us succeed.

Emily’s book, Weaving the Winds by Ann Lewis Cooper,  is a great read.   Emily’s life story is inspirational to both the male and female species.   It was my honor to write the forward of Emily’s book.

As I mentioned to Emily a time or two, “Atta boy, Girl!”

UPDATE:  I’m sad to report that Emily has Gone West this morning on the Fourth of July 2020.   She has been declining for some time and now is flying on a westerly heading no doubt enjoying smooth air and a bright star to steer by.  “Atta boy, Girl!”

Please help with the effort to have the President recognize Emily’s great contributions by going to:


Propose Captain Emily Howell Warner be added to the National Hall of Heroes.  It’s an easy task and takes but a couple of minutes.


  1. Hi. Thanks so much for this article. I met Emily when she worked for Clinton Aviation in the 60s. I’ve lost touch with her. Do you know where she is now?

    1. Sorry, I had thought that I sent you a response. Emily is in a retirement/care facility in the Denver area. Have you read her book? “Weaving the Winds” it’s a great story about an extraordinary aviatrix!

  2. What a great read billy as only you can put the quil to paper. We’ve been friends for how long now? ??
    We’ve flown together many times At Frontier on the cV-580 and Boeing 737. Cherished every moment.
    I too had the unique privilege and honor of flying with Emily many times. Such a joy to fly with and very professional.
    So sad to hear of her passing. She touched so many of our lives. RIP great lady of aviation.

  3. Goodby emily.
    I was just your ground schoo, instructor at frontier, but you taught me! I learned what laser concentration and dedicated work can accomplish. I will miss you. God speed.

    1. Thank YOU muchly Sir Dan! I’m honored you found my story about Emily worth the read. We shared a very special time in the history of aviation being a part of the original Frontier! All the very best to you Dan!

  4. My flying hours composed of so many of our great pilots that had great history in their grabbing the sky. Miss Emily was in the left side, right side and I sit in the tail or beside the nose gear on the 737. I did not get a chance to have her as my captain at Continental when I flew from 86-2012. or whenever the hell they grabbed us up after PE. i cannot express how proud I am to have known such a woman of aviation.
    .Second Star to the right Emily.. straight on till morning—————-Denise Villont

    1. Thank’s muchly for your wonderful note. Emily would have loved your sentiments and she would have loved having you on board. RIP Emily you will always be special!

  5. Thank you, I will check into your website.I have an IT GURU, Bob Diercksmeier (RJD Creative). I will see what Bob’s thoughts are in this regard. Meanwhile, Stay SAFE!

  6. An old post that deserves to be reprieved.
    While you put together a wonderful overview of Emily’s flight history, it is my opinion that you left out one of the important traits. As a former captain and having an hour or two in those aluminum tubes, i am sure that you have noticed some differences in pilot ability. emily had what i believe to be the most important and least available skill of outstanding pilots – feel. That inate ability to connect at a visceral level with the aircraft.
    one short story with a little background. during the mid 70’s i was working for a denver company that had one customer way out in nebraska. they had graded us a grass strip next to their headquarters that was sufficient for the 182 that i and one other person would use to get to their plant. but……. a grass strip, a single engine plane and bad weather are a bad mix, so we would sometimes have to head out to stapleton and hop on the frontier ‘milk run’ to sydney nebraska. Guess who was working that route?
    one really bad day it was snowing heavily and emily just couldn’t get the number 2 engine to clean out on the otter, so we spun around and grabbed the only other available craft on the flightline – a 580. a little overkill for 3 passengers but assures that it will be below gTOW.
    I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went but somehow emily asked if i had ever seen a total performance landing in a 580. well, no, this isn’t exactly a sTOL craft. her reply- ‘let’s do it’.
    Now, on approach the runway at sydney looks like it is about 6 inches wider than the gear on a 580, she lined it up and brought the airspeed down to what seemed like was more appropriate for a j3 and touched down literally on the threshhold. at that point that big beast shuddered and felt like it had a tail hook. we turned off at the first intersection!!
    I had been flying since ’63 and to this day, that was one of the most impressive landings i have eVER seen.
    Got a few other stories about flying with one of the few that i totally trusted, but i am not sure the statute of limitations has run out with the fAA.

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