Valmeyer native in rarefied air as pilot

Capt. Lynn Rippelmeyer

She took an interesting path to get there, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but Valmeyer native Lynn Rippelmeyer has cemented her place in aviation history.

“We’re really proud of her,” Lynn’s mother, Doris Rippelmeyer told the Republic-Times. “She’s just always loved flying.”

Most recognize Amelia Earhart from school history teachings as the first woman to have flown an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. But did you know Lynn Rippelmeyer was the first woman to fly a Boeing 747 airliner back in 1980, and the first to captain the “Queen of the Skies” on a trans-Atlantic flight to London, England, on July 19, 1984?

At Rippelmeyer’s request, her co-worker, PEOPLExpress pilot Beverly Burns, also made history that day as the first woman to captain a transcontinental flight.

Rippelmeyer’s uniform from her flight remains in the archives at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been featured in the London Times, Parade Magazine and Scholastic News over the years.

She became the first American to be named “Woman of the Year” in England in 1984, and had the honor of meeting Princess Anne at a royalty dinner.

“It’s really been fun,” Rippelmeyer said.

Another milestone came in 1977, when she partnered with Emilie Jones on the first all-female crew for a scheduled U.S. carrier, Air Illinois, while flying a Twin Otter.

Rippelmeyer, 61, may make history again soon. She is certified to fly the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has been grounded due to malfunctions. She might be among the first women, if not the first, to fly the new airliner for United Airlines.

And to think, it all started while tagging along with a friend for an interview to be a TWA flight attendant in 1972 while pursuing an English teaching degree at the University of Illinois.

“I wasn’t even going to interview,” the 1969 Valmeyer High School graduate recalls.

Both were hired, and Rippelmeyer’s long career in aviation began. Working as a flight attendant, she dealt with the negative aspects of what was then a male-dominated work environment.

“Harassment was huge back then,” she said. “It was just normal in the workplace. The male pilots were in charge, and we were just ‘waitresses in the sky.’ I didn’t take it personal.”

A couple of years later, her interest in flying led her to befriend a husband-and-wife team of flight instructors who offered lessons on their J-3 Piper Cub seaplane.

In between trips as an attendant, Rippelmeyer learned to fly.

“It was just entertainment at that time,” she said. “But I was addicted.”

Soon, this love of flying propelled her to use six months of personal leave from her flight attendant job every year for four years and gain private, commercial and instructor licenses, plus instrument and multi-engine ratings.

Still at TWA, Rippelmeyer noticed that some male pilots seemed resentful of her flying efforts. Others were helpful.

“They would say that it was something a woman just couldn’t handle emotionally or physically,” she remembers. “There were no female airline pilots. That’s just how it was.”

In 1976, Rippelmeyer learned that American Airlines and Frontier Airlines had hired women pilots, further sparking her interest.

“I wrote to them, and they said, ‘There’s nothing about this job a woman can’t do,'” she said. “That was so great to hear.”

Her first gig as a pilot came for Air Illinois in 1977. She returned to TWA in 1978 — now as a pilot — but still found some male colleagues to be hostile.

“It was rough. They were angry. To them, I was taking a job from a man,” she said.

In 1980, Rippelmeyer joined Seaboard World Airlines, which offered her the chance to fly a 747 freighter. She credits Capt. Carl Hirschberg for giving her the confidence to do what no other woman before her had accomplished.

“He told me, “It’s all hydraulics. You’ll learn to fly it like everyone else,'” she recalls.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1981, she became one of just 10 female airline captains in the world.

She focused on raising her two sons and two step-children from 1988 to 1998 rather than flying, then moved to Houston and again took flight — this time for Continental Airlines and at a much more relaxed pace.

She captained 737s to Honduras for one-day trips up until this year, allowing her to take the kids to school in the morning, go to work, and be home in time to pick them up and have dinner together.

Now, Rippelmeyer is just waiting for her next plane.

“I can’t wait to get up in the air again soon,” she said.

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