Celebrating Women Inside Atlas: Captain Aileen Watkins

Captains Aileen Watkins (left) and Lynne Rippelmeyer (right) sitting in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 holding the book 747Captain Aileen Watkins 

Captain Aileen Watkins remembers exactly when she became enamored with flying. “My father, who was a civil engineer, had been involved in extending the runways at JFK for the 747. He was invited to go to the delivery of a new Pan Am 747 in 1971 and brought me. That’s where it all began. I remember being equally fascinated with its size and its classic look. She was the biggest and the best.”

Throughout Captain Watkins’ childhood, aviation never lost its intrigue. Especially when her class studied Amelia Earhart. “That’s when I started to dream about becoming a pilot,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s however, that she really thought the dream could come true someday.

“I was watching a documentary series called “Reaching for the Skies” and one of the episodes featured Captain Lynn Rippelmeyer, the firstwoman to fly the Boeing 747. Seeing a woman in uniform really made me think becoming a pilot was possible. That image was incredibly inspiring to me.”

In a serendipitous turn of events, during an interview for an aviation scholarship, Captain Watkins shared the impact of the series with two female pilots. Unbeknownst to her, one of the interviewers was Captain Rippelmeyer.

Captain Watkins’ airline pilot career started with Continental Express; she then went to Alaska Airlines and then moved to United. Like Captain Kirby, 9/11 changed the trajectory of Captain’s Watkins’ career. She was the last new hire class at United prior to 9/11; after the tragic events she found herself out of a job. As a testament to her resiliency, she began working again in 28 days.

In 2004, Captain Watkins landed at Atlas, and she’s been here almost 16 years. She’s raised both of her daughters, and on her first flight as captain, she flew from Miami to Houston. Her husband, two daughters, and Captain Rippelmeyer watched her land on Runway 27 at her home airport, IAH (Houston Intercontinental).

When asked what the key to her success has been, it’s the advice she’s followed and shares with others: be passionate about what you choose to do, believe in yourself, be persistent, determined, and always strive for excellence.