Retired pilot recalls struggle to earn respect as female captain

WESLACO — Nancy Welz Aldrich once stood before a roomful of men who laughed at the notion of a woman learning to fly an airplane. So the single mother of two did the only thing that came naturally to her: she proved them wrong.

That was almost 40 years ago, but the resident of John Knox Village in Weslaco can still vividly recall the moment she inquired about becoming a pilot at her local airport in Boulder, Colorado. After all, it came during a pivotal point in her life, in which Nancy, now 76, had made a decision that may have charted a course for change in the industry.

“It wasn’t just a few, but the whole room that was laughing at me,” Nancy remembered on Thursday while sitting inside one of the lobbies of the cozy retirement home. Beside her was a copy of “Flying My Dream: Hard work and God’s favor lead to success for ‘Captain Gramma’” — an autobiography she penned and was published in 2012.

“Females weren’t pilots and didn’t have a college education, and I was also 37 years old,” she added. “Most professional pilots started their career by the time they were 25. So they said no one will ever hire me to be a pilot.”

Except for its inclusion in her book and motivation to succeed, the naysayers had little impact on her as she made good on her intentions to do what had always been told to her was impossible.

“At that time, it was unheard of that anything like that could happen, but it did happen, and that’s why I give God the credit,” she said

Nancy’s story began when she was just 5 years old. Born and raised in Houston, she would lie in the backyard of her Garden Villas home and watch planes fly overhead. Those moments were enough to inspire her to become a pilot someday. Still, she didn’t move on her dream until after having a family.

“My parents had this wonderful idea back in the 1950s that girls went to high school, then got married and started families, and that’s what I did, but as far back as I can remember I wanted to fly airplanes,” Nancy, a graduate of Assembly of God High School in Waxahachie, Texas, said.

Ironically, it was struggle that led her to the career she always wanted for herself. But it also wasn’t without taking a leap of faith.

“I was divorced and I had a dead-end job that was going nowhere,” Nancy prefaced about the circumstances that led her to finally learning how to fly. “Then I got an income tax refund check of $990, and it was $1,000 to learn how to fly. So like I said, God put me at the right place at the right time all throughout my career.”

She identified her faith many times as the driving force behind efforts that began in 1977, when she learned to fly, and which culminated about eight years later in 1985, when she was hired as a pilot for United Airlines.

Though stopping short of calling it discrimination, Nancy said gaining respect as an equal among her fellow male pilots still proved difficult — this even as she climbed the ranks and became a captain.

Recalling some of her first officers resenting the fact that they had to take orders from “Captain Gramma,” a playful moniker she adopted from friends who affectionately referred to her as such, Nancy looks back on those experiences with a sense of humor.

“It’s funny, because they thought being a pilot was this real macho thing,” she said with a smile. “I was United’s first grandmother captain. I don’t know … I think several people were amazed that I got to be a captain with a major airline, but most people who knew me also knew I’m a little on the tenacious side.”

Before retiring at the age of 60, Nancy said she was able to live her dream and travel the world, including South America, Africa, India, China and all over Europe. But it was the view she enjoyed the most.

Among the more memorable was watching a sunset along the horizon before watching it rise again moments later — this from a vantage point of just over her shoulder and near the Arctic Center during a flight from Chicago to Frankfurt.

She’s also seen the Northern Lights and Halley’s Comet from as high as 37,000 feet.

“One of the reasons I love to fly is because of the beautiful sights you see looking out the window,” Nancy added. “Once you get above a thousand feet, you see all the beauty of the world. That’s one of the things pilots are addicted to … beautiful sights. But I’m not sure if I can pick out any one thing as being more exciting than the others. Like I said though, that night when I watched the sun go down and tracked it across the horizon and watched it come up again was spectacular.”

Such sights helped pass the time of working anywhere from 10 to 17 hours a day.

The proud mother her son and daughter, Chris and Dawn, and her grandchildren looks back on her time as a pilot fondly, and while she misses sitting in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, settling into retirement has also proven rewarding.

Proving to be an active retiree, Nancy now shares her struggles to become a pilot and the life she led once accomplishing her goal at speaking engagements. For information on booking Nancy, visit or call her at (830) 279-4451.