Women in Aviation: Piloting the Queen of the Skies

Gina Buhl mapped out her career in aviation long before she set foot in the cockpit.

Embry-Riddle alumna and pilot for Atlas Air, Gina Buhl ('89) stands on the runway in front of a Boeing 747. (Photo: Gina Buhl)
Embry-Riddle alumna and pilot for Atlas Air, Gina Buhl ('90) stands on the runway in front of a Boeing 747. (Photo: Gina Buhl)

Childhood Goals: Piloting a Boeing 747

Embry-Riddle alumna Gina Buhl (‘90) was a goal-oriented child, putting pen to paper and writing down the things she wanted to accomplish in her life.

“[My brother said], ‘You wanted to be three things when you grew up. You wanted to be a pilot, to fly a [Boeing] 747 and to play football for the Miami Dolphins.”

Since then, she’s checked being a pilot and flying a 747, also known as the Queen of the Skies, off her long list of achievements which also include being a simulator and line check airman, becoming a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) and performing type ratings for the 747 aircraft, an accomplishment she’s quite proud of.

“In the United States, I am the only female 747 examiner,” she said.

Women in the Aviation Industry: Then and Now

Buhl started out in the aviation industry back when you had to pay for your own flight training and the male to female pilot ratio was grossly uneven. She was one of very few females in the field and had to work harder to prove she was just as deserving to sit in the Flight deck as her male colleagues.

“You challenge me, I will know the book better than you. You challenge me, I’ll show you my flying skills. You challenge me, and I will prove I’m just as good as you,” she would tell herself when tested.

Women were placed under a microscope and any error made, regardless of how minute it may have been, wasn’t soon forgotten.

“If a woman made a mistake, and when you’re a minority in a company, nobody forgot,” she said. “But when one of the males did, no one remembered.”

Even during her rise through the aviation ranks, her experience and qualifications were always questioned. It was challenging when she was upgraded at the age of 32 as she was tested more extremely than her male counterparts. However, she proved time and time again that she was worthy of being on the Flight deck.

The aviation landscape looks quite different now compared to when her career began. Buhl has seen a huge shift in aviation, becoming a more welcoming industry for women, people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community with organizations like Women in Aviation International (WAI), Black Pilots of America (BPA) and the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA), the latter of which she attends recruiting events for on behalf of her employer, Atlas Air.

Flying with Atlas Air

Buhl has been flying with Atlas Air for 24 years and plans to stay until she retires. The company began as a 100% cargo air freighter but acquired a certificate to fly passengers in 2010. They recently purchased the last 747 The Boeing Company produced.

She has flown a variety of cargo around the world; from Formula One race cars to prime ministers, NFL teams and world‐renowned soccer teams like Manchester United. Her high‐end charters include celebrities such as Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Then there were the flights that had the greatest impact on her, such evacuating 4,000 Afghanis and flying them to safety during the Afghanistan humanitarian crisis in 2021, an event that gave her a greater, more compassionate understanding of world politics.

“[There are] so many different flights you feel proud of,” she reflected. “[You] feel a sense that you’re putting your footprint on something unbelievable.”

Buhl is moved every time she flies U.S. soldiers home after extended deployments.

“I’ve stood there and watched men and women come back to be reunited with their families,” she said. “You just start bawling.”

Proud and Supportive Parents

Buhl’s parents were always proud and supportive of their daughter and her accomplishments.

“[My parents] were extremely proud; in fact, to the point where I would tell my mom not to introduce me as ‘the daughter that’s the pilot,’ just ‘the daughter,’” she laughed.

Her mother showed her support by accompanying Buhl while she was working for a regional airline early in her career.

“My mom would literally come on an overnight with me...just to fly on the airplane back and forth to cities,” she recalled.

Her parents have since passed, but Buhl credits them for her success.

“I couldn’t have done it without them. There’s no doubt about it.”

Full Circle: Returning to Her Alma Mater

Buhl returned to her alma mater in March, a full circle moment she won’t soon forget, and neither will the flight crew.

“They said when we landed, they heard me scream at the top of my lungs – THAT WAS AWESOME! - all the way from the flight deck.”

She described a moment of reflection standing on the balcony of the Emil Buehler Aviation Maintenance Science (AMS) Building.

“There’s the [747] in the background. There’s the flight line where I instructed at 22,” she reflected. “If somebody, 25-30 years ago when I was on that flight line, told me one day I’d be landing a 747 here, I would’ve just said, ‘no way.’”

And while she has yet to don a Miami Dolphins uniform, she is happy with her career trajectory.

“I still love what I do, every single day.”