Alumna, female aviation pioneer soars to new height at airline

Capt. Lori Legat Cline’s latest first as a female pilot is one destined to have a lasting impact on the future of her airline. The Waukegan native and 1979 graduate of Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest is the first female pilot to reach the level of managing director at American Airlines.

In her new, additional role as managing director of pilot recruitment & crew accommodations, Cline enthusiastically welcomes the opportunity to find female and other diverse candidates to fill upcoming cockpit vacancies. This is a crucial time for American and other airlines, she says, considering a huge pilot attrition is expected to occur over the next decade.

Cline, the daughter of well-known Waukegan architect Joseph Legat, believes getting an early start is key to recruiting the next generation of pilots, especially females. “If you begin the process at the college level, it’s too late,” she said. “High school, maybe, but it really should start at the middle-school level by fostering an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses.” Woodlands Academy has recently taken an active role in sparking such interest by hosting math competitions and robotics events for area middle-school girls during pre-pandemic times.  

Through American Airline’s cadet program, Cline hopes to have helped thousands on their journey into the airline’s cockpit before she retires. “I won’t be around to witness the seeds we’re sewing now bloom into full-fledged airline pilots because our cadet program takes about seven years to complete,” she said. “Since I retire within the next five years, I’ll have to enjoy the results of these efforts knowing my fingerprints were on the next generation of aviators who will represent a much more diverse demographic than what has historically been seen at American.” While doing this, Cline will continue to be an active female airline captain, which she sees as a big plus in achieving her goals.

When it comes to recruiting females, Cline certainly has her work cut out for her. Currently, women remain only about 4 percent of the pilot population. “This means a wide open career field for today's young women, but to get in on this upcoming hiring surge they will need to start now,” she said.

During her long career as a commercial airline pilot, Cline became the industry’s first-ever female director of flight safety when she was at US Airways. Cline subsequently was chosen to represent the airline during the investigation of Flight 1549 on which the 2016 movie “Sully” was based. The motion picture, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood, focuses on the investigations that followed Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger’s January 2009 landing in New York City’s Hudson River after losing both engines shortly after takeoff. Cline appeared in scenes depicting her real-life role as an NTSB investigator reenacting the crippled flight's path through simulator recreations which were conducted to determine if the plane could have made it back to land.

Cline expressed an interest in flying at an early age and received her first pilot’s license in 1978 at age 18. Three years later she was hired by a South Carolina commuter airline where, in 1983, she became the youngest female airline captain in the world.

Later, at US Airways, Cline continued to score firsts for women in her profession. She was a member of the airline’s first all-female Airbus 320 flight crew and became its first female check airman and FAA designee.

In addition, Cline has co-authored two books: “Ladybirds I, The Story of American Women in Aviation” and “Ladybirds II, The Continuing Story of Women in Aviation” and gladly has seized every opportunity to mentor young women with their eyes on the sky in need of an extra push to realize their dreams.

Cline is quick to acknowledge the foundation she got at the all-girls Woodlands Academy as a key to her success in a male-dominated career – where only the uniform changed from Catholic school plaid to airline industry stripes, as she puts it. Cline entered Woodlands as a 7th-grader at a time when the school also included pre-secondary students. “The education I got at Woodlands Academy propelled me to heights I might not otherwise have achieved,” she said. “They do such a great job in creating confident leaders. I came away with all the tools I needed to succeed.”

As Cline tackles her latest challenge, which includes increasing the percentage of women pilots, she might find some guidance in her own writings. “There is simply no limit to what a woman can achieve,” Cline says in her Foreword to “Ladybirds II.” As the 20th Century ended, she adds, women in aviation found themselves at the threshold of a new beginning rather than at the end of an era.