Steering a heavy plane with limited horsepower through Reverse Cuban 8s is hard– there’s no horsepower to lift the military training plane out of a slight steering screw-up. Maneuvers must be carefully choreographed to manage airspeed and potential energy– every swoop must dovetail into the next climb– and the pilot must execute them with an acumen born of a career of experience. Syncing all that to good patriotic rock only adds a layer of climactic complexity.
For iconic pioneer of the atmosphere Julie Clark, however, it’s nothing compared to what she conquered to reach the cockpit. But the 60-year-old California native doesn’t see it that way– she was merely trying to land a job doing what she loves.
Still, the skills that will allow this Vietnam vet to knife through now-storied God Bless the U.S.A routine she’ll give local aerobat fans this weekend weren’t enough to earn her a spot in a commercial cockpit. This, despite years spent in the Navy, extensive time training pilots on the T34 Mentor plane she’ll fly in Salinas, and a wealth of demanding gigs that had her doing everything from landing prop planes on dirt roads delivering farm equipment to racing death across the Central Valley with premature babies in the back.
The reason she was initially left off the roster, says Clark: “I had indoor plumbing.” Airlines hung up on her when she called asking after the opening. Chauvinistic comments like “another empty kitchen” chased her most everywhere she went. The company that finally gave her an interview and wanted to hire her ultimately said that it wouldn’t work after all: There was no door on the men’s room at the ramp office at LAX where she would be operating.
“I stood up, slammed my hands on desk and said, ‘I’ll buy a damn door and even install it– I can’t believe after all this that’s what’s holding me back,’” she recalls. Fortunately, Clark adds, the boss didn’t recoil at her contempt, and actually admired her reaction. (The door went in.)
Thing was, Clark was already acquainted with adversity. Before she could accomplish her glass-ceiling-in-the-sky-shattering piece of history, she endured the loss of her parents. Her mom died not long after she got used to high school. Around the same time, her dad was murdered by a deranged passenger in the cockpit before air security laws stiffened– but not before he planted the seed that would germinate a lady legend.
“My first flight was in a small plane with him,” she says. “After dad died, [I] just knew I wanted to fly airplanes.”
Once Clark agreed to the rather humiliating haircut the powers that be demanded and slipped behind the controls of the major airlines, she set about cementing a flawless record, despite times that took her to crosswind-cursed runways covered in snow– sideways. “I never bent an airplane,” she says.
In the process, she moved from excluded to the pilot everyone wanted to work with. She says “flying by the book” was paramount, but having fun by her team members was just fine too.
“‘We’re gonna have a good time,’ ” she admits saying. “‘Who buys drinks at destination tonight?’ Our crews stuck together in whatever situation; I had a lotta respect by the time I retired.”
Respect and fun continue to be her companions as Clark climbs into the sky at airshows across the country, with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” booming over airfield sound systems. The song– which she spent a winter designing her now-fireworks-enhanced routine around– rings out everywhere people congregate to see her and her heavy plane conduct unlikely choreography hung from heavenly puppet strings.
Pockets of knowing airshow devotees in the crowd will murmur about what she’s overcome on the ground to achieve what she does in the sky. In the cockpit, Clark won’t be concerned with that. She’ll be too busy doing what she loves.