Memoirs recount life of airline pioneer

Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat /

Sonora author and historian Janet Irene Atkinson has published a new book, this one recounting the accomplishments of the first female pilot for a major U.S. airline.

That would be her daughter, Sari March Schnepf-Terry, whose career and life would later both be ended by lupus.

"Wings of Eagles" is Sari's story, told through her own journals, with editing and additional information by Atkinson.

"It seemed appropriate that a book should be written not only to celebrate her determination to achieve her life-long goals, but also to profile her indomitable courage and unshakable hope, and finally her heroic battle with a devastating illness," Atkinson said.

Sari Schnepf, growing up in Van Nuys in Southern California, drew her first picture of an airplane at age 3 and began writing her journals at age 14. They detail her life's dream of becoming an airline pilot at a time when women were not accepted on the flight decks of the major airlines.

Sari - pronounced "Sir-ree" - made her first solo flight on her 16th birthday. She went on the fly for several commuter airlines, and in May 1978, at age 22, became the first female first officer, or co-pilot, for Air New England.

In 1981, Sari made history by becoming the first female pilot hired by Pacific Southwest Airlines, whose roster included 550 men. She continued as a pilot with PSA and its successor, USAir, until 1993, when she fainted in the cockpit of an airborne 737 jetliner and was soon diagnosed with lupus, a disease that attacks the body's immune system.

Unable to continue flying, she took a minimum wage job at the small Santa Paula Airport, where she met a pilot named Michael Robert Terry. The two were married aboard an airplane in flight on Oct. 10, 1998.

Sari's health continued to decline and she died in 2002.

Two years later, Michael Terry sent Atkinson several boxes of papers that turned out to be Sari's journals and Atkinson spent the next eight years compiling and annotating them.

Several years of memoirs were lost after Sari stopped handwriting the entries in 1987 and started using a computer that was later donated to a school before the information could be retrieved.

From that point on, Atkinson contributes her own recollections about the later years of her daughter's life.

"Not one book had been written about female airline pilots," Atkinson said. "You have Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, but neither one of these women were airline pilots, hence 'Wings of Eagles.' "

Both Atkinson and her former husband, aviation magazine publisher Ed Schnepf, were licensed private pilots.

"Her father was famous in his own right," Atkinson said.

Among other things, Ed Schnepf provided the planes used in the movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and television series "Baa Baa Black Sheep."

"Sari was raised with airplanes - that's all she knew," Atkinson said. "Everywhere we went, we flew. We never drove anywhere."

When 10-year-old Sari, her parents and younger sister Tari were over the Gulf of Mexico and one of the engines failed, Sari calmly asked if it was the left or right engine.

In addition to writing about the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated world, Sari's memoirs also delve into her love affairs and eating disorders, which Atkinson has left intact to create a full, honest picture of her daughter.

"I think it's typical of women in the 1970s and '80s to have a poor image of themselves in spite of their achievements," Atkinson said. "It's all in there because I think it's important."

Sari Schnepf also wrote a book of her own, "Rogue Autumn," completed in 1994, plus several screenplays and numerous short stories.

Sari herself gave permission to quote from the journal, writing "If I should die, the contents of this journal may be used and read by my family and friends … What experiences and feelings that I have had that are too personal to disclose have been stored in my head and will follow me to the grave."

"Wings of Eagles" is published by Jan Irene Publications. It is available at Mountain Bookshop and online at www.janirene.com .

The book includes numerous photos of Sari, from her youth through her flying career, along with illustrations by former Sonora resident Chris Ricker.

Atkinson, a native of Southern California, attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and Cal State Northridge with degrees in history and art history. She taught classes in art history California history and humanities at Cal State Los Angeles, Glendale College, Pierce College, Columbia College and Cal State Stanislaus.

Her other books include the "Los Angeles County Historic Directory," "Gold Rush Tales," "Colorful Men and Women of the Mother Lode," "Colorful Men, Women and Tales of the Mother Lode" and "Oysters on the Half Shell: Historic Hotels of the Mother Lode."

11897317
The Union Democrat
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