Some kids grow up dreaming of becoming a pilot. For Bartal, the urge didn’t hit until she was in her mid-20s and had already earned college degrees in unrelated fields.
“After all that schooling, I realized it wasn’t really what I loved to do,” she said. “I’ve always loved airplanes. I flew a lot as a kid. One day I was in the Atlanta airport, and I saw this lady walking with her (pilot’s) bag and hat and I decided, I really want to do that.”
Bartal, 28, grew up in Wichita and attended Andover schools. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and zoology from Miami (Ohio) University and a master’s degree in digital cinema from DePaul University in Chicago. She spent a couple of months looking for work, the eclecticism of her academic background leading some potential employers to wonder if she really knew what she wanted to do.
In fact, she didn’t.
She thought about becoming a flight attendant.
“It never really occurred to me that women flew airplanes,” she said.
After the moment of self-realization in Atlanta, Bartal started researching aviation schools and found Hesston College Aviation. She enrolled in 2009 and completed her work at an accelerated pace.
Bartal worked four months as a flight instructor at Mid-Continent Airport before American Eagle, a regional affiliate of American Airlines based in Fort Worth, offered her a job.
“It was a good experience seeing people go from zero to being able to fly,” she said.
As a first officer, Bartal assists the captain but also flies the aircraft. “We just basically take turns,” she said.
She’s assigned to a 50-seat Embraer jet. First officers typically train for a couple of years before becoming captains themselves.
Bartal lives in Wichita but is based out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, meaning she actually spends little time here. Most of her routes take her to the Northeast.
When she’s home, she mostly relaxes.
“It is a very stressful job,” she said. “I work in one of the busiest airports in the world, so especially flying in and out of there, things can get really busy.”
Bartal realizes she’s something of an anomaly. She has seen a figure that about 3 percent of commercial pilots are female.
“It doesn’t allow you to be at home and start a family. You’re gone a lot. It’s always been kind of known as a male profession.”
But Bartal likes it, including the looks and questions she gets from passengers.
“A lot of people walk in the airplane and say, ‘This girl’s flying?’ A lot of people talk to me in the airport. I’ll have them say, ‘You’re really young.’ Then they’ll ask me my life story.”