There’s a saying that goes, “horses lend us the wings we lack.”
While that may ring true for many of us, it might sound a little stale to amateur eventer Gail Keys. You see, Keys doesn’t need to ride a horse to feel like she’s flying—she’s a Captain for United Airlines and has been flying for 35 years.
Keys was flying planes long before she was riding horses. In 1982, Keys was 20 years old and working as a hairdresser—a job she genuinely loved. “I was dating a guy who was a private pilot, and we used to joy ride on the weekends. He encouraged me to take flying lessons, and I loved it! But I was just doing it as a hobby, just something new to try,” she said.
Keys committed to her training and was ready to get her license after just 1 ½ months, but she was still intending for it to be just for fun—that is until she was taking her final exam, called a check ride.
“When we finished the check ride, the FAA examiner asked if I was planning to be a pilot for my career. And I thought he was kidding! I said ‘but there aren’t any women airline pilots!’ And he said ‘no, but the airlines are looking for more women and minorities and that was one of the best damn check rides I’ve ever given. You really should pursue flying as a career.’ Then I realized he was serious. And at that moment my whole world changed,” Keys explained.
“I went back to my flight instructor and asked, ‘what do I do to become an airline pilot?’ And he laid it all out for me. I got hired at a regional airline in Charlotte in 1986, and I flew there for three years. And then I got hired by United in 1989 where I have been since,” she continued.
Being a commercial airline pilot was and still is an overwhelmingly male-dominated profession. “It was very rare for women to be pilots. The airlines were starting to hire, but it was a select few women,” said Keys.
While the number of women airline pilots has increased, women are still overwhelmingly in the minority. “And I don’t understand why the percentages are so small,” Keys added. “I don’t know if the reason there aren’t more women airline pilots is that there is just not the awareness that women can be airline pilots,” she continued. Keys is still regularly assumed to be a flight attendant or at best the co-pilot. “The flight attendants will jump in and say ‘no, she’s our Captain!’” Keys said.
Keys is based out of Washington, D.C., and flies mostly out of Washington Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport. “I cannot think of any other career that for me personally would be as satisfying. I’ve been on the Airbus [A319 and A320] for a long time, and I’m pretty senior so I get to pick a pretty good schedule,” said Keys.
Retiring from flying has been in the back of her mind, but never seems to gain any traction. “Mandatory retirement is age 65, so, I have just under nine years before I have to retire,” said Keys. “For the past four or five years, I’ve been saying, ‘In three years I’ll retire,’ but I still enjoy my job. I just absolutely love to fly. I’m not one of those people who gets up every morning and goes, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to drive to the office; I have to fight traffic,’ because I drive to work once a week, fly my two-to-four day trip, and then when I’m off I drive home. And I don’t have to get back on Interstate 66 until the next one,” Keys added.
Keys was a seasoned pilot by the time she starting riding. “I’ve only been riding for about 10 years,” Keys said. “My friends were riding, and I started taking lessons from Christine Bach.”
After some time, she began riding an off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding of unrecorded breeding owned by Leigh Anne DeAngelis, who’d competed to preliminary. “His barn name is Ivan, and his registered name is Castle Rock. I bought a farm about a year and a half ago, and my farm name is Castle Rock because he means so much to me. He started it all,” Keys said.
Ivan proved to be an incredible and patient teacher for Keys. “He’s very quiet, a sweet guy—a gentle giant is how I would describe him. He loves to jump, and he has taken very good care of me over the years,” she said. “He has put up with a lot from me not being a very experienced rider getting on this very well-trained horse. He tries to test you a little bit to see what he can get away with, but he’s not mean. He’s been a phenomenal teacher,” she continued. After some time, Ivan became Keys’ first official horse when her then-husband gifted him to her.
Keys began taking lessons with Carron Hernandez, owner of Paddington Farm right across the road from her farm in Hume, Va. Keys had always had a tough time unlocking the potential in the dressage with Ivan. “He was a brilliant jumper. He was fantastic in the stadium jumping and cross-country. But the dressage; I always had such a hard time figuring out that feel. He knew how to do it, I just didn’t know how to ask,” Keys said. “And that’s where Carron came in and really, really helped me understand. She breaks riding down and makes it very understandable and will go into the mechanics of why you need to do this or that to help the horse,” she added.
Keys and Ivan did a little bit of everything—local dressage and jumper shows, and combined tests as well as recognized events. But one thing that she does not have on her list of things to do is foxhunting, at least not anymore. “The people who had him before had foxhunted him, and they said ‘boy he is so much fun you just hold on and go!’’’ Keys said.
She did it a handful of times, but finally admitted it wasn’t for her. “The last time I did it I swore to God above that I would never do that again. [With foxhunting] you just hold on and go. I’m not that kind of rider—I’m a pilot! I’m a type-A personality, and I gotta have some control! I had no control, I was just a passenger, a frightened passenger!” Keys said laughing.
At 19 years old, Ivan has shown some signs of being ready for retirement. Keys is letting Ivan tell her what he wants to do. “He loves showing. He’s so professional when he gets in the ring. He knows his job, and he’s really, really good at it. He’s the Thoroughbred that just gives his entire heart and soul into a show, and he tries really hard. He lives on my farm, and he will live out the rest of his life here,” she said.
A few weeks ago, Keys bought her next partner , an 11-year-old American Warmblood bred in West Virginia and also a chestnut. “When I bought him they were calling him Dixon. I’ve heard the old wives’ tale that it’s bad luck to rename a horse, but I wanted to do something with his name. I sent a group text out to my four kids, and my son came up with Mason Dixon,” said Keys. “So, we’re not really renaming him, just elevating him!” she continued.
Right now they’re just getting to know each other, but Keys is already excited about what lies ahead. “He’s a funny little guy, and I think he’s gonna be a lot of fun when I really learn to ride him,” she added.
Keys wants to do a bit of everything with her new partner just like she did with Ivan. But in terms of eventing goals, she’s happy to hang out at the lower levels. “I think novice is probably as big as I feel comfortable doing. I don’t have anything to prove. I want to go out and feel comfortable and feel safe. And I’ve found that I’m really competitive so if I’m going to do a show, I want to do well!” she explained.
Being really good at what she does is a common thread for Keys. “I think being a female pilot, we’ve had to really prove ourselves to get where we are today in a predominately male environment. We’ve really had to work hard to earn our spot. And so, I think for me personally I’m really anal about doing things perfectly. I want to do it right. And it’s the same with riding, if I don’t do it right, I want to work on it until I can do it right,” she said.
The partnership she has with an animal she can’t entirely control the way she can control an airplane provides a good ying to her type-A-need-for-control yang.
“When you’re a pilot, you’re in control. And when you ride, you don’t have as much control. The challenge of learning something completely new that involves an animal that can think for themselves and taking lessons because I want get better is what keeps me doing it. I feel like I have a long way to go to be the rider that someday I hope to be.”