FLYING Magazine

Ever since a pair of brothers from Ohio started experimenting with gliders, aviation has run in families. Some more than others. 

On Wednesday, Claudia Simpson Jones and Graham Simpson received the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award during a special ceremony at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The award is part of the agency’s recognition of safe pilots.

To be eligible for the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, the applicant must hold a U.S. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or FAA pilot certificate, have 50 or more years of piloting experience, or 50 or more years combined experience in both piloting and aircraft operations.

Applicants are required to submit three letters of recommendation from someone in the industry along with a detailed account of their aviation experiences. 

The application packets for Simpson Jones and Simpson were a little over an inch thick, and according to an FAA representative, “enjoyable reading.”

Simpson Jones, 79, started her aviation career with her first solo on December 3, 1967. As if that wasn’t enough of a memorable experience, an aviation luminary was in attendance. 

“William T. Piper was there the day I soloed,” Simpson Jones said. 

She earned her private pilot certificate in March 1968 and continued training, earning a helicopter rating, commercial certificate for airplane, seaplane rating, Airline Transport Pilot and CFI certificates, and type rating in a Boeing 737. She was one of the first women to be hired by a major airline when she became a first officer for Continental Airlines in 1977.

Eventually her career took her to Southwest Airlines and the captain’s seat as well. She became an simulator instructor for Alaska Airlines for a time, eventually retiring from aviation in 2000 with 24,000 hours logged.

Among her aviation accolades, she served as the first president of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21).

She didn’t learn to fly to get to the airlines, she said. Also a musician, she originally learned to fly as a means of transportation, flying her band around in a Piper Cherokee Six.

“I had maybe 40-something hours at the time, and the band would just jump in the airplane and we’d go,” she said, noting that music remains a big part of her life.

She was working as a CFI when she intercepted her younger brother Graham on his way home from high school. Ten years his senior, she was in charge, she said. Simpson said he remembers her telling him, “We’re going to the airport for an hour,” and she then gave him a flying lesson.

Graham Simpson soloed on September 23, 1970, in a Piper Colt and earned his private pilot certificate in 1971 right after his 17th birthday. Like his sister, he spent the next few years adding ratings, including commercial, helicopter, instrument, CFI, Flight Engineer, ATP, and type rating in a B-737 and Airbus A320. 

Simpson spent 41 years at the airlines, racking up more than 30,000 hours. Some of those were flown in the former Piedmont Airlines 737 now on display at the Museum of Flight. 

“The last time I was in this airplane was in 1985,” said Simpson, taking the left seat for a photo op with his sister.

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