During this insider interview on our literary agent blog, Erika Armstrong, author of the memoir A Chick in the Cockpit (Behler Publications) shares her best tips for authors of all genres about how to write, publish, and/or promote a book. During this special interview, Erika also talks about how she worked with Mark Malatesta (a former literary agent and former AAR member turned author coach) to improve her manuscript and pitch materials, which resulted in six literary agents requesting her manuscript in a short amount of time. Then, within two weeks of her agent starting to pitch her book to publishers, she had an offer and her book is now available in hardcover.
Scroll below now to: 1) Listen to the audio interview, 2) Read Erika’s success story, and 3) See a description and reviews of Erika’s book. Click here now to get a copy of A Chick in the Cockpit and click here to visit Erika’s website.
Audio Interview with Erika Armstrong
Author of A Chick in the Cockpit
Press the play button below now to listen or click here to download the file (left-click or right-click the link, then select “Save Link As”). This recording is 68 minutes.
Click here to view and/or download a free PDF transcript
of this audio interview!
“I got a book deal!
After I started sending out my new query letter I had 6 literary agents request my manuscript in a short amount of time, which is awesome. Then, within two weeks of my agent starting to pitch my story to publishers, we had an offer. I signed a book contract yesterday. A little while later my agent told me that a TV co-producer asked for more info about my book.
By the way, the acquisition editor that fell in love with the manuscript jumped in with both feet and we just worked out our timeline for publication. She’s as passionate about getting my book out as I am, and that means everything. She read the manuscript in two days and said she couldn’t put it down. And the book is going to be published as a hardcover!
I had sent out queries before working with Mark and received zero responses. I didn’t hear from anyone—it was the sound of crickets. Even having a rejection would have been better than nothing. If they were going to give me specific feedback it would have been great, but nothing. I submitted several different kinds of queries and the last one I sent out was very formal. It was to the point and really didn’t have a lot of personality, just a dry summary. There wasn’t a lot of “voice.”
With Mark’s help, I changed the whole format and style of the agent query and book proposal. Everything had a better flow and it was easier to follow. We added a little humor and a more conversational tone, not just facts (although the new agent query and book proposal did have twice as many facts as before). I guess writers tend to be humble and we don’t think what we’ve done in life matters much, but you need to stand out among the herd of writers. Every little bit of credibility and uniqueness counts. Just one fact or detail can be the key difference to success, even if you think it’s insignificant, which I did.
When Mark helped me rewrite my agent query and book proposal, we made it easy for agents to say: “Hey, this is what makes this book stand apart!” Mark works off the idea that you should give literary agents everything they need to be able to sell your book. Why make it hard for them? They’re busy and moving fast so they might not think of half of the things you could say in your query or book proposal. If you spell it out for them, then suddenly they go: “Oh!”
One of the reasons I was able to see (and communicate) all my value is that Mark helped me create a list of the reasons why my book and I are unique. I had to answer the question, “Why does your book have bestseller or high commercial potential?” Until I had to answer that question, I didn’t realize all the reasons. Making that list didn’t just help me communicate more of my value, either; it also gave me more confidence.
When I first found Mark online, I showed my husband his website and I was like: “What do you think about this guy? Does this look like a salesman or what?” Mark had success stories all over the place and invitations to work with him, but I understand it’s a necessary evil. You have to overwhelm the person sitting in front of the computer screen wondering what to do. It’s a huge chunk of money to work with Mark (it took me 1-½ years to save up to do it). That’s why he has to talk it up. There truly is no other way. And, it works. Mark used the same marketing strategies to help me stand out from the crowd.
I would kick myself if I hadn’t tried working with Mark. I knew I couldn’t break that next barrier without help, professional help. Even the best books in the world can’t get in the door until someone helps you. Plus I was really committed to getting my book out there, and I’d already spent a lot of time and energy on the book. I couldn’t just let it go away without trying the top of the line advice. Even if Mark had failed to help me get a literary agent and book deal, I would have been okay with that. Ultimately, no matter how good Mark is at getting people to read your work, you still have to produce a great book. You can’t blame anyone else. I knew that if things didn’t work out with Mark, I’d have done everything I could.
My favorite part of working with Mark was my phone calls with him. He’s calm and sincere but also very enthusiastic. You can feel Mark thinking and processing things over the phone, and he’s able to understand you with just a few words… what you’re trying to get across. I appreciate him having that insight. I also liked having to check in, having an expectation to get things done, having deadlines and always working toward something, and keeping the momentum going. Before that I had a lot of starts and stops, and I’d set the project aside. Having accountability and learning from Mark’s experience is inspiring. It’s much more exciting to know you’re on the right track instead of doing things blindly and hoping they’ll work.
If it weren’t for Mark I’d still be floundering, sending out queries. Writing the book is the easy part. Getting published after my book was written took three years, many tears, guidance from those in the know (like Mark!), and the focus of a Buddhist monk. But, if you believe in your project, wake up each morning with the thought that you’ll do one thing to keep it moving forward, you will eventually get there.”
Author of A Chick in the Cockpit
Book Description – A Chick in the Cockpit by Erika Armstrong
A Chick in the Cockpit is the first book written by a woman airline pilot captain in the modern-day era. Erika spent fifteen years earning her wings to become the pilot of a commercial 727 Boeing Airliner, with Northwest Airlines, only to crash and burn after being arrested for a crime she didn’t commit. Erika was fully exonerated, but there’s a law that prevents anyone who’s ever been arrested, even the falsely accused, from ever flying again. As with most female disaster stories, Erika’s begins with, “There was this guy…” But Erika’s heart-wrenching tale is also funny, and it has a Hollywood ending
REVIEWS – A Chick in the Cockpit by Erika Armstrong
“In the rarified atmosphere of flying, Armstrong’s memoir of life as a female pilot gives us a fascinating glimpse into a world where men still rule. But it’s her write-from-the-gut style of story-telling and the unexpected turbulence she meets, not just in her career but in her personal life, that will captivate you. A Chick in the Cockpit is at turns riveting, informative, and break-your-heart funny.”
~ Lee Woodruff, NY Times bestselling author of In an Instant; Perfectly Imperfect – A Life in Progress; Those We Love Most; contributing reporter for CBS This Morning
“Captain Armstrong writes like she flies, smooth and professionally. She brings to her work originality and humor, which is rare in aviation literature. Her success flying the ‘heavy iron’ for the airlines is a must read for any woman considering a career in aviation or facing the challenges of balancing work and home.”
~ Darcy Vernier, 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, ATP, CFI, CFII, BA
“Captain Armstrong’s powerful message of keeping sight of ourselves and our own hopes and dreams is a winner.”
~ Dorothy C. Westby, Captain, Boeing 727, retired
A Chick in the Cockpit
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard your flight with multiple destinations. As you step off the jet bridge onto my aircraft, take a quick glance into the cockpit. Yep, that’s me sitting in the captain’s seat and that’s my first officer laughing about how he accidentally locked himself out of his hotel room. Naked. Again.
We’re both a little ripe from flying for the last five days, and this is our fourth trip leg today, but you’ll also notice that we’re still smiling. That’s because we have spent years and thousands of hours training and living an uncommon lifestyle to be up here for you. We know what we’re doing, so we have time to enjoy the here and now. We hate all the bureaucracy and company politics that go with the job, but we love being in our pilot seats. That smirk you saw on all the pilot’s faces as you walked through the terminal is from years of humble arrogance.
As you walk down the aisle and bang the heads of other passengers with your carry-on bags, look for an open bin to stow your bags. You’ll be carrying baggage for the rest of your life, so you might as well learn how to stow it properly. Make sure it’s small enough to fit and that it’s secure because if it falls out when we encounter a little unexpected turbulence, others could get hurt. Turbulence is only dangerous when it’s unexpected.
Locate your assigned seat and strap in. You are now our passenger. For the next few hours, you have to turn your life over to us. It’s hard to trust others, but it must be done if you want to get somewhere quickly. We will hand over control of our lives many times without giving it much thought because it’s what we must do as humans in a complex society. Trust and doubt, give and take are endless cycles that are part of our human experience and there are moments when you don’t have a choice about being in control. During those moments, you’ll just have to tighten your seatbelt and trust that others will get you through the storm.
Those flight attendants hustling up and down the aisle are part of our crew. You probably ignore their safety briefing, but as always in life, we don’t realize what we don’t know until there is an emergency. Those emergency exits are actually really heavy and hard to open, and I’ll bet most passengers sitting in the exit row couldn’t get those emergency exits open. But they won’t figure that out until there is an actual emergency, and then it will be the flight attendant, whom they ignored, who will save their life.
Our route today will take you through a segment of my life up in the air, and you will see things you could never imagine. Since I have been locked in the cockpit with men for several thousands of hours over the years, I have been given a perspective few get to experience. To help you see a different perspective, I am giving you a checklist to use as we move along our route. It will take you from gate to gate and when we’re done, we will have both learned a little more about what it takes to fly.
Now…just sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
- Don’t touch anything
- Keep your mouth shut
- If a copilot wishes to offer advice as to how this aircraft should be flown, be advised of the mistletoe hanging on the captain’s backside
Before a flight crew begins their duties for the day, they perform a Preflight Briefing together to discuss the known variables for that day’s flight. The captain will begin by briefing the flight attendants on potential events that are outside of “perfect day” parameters. Maybe there is an air marshal onboard, or it’s snowing, so the aircraft will need to be de-iced, or there is a delay at their arrival airport that will hold them on the ground at the departure airport. Since pilots and flight attendants don’t get paid unless the cabin doors are closed, they’ll collaborate to get the flight started, even though they might have to wait at the end of the runway.
The captain will also brief the flight attendants if there is a forecast for turbulence or bad weather, and discuss any equipment that might not be working. Airplanes are allowed to be dispatched with a variety of non-essential items not working. There is a procedure for everything. They’ll also choose a secret code word to indicate a hijacking and, inevitably, talk about what they’ll do on the layover at the end of the day. Since crewmembers often don’t know each other, the Preflight Briefing sets the stage for teamwork within a group of strangers.
The captain will then discuss with the other pilot(s) what items they have to pay closer attention. As a crew, they’ll review the route, weather, rules, and equipment list to find out what isn’t working and how to deal with it. If something is broken, they’ll check with maintenance to see if it can be fixed or put on the inoperable list. They’ll calculate performance based on weather, weight, and inoperative equipment, and as each issue is discussed, pilots have to delve deeper into their knowledge base.
This Preflight Briefing is the first step towards getting your head in the game. The complexity of the discussion pulls a pilot’s attention into the cockpit and helps shut out the rest of the world. Always in the back of a pilot’s mind is the acknowledgement that if they make a mistake outside the circle of safety, then a couple hundred people will have to pay for it with their lives. They know the potential for death, yet because pilots train and practice for everything, they don’t allow that possibility to have reality.
Instead, pilots visualize what the takeoff is going to look like. They plan, anticipate, and calculate, but events happen that no one could ever foresee. It’s in those moments of chaos when they are truly pilots. To have everything unexpected thrown at them and yet, because they have trained for thousands of hours, their pilot instincts remember how to fly the airplane despite the abnormalities. They pilot the situation.
In the cockpit, as in life, no matter how much you discuss variables during the Preflight Briefing, nothing ever goes as planned. Good pilots plan on that, too. We all have to plan that life won’t happen like we visualized it to be. Those who survive and thrive are able to accept the changes and deal with it as it comes along. Those who panic and forget the basics bend metal and/or die. My first real lesson on variables happened when I was a very new chick in the cockpit…
My assigned captain and copilot were both senior captains, and I was the flight engineer who was too new to realize how much I needed to learn. What I did know was that the content of knowledge sitting in the brains of the men at the flight controls intimidated me into silence.
Mick, our mischievous and arrogant training captain, sat in the copilot/first officer seat while giving Captain Steve his flight line check. Mick was peppering Steve with questions about rules, regulations, and which flight attendant was dating which pilot, so I meekly and methodically went about my duties at the flight engineer’s station. I prepared under the assumption that this would be one of the safest flights I could ever be on. After all, what could possibly be more invulnerable than two experienced, gray haired, opinionated guys with giant egos trying to show each other who is the better pilot?
The first leg of our journey took us from Minneapolis to Gunnison, Colorado. For this leg, we were only going to be on the ground in Gunnison for an hour, just long enough to unload and reload passengers and replenish our fuel supply. It’s called a quick-turn, and most of our flights were on the ground just long enough to get ready for the next flight.
As we touched down in the moonless night, darkness had already enveloped the mountains. Gunnison is a high elevation airport, so the cabin pressure was already at its operating altitude by the time our wheels kissed the runway. Maybe we can blame the thin air that pecked away at our brain cells, making us brush up against the line that keeps death away from life. For me, whatever brain cells that were sleeping that night woke up and have not fallen asleep since.
Captain Steve had a logbook as fat as his wallet. He was a good pilot, but had very little time flying in the Rocky Mountains. Admitting this, Steve was being exceptionally cautious, since he couldn’t see the terrain and had visions of towering mountains along our departure route, even though in reality, the terrain is rather benign. As we taxied to the end of the runway, Steve briefed us that he was going to practice a high performance takeoff. Nothing unusual, just setting takeoff power before releasing the brakes, and he said he’d plan a steeper climb after rotation. Steve was focused on getting us above the earth as quickly as possible, but in that focus, he forgot to plan beyond the first few moments after takeoff.
Immediately after departure on a perfectly calm, clear night, Steve began a steep turn while simultaneously calling for the first notch of flaps to be brought up. Mick had his seat in the relaxed position of a senior pilot and complied with the request with the rigidness of routine. When he realized he’d brought the flaps up a bit early, he straightened up in his seat, but not enough to think this combination of minor errors would add up to a major moment of terror. The thought of having to help Steve with this simple departure was completely out of the realm of possibility in both of their pilot minds.
On any other night, this combination of mistakes wasn’t an issue, but the gremlins that reside in every airplane snickered and momentarily interrupted the airflow into the center engine. The winds were calm and because we were in a tight turn, there wasn’t enough airflow into the center engine, so the result was a quick compressor stall—similar to a car backfiring. It sounds gloriously loud and it’s not usually a big deal, but if you are a passenger sitting in the back then, yes, you think you are going to die.
Since the engine thought it failed (it did, but only for a moment), it sent a signal to the cockpit to announce its irrefutable conclusion, “Engine Failure.” In this case, the engine didn’t fail, but it was interrupted, and since it doesn’t know the difference and has a limited vocabulary, it can only sadly admit that it failed at something. Because the engine thinks it failed, it tells the rest of airplane to save itself, so the packs automatically trip off, which stops providing air to pressurize the cabin. The airplane then tries to use that air to keep power to the engines, while the passengers start hyperventilating because they hear and feel that something isn’t right.
In less than ten seconds, our flight went from serene to requiring a change of underwear. The flight deck was lit up with emergency lights and everyone could hear the pressurized cabin was doing just the opposite—it was losing cabin pressure. Since we were already at a high elevation and the cabin wasn’t pressurizing, an alarm began its deafening wail, and I knew that the oxygen masks would automatically drop if I couldn’t get the cabin pressurized in the next few moments.
Just a few heartbeats later, since neither pilot was watching our airspeed, the required airflow under our wings slowed to the point where the difference between being an airplane and a rock is just a few knots. To prevent the aircraft from entering an actual stall, the manufacturer thoughtfully installed a “stick shaker.” It literally shakes the yoke (steering wheel) to wake up the idiot pilot to the low airspeed, and all pilots are trained to slam the throttles forward or “balls to the wall” if we ever get a stick shaker.
Even though I was the newbie, I knew what was happening because the flight engineer gets to watch the show. It’s easy to sit and judge as a flight engineer. This whole comedy show only took twenty seconds from beginning to panic. I was frantically trying to silence the alarms, reset the packs, and get the pressurization under control, but both captains were looking back at me pleading, “Which engine failed? What the fuck just happened?!” I kept telling them that the engine didn’t fail, we still have three good engines, and that if they would just fly the airplane, I’d get everything back to the point where we could run the checklist. To which they both pointed at the big light in front of them that said “Engine Failure” and reiterated that an engine failed. The light said so. They were absolutely certain that I was wrong and sending us all to certain death. We had three engines on this airplane, we only needed one to work.
In the meantime, neither of them is flying the perfectly good airplane. One of them has his hand on the yoke, but they’re both turned around looking at me and the engineer’s panel because they don’t believe what I’m telling them. I firmly reiterated that I had the situation under control, but they both kept their attention on me and continued to watch what I was doing, instead of flying the perfectly good airplane. They viewed the situation through their grizzled experience, so the thought that they had made a mistake was not an option.
At this point, they’re flying completely off course, still low on airspeed, and still climbing with the flaps not completely retracted. I could hear departure control repeatedly asking them to read back the last instructions given to them, and neither of them was responding. Realizing that this non-emergency was now turning into a real emergency, I took a deep breath, calmly looked them in the eyes and said, “Just turn around and fly the fucking airplane, I have this handled.”
Their eyebrows hit their hairlines. I could actually hear their shock as the intake of breath accelerated through their teeth. It’s the last thing they expected to hear from the new, tall, quiet, awkward, blue-eyed girl flight engineer, but they turned around and flew the perfectly good airplane. Like a slap to the face, sometimes you need to treat shock with a shock.
Up until this moment, I rarely ever swore. It was one of my many faults that my flight instructors constantly shamed me for. I was just too nice, too prim, and took offense at the swearing. I said please and thank you. “Gear down, please.” I was chided that this was a man’s world and men swear. I used it sparingly but when I did swear, I found it was effective and empowering.
Once the pilots turned around and started flying the perfectly good airplane, I got the engineer’s panel and my nerves settled down and then pulled out the emergency checklist to work on it as a crew. The flying pilot remained the flying pilot so that the copilot/check airman could turn around to work on the checklist with me. My first task was to review the situation. I took a deep breath and then spoke like a true Minnesotan run-on sentence:
“First, Captain Steve turned a bit too early while pulling the flaps up too soon, which caused a momentary interruption of airflow into the number two engine, which caused a compressor stall, which caused an auto pack trip and engine fail lights to come on, which caused the cabin pressure to raise quickly towards ten thousand feet, which made the cabin pressure alarm go off. The stick shaker was simply that we got too low in airspeed. Now, which emergency checklist would you prefer?” (Take a deep breath here) Both captains shrugged and looked at each other for backup. Mick, the check airman who was supposed to be teaching us asked, “Well, what isn’t working?”
I glanced back at the engineer panels to make sure all the emergency lights were extinguished and that the cabin was pressurizing before answering. “All systems are back on-line and functioning,” I quietly and respectfully replied for fear of retaliation to the abrupt statement a few moments ago. The irony is that the emergency didn’t make me nervous; it was my bold statement to the captains that was now frazzling my nerves.
“Well, there really isn’t an exact checklist for what just happened. It was completely pilot induced. Let’s complete the checklist for each individual emergency to make sure we covered it. Everything is running as it should be so I think we’re good to continue. We’ll have the mechanics give it a once over back in Minneapolis. I’ll make an announcement to the passengers about the big bang, I’m sure they all shit their pants by now.”
After we finished the checklists, Mick started to turn around, but he abruptly turned back to me and with a smirk on his face said, “Hey, Erika, by the way, thanks for growing some big hairy balls back there and setting us straight. You did the right thing.” Mick then gave me a big grin, went back to his duties, and neither of them ever said anything else about it.
In that moment, two things clicked in my brain: First, I felt like a real pilot. Sure, I’d been a pilot for years, had thousands of hours already, and had been in several emergency situations, but here is where it paid off. Even though I was a novice in this airplane, and I didn’t even get to “fly” it, I knew what I was seeing and what to do despite never having trained for anything like it before. We had briefed for a normal departure and everything fell apart, but it was something I could deal with because I used my pilot mindset to keep us flying.
Secondly, I realized I was forceful and spoke my mind for once and the result was okay. I saw the situation would become worse if I stuck to my usual habit of explaining myself and my actions, so I took a giant leap and said what needed to be said. Just fly the fucking airplane, and then run the checklist.
Just being able to get to the emergency checklist often means survival. By the time you reach for this checklist, damage has already been done, so the point is to work on the problem together. This incident began to teach me that life and aircraft are way more complicated than what is neatly laid out on the pages of a checklist. There really wasn’t a checklist that conformed to this exact emergency. The aircraft manufacturer hadn’t thought about the pilot who is distracted by thinking about mountains so, by accident, he turns too quickly, climbs too quickly, and pulls up the flaps too quickly. The complicated set of emergency checklists that are put in the flight deck sometimes don’t get used as intended in the real world. They are a logical starting point but in actuality, it is best to absorb everything that is going on around you and then put it all together before reacting.
Despite the emergency checklists provided for abnormalities, it’s the standard checklists that you use before you begin your flight that often determine whether you live or come crashing down in a pile of mistakes.
ERIKA ARMSTRONG is the author of A Chick in the Cockpit, published by Behler Publications, the first book written by a woman airline pilot captain in the modern-day era. Although Erika isn’t flying the heavy iron anymore, she’s still entrenched in aviation. She’s in leading-edge aviation consulting, and she’s an aviation consultant and writer for Disciples of Flight and NYC Aviation. Erika is also an award-winning staff writer for Colorado Serenity Magazine, and a contributing writer for Mountain Connection. Lastly, she’s a former editor and writer for the Airline Pilot Association. Erika attended the University of Minnesota’s Journalism program as an undergrad, before being lured into the world of aviation. To round out her education, she attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and she has a degree in International Business, Economics and Culture with National Honor Society Recognition, from the University of Denver. You can learn more about Erika at www.AChickInTheCockpit.com. Click here now to get a copy of A Chick in the Cockpit and click here to visit Erika’s website.