1st OCFA female helicopter pilot fired, files sexual discrimination suit

Pilot Desiree Horton alleges that at the OCFA she was unfairly scrutinized by other male pilots and held to unfair, higher standards than her male counterparts


Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — The Orange County Fire Authority's first female helicopter pilot has filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the agency for firing her after a one-year probation period, essentially labeling her "untrainable."

Pilot Desiree Horton's termination came despite nearly 30 years of experience flying helicopters, 16 of those with state and federal fire agencies. She also flew and reported for Los Angeles-area news stations, earning the nickname " Chopper Chick."

Photo/Wikipedia

"I was set up to fail (by OCFA) and I was never given the opportunity to succeed," Horton said during a news conference Wednesday, June 9. "I want my job back. Let me fly."

The suit was filed in Orange County Superior Court in May and seeks unspecified damages from the OCFA and lead pilot Jack Matiasevich.

Officials with the Fire Authority declined to comment on the litigation, which is a standard practice.

Horton alleges that at the OCFA she was unfairly scrutinized by the male pilots, crew chiefs and helicopter technicians and held to unfair, higher standards than her male counterparts. She also claimed she was deprived of training opportunities offered to male fire pilots, unfairly evaluated without proper training and lied to about the conditions of her passing probation.

Horton said she was ignored, undermined, disrespected, disparaged and made to feel as though she was incompetent for being a woman.

Her attorneys at the San Diego law firm Haeggquist & Eck said Horton had more aerial firefighting experience than her Orange County Fire Authority colleagues.

"The OCFA robbed Ms. Horton of her dream job, caused her to suffer a loss of professional reputation, and sent a message that women are not wanted at the OCFA and need not apply," said the lawsuit. "But Ms. Horton is a trailblazer and, as she has done her entire career, is fighting back for the equal treatment she and other female pilots deserve."

Horton's first stint as a firefighting pilot came as a relief pilot for the U.S. Forest Service from 2005 through 2013. She then was hired by Cal Fire, the third-largest department in the nation, and was based in San Bernardino. But she lives in Orange County and dreamed of flying for her hometown agency.

According to the lawsuit, she was blocked by an OCFA official who declared, "She will never work here as long as I'm alive."

However, the arrival of Chief Brian Fennessey in 2018 cleared the way for Horton to again apply to OCFA, according to the suit. She was hired under employment conditions that other male pilots hired at the same time did not have to meet, the suit says.

"Enough is enough," OCFA Capt. Lauren Andrade said at the news conference in support of Horton. "It's time to pull back the Orange Curtain and hold people accountable."

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(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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