The sixth pilot in CAT’s “Women in Aviation” series tells her story to Chris Long.

“How - being female - did you come up with the idea of becoming a pilot?” That’s probably the number one question I get when it comes to my profession. While in general I think that’s a fair question, I fail to see the relevance of gender here.

There are probably a hundred different reasons for people to choose what they do for a living... that’s maybe even more so in the case for pilots, but I don’t think that my reasons were any different than those of my male colleagues.

Now what were mine? It seems that I’ve always had a passion for airplanes... at least that dates back as long as I can remember, without really knowing where that comes from. We never went on vacation by plane. But I always asked my parents, especially my dad, to take me to the airport to watch the planes. And he quite often did on the weekends.

I also liked watching (and “helping”) when he changed the tires on the car, did some repair on it and loved to help put on the snow chains (growing up in the mountains that was a standard in winter time), but I did all the “girls stuff” too - playing with dolls, helping my mum to bake Christmas cookies, and dressing up.

That pattern continued when Top Gun hit the cinemas. I went there to see the aircraft - not Tom Cruise (as probably most of my friends did). The most fascinating scene for me always was (and still is today) the very beginning of the film, when the F14s are being prepared for take-off in the early morning hours on some carrier.

I never thought about being a pilot though - I did not really consider any particular profession at that time.

Introduction to Aviation

It was when there was an ‘Orientation Day’ at school, introducing professions in the aviation field, when that idea finally sparked. Having that passion for airplanes and a love for travelling it was a must for me to go there. Amongst others presenting (flight attendant, airline ground management etc.) there was an airline Captain who was the only one I needed to hear.

Although still a couple of years away from graduation, I immediately started researching the options. Money wise, the only possible option for me was a sponsored cadet program, so I wrote to the airline (the very same one that had sent the captain to the presentation) and asked for more information. The answer was, “We’re happy to learn about your interest; however we’re sorry to tell you that this profession is unsuitable for women.”

It might sound quite naive today, but up to that day I had never even considered that there could be anything that I would not be allowed to do - certainly not because of being female. My parents had always allowed and encouraged me to follow every interest I had, whether it be with the car or the Christmas cookies. I only realised at a much later stage how important and special that was.

Despite that disappointing answer, the bug was there now (they had sent the requested information all the same - maybe there is a fairy godmother?) They‘ve sent me the information package, but not for me, but just in case I had a brother who might be interested, so I continued my enquiries - with similar results. This was in central Europe in the early to mid-80’s.

I went to an all-girls school, and it strikes me as strange even more today than it did back then as to what drove the airline to send a captain to the school for an orientation day to present the profession, if they were not considering hiring female pilots?

Starting Training

By the time I graduated a couple of years later, the situation had changed and the airline had hired their first female pilots. The political situation had changed as well, and I was holding the wrong passport (non-EU) to be admitted into the cadet program.

Still being interested in technology and science I started studying electrical engineering and worked as ground staff at the airport, both to keep an eye on the business and to make a living. Aviation, being a volatile business, I was hesitant to take the risk of paying for all the training on my own, without having any job guarantees. Additionally, what my parents had set aside to finance an education was a long way from being enough, and it was almost impossible to find a bank to finance the rest.

It was difficult to get a loan even when the political situation changed again a few years later and I was finally admitted into a cadet program, which now was no longer fully sponsored, but at least had some sort of job perspective. The two years of training were a strenuous and busy time, (I continued to work ground handling on the weekends, flight school during the week) but I really enjoyed it. I was finally working towards what I had wanted to do for so long.

I only learned years later that within the first two weeks almost all the guys knew my personal background even better than I knew it myself, (and those of the three other girls amongst the approximately 200 guys). And there were obviously many complaints about the females being treated much better, getting better grades, performing worse and so on.

Certainly not by all of them, but that attitude existed, and still does today. Was or is it true? I think there were situations where I was treated more generously, and sometimes  exactly the opposite, so overall, I would rate it as balanced. But what definitely is still the case, good or bad, is that, as a female in this profession, you can‘t hide.

It always triggers some sort of reaction. The majority of time the reaction is positive, yes, there is the extremely rare passenger, complaining that he would have stayed behind had he known that there was a female pilot. But the more common one is the passenger who wants to take pictures and acknowledges “well done“. Which, while it is meant to be very nice, may not really be so, if you think about it? It gets even more interesting when there are two females on the flight deck. And I must admit that the question “is that allowed”, when I heard it for the first time (from security staff) almost left me speechless. This was in Europe in the 21st century!

When a three year old asks “where is the pilot”, when I‘m sitting in the captains seat, it makes me wonder where that comes from, and makes me realise that there is still a long way to go. There‘s a huge lack in diversity. I‘m still interested in technology and science (most of my male colleagues aren’t), and I also wear make-up and nail polish (which my male colleagues definitely don‘t!)

Does any of that qualify or disqualify women for the pilots’ profession....?

Published in CAT issue 1/2018