Every pilot has many stories to tell about their time flying above the clouds, watching the sunrise and landing in foreign places. People love hearing about these adventures. However, there’s other sides of aviation that generally don’t get as much attention. One such aspect is the struggle pilot’s went through to get their dream job.
When I worked as a flight attendant (to fund my own pilot training) I used to have in depth discussions with the pilots during cruise to hear about their personal journeys to the flight deck. Since I worked at an airline that recruited pilots from around the world, I heard amazing stories of how their careers began on different continents.
While their tales were great, I was especially touched by the story of a woman called Christina, and knew I had to share it. I decided to publish her interview to coincide with Women’s Day in South Africa as part of my attempt to raise awareness for female pilots. Why is this necessary?
Only 5% of airline pilots are female. To put this into perspective, I can count on 1 hand the amount of times I went to work and had a female pilot in the flight deck. (And I worked as a flight attendant for 2 years).
So it is a pleasure for me to promote Christina’s story. Not only is this woman drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s got the brains and the bravery to match it. This South African flew as a bush pilot in Indonesia after training in South Africa, and she’s using her journey to inspire other females. From South Africa to Indonesia, and now to Greece. Her story has it all- struggles, adventure and a happy ending.
1) As a female pilot, did you grow up with the ideal to become a pilot or how did you first realize women could be pilots?
Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a father who held a Private Pilot’s License (PPL) and was the biggest aviation enthusiast. He had a few 2 seater small planes that we would take out every weekend but at that time I was too small to be thinking of a career. He sold them all while I was in High School and that’s when it suddenly hit me and I knew that I wanted to be a commercial pilot. Timing was tough but it helped having a supportive parent pushing me to be whatever I wanted to be.
2) How many females were in your batch during initial pilot training?
During flight training in South Africa (at 43 Air School) we were a class of about 30 students. Only 3 were female.
3) Did you ever experience any form of discrimination as a female student pilot?
This was quite a few years ago... If I remember correctly I never experienced any first hand discrimination but I definitely felt I had to work twice as hard for half the credit.
I sometimes felt instructors (the male ones) already had this preconceived idea about me when I climbed into the aircraft, and expected that I couldn’t fly. After showing them I was competent enough it went away. Or maybe that’s how everyone feels? I’m not sure, I can just tell you how I experienced it.
4) Only 5% of airline pilots are females. Why do you think there are so few female pilots and how do you think we could get more women interested in flying as a career?
Some statistics indicate that it’s actually as low as 4%, even though more females are pursuing a career in aviation these days.
As we have all heard a million times before, in the past women did not have the same rights or opportunities that men had. It wasn’t the norm for females to have what was classified as a ‘man’s job’ so we were automatically programmed to think we cannot do it.
Besides the laws changing I really believe social media has had the biggest impact on women by showing them they can do or be whatever they want. It’s all possible. I get countless messages from girls asking me questions about whether it’s possible for them to become pilots too, or how they can start their training and I get so happy when I see that. Without this platform showing them otherwise and ‘educating’ them they would probably be stuck being a house wife or confined to the roles of ‘what a women should do.’
5) How did you fund your own pilot training?
Aviation is expensive! It’s the biggest commitment I’ve made in my life but I regret nothing.
Unfortunately, my parents were not in a position to fund my training when I completed school, so I had to make my own way to the flight deck.To this day, I firmly believe that if becoming a pilot is something you really want to do, you will make it happen. My journey is proof of that…
I started flying part time while balancing a few jobs simultaneously, but I found it very distracting for my studies. Although I modeled a lot I was still willing to work any job out there to fund my education. You name it and I’ve done it! Everything ranging from waitressing, bar tending and promotion work (yes, I was the shooter girl at the nightclub) to selling things such as under water piping, baby jelly and bath salts. I did it all. I was so determined to earn the money that I would even occasionally drive to 3 promotion jobs a day. It’s exhausting just remembering it all...
Despite my efforts my pilot training suffered since I was flying part time. It was a classic case of taking 2 steps forward and 3 steps back. The situation was frustrating to say the least, and eventually everything came to a halt when I ran out of money. I decided to try a different approach and put my flying on hold in order to move to India to model and work in Bollywood. When I had saved up enough to attend the top flying school in South Africa I enrolled as a full time student pilot and finished up to my frozen ATPL level in 13 months!
6) Landing a first flying job is tough for all pilots. What’s your story?
Finding work after flight school is the hardest part of everyone’s aviation journey. Nobody wants to hire a pilot fresh out of flight school so prepare to be rejected many, many times. I waited almost 1 year to be hired by my first company. I must have sent out over 30 applications and most of the time I didn’t even get feedback. Not even the courtesy to say they’re not interested. The biggest piece of advice I can give new pilots is to get your foot in the door early and not to waste time.
Eventually I was hired to fly a Cessna Caravan at Susi Air in Indonesia, so I packed my bags and boarded a flight to start my new life as a paid pilot on a different continent.
7) What was it like to finally start flying as a bush pilot at your first job at Susi Air?
Arriving as an inexperienced pilot with 250 hours and being thrown into commercial passenger routes in the bush flying environment is scary to say the least, but this aircraft made it super easy. The Cessna Caravan 208 is probably my favorite plane to fly. She is so forgiving and a lot of fun! In retrospect my first few landings were a little shady but the plane is made for it, and after the first week it was a piece of cake.
8) How many other women were brave enough to be bush pilots at Susi Air while you flew there?
When I started at Susi Air there were approximately 100 males and a total of only 4 females.
It was a little crazy but they warned me in the interview that the job is not for the faint of heart. They constantly asked me whether I knew what I was getting myself into. At that time I hadn’t seen the show ‘Worst Place To be a Pilot’ so to be honest I wasn’t sure what they were talking about or why they kept asking me this.
Luckily I grew up with 2 brothers so I’m used to being the only girl. By the time I resigned I was the last woman left. There could be more ladies now but I’m not entirely sure.
I would most definitely recommend this job to any pilot. Females or males. I think it’s the perfect first job to really hone in on your flying skills and get a real feel for the charter/airline world while still having the freedom to mess around and enjoy being in the air.
I think girls are a bit hesitant to even consider flying in the Indonesian bush as it is a crazy country and little dangerous in terms of flying but the environment everyone creates is amazing. Yes, there will always be the one mean pilot that gives you a hard time but you will have that anywhere you go…
Susi Air has taught me so much and given me friends and family for a life time.
9) What struggles did you have as a bush pilot?
During my time I faced quite a few struggles. Here are some examples:
Being the only female on base for weeks at a time. No matter how much we try to be the same, girls and boys are not. I needed girl time so that was a HUGE challenge for me.
There were not many healthy food options. Our meals mostly included rice (or fried rice) and anything else fried. I’m a very health orientated person so that was tough. I must add though that I loved the local food. I just had less access to my usual healthy options.
Indonesia is a 3rd world country so we lived in a dirty environment. Poverty is everywhere. Even though we had a lot of staff looking after us, everything was VERY run down.
Indonesia is known for its mad weather, storms and high mountains. Challenging and unpredictable weather conditions was our reality. More than a few times we experienced sticky situation, and being a self dispatch company, it was up to us to decide whether we go fly or not and most times WE WENT.
I could go on and on but I’ll keep it short. Flying in Indonesia is it’s own article in my opinion.
Although I only listed the challenges, Indonesia is one of my favorite places on the planet (and no, I’m not only talking about Bali. We lived in some of the most remote places). I love the country and its people. I already miss it so much! I'd recommend it to anyone looking for their next travel destination.
10) Did you move to Europe for your career because the opportunities for female pilots are better on this continent?
I decided to move to Europe and do my EASA license conversion because I feel like there are more opportunities here for ‘safer’ flying. On a personal level, my parents are from Italy and Portugal so I also wanted to get back to my roots.
Opportunities are far greater in Europe since it’s more accepted for females to be pilots. In fact, I can draw a comparison by sharing what I found out in Indonesia- there is still an airline operating there that does not hire any female pilots. It’s shocking. In Europe this would never be allowed. I find European companies are going out of their way to balance the scales which helps us a lot! We are just as capable as any man.
11) What are your goals for aviation in the future?
My goals after completing my EASA license conversion is to join one of the top charter companies in Europe. It’s mostly a means for me to travel and see as many places as I can.
Another goal is to inspire as many women as I can by showing them that anything they want to become is possible. I’d especially like to break down the mentality that someone can't be a pilot and embrace their femininity at the same time.
Christina’s story is just one of many women making a difference in the aviation industry. Follow her on Instagram aviator_tinks. If you would like to learn more about aviation then subscribe to this blog, follow me on Instagram AviatrixWest or find me on Facebook @AviatrixWest.
The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.