To work in the flight deck, means to work in a male dominant environment. Over the last few years, more and more women have joined as pilots, also at the airline I work for. My colleagues and myself react to this with nothing but enthusiasm. Male or female, the consensus is: gender does not matter in judging one’s abilities to operate an aircraft. However, as female pilots we are still a rare species.
When passengers notice that it is a female pilot taking them to their destination, they often react to this. My experience is that their reaction is usually very positive: I get smiles, thumbs up, generally a surprised look followed by a smile. They ask if they can take a picture, or make a little smalltalk. I am used that people don’t react indifferent when they see me in my uniform, even when walking in the terminal. They will usually give a second look, point, smile, or look a little surprised.
When you stand out, in this case by statistics, this naturally triggers a reaction. The encouragement and surprised-but-positive reactions give a daily boost. But sometimes, the reaction is a not so positive one. When I decided to write about this topic, despite all positive experiences, a particular situation came to mind:
‘Ehm. That is not the pilot, is she?’ ‘You? Pilot? You have got to be joking! This does not feel right. Tell me, do you even know the left from your right?’
I am in the flight deck, we are on the ground in the turnaround. This is the time on the ground, when the passengers of the flight we just completed are at their destination, and disembark. We prepare the next flight, while new passengers board the aircraft, and we will take them to their destination. As flight crew we complete the necessary paperwork, check the weather for the whole route, decide on the fuel that we order, prepare the departure, discuss how we will fly, what specialties we have to take into account for this particular flight, and then do the checklist to see if all that had to be done, is done.
Welcome on board
After all the preparations in the flightdeck, I get out of my seat to make myself a cup of coffee in the front galley. Passengers are still boarding. I get a smile, I nod and smile back. While I pour some hot water into my coffee mug, I hear a female passenger that just got on board of our airplane, ask to the purser: ‘Ehm. That is not the pilot, is she?’ Surprised I look in her direction, and we catch each other’s eyes. I reply: ‘Yes, she is the pilot, how are you madame?’ The woman looks somewhat confused, but smiles and shrugs.
Then a big man, who got on the airplane together with this woman, takes a little step forward. I am still standing in the galley. He turns in my direction: ‘You? Pilot? You have got to be joking! This does not feel right. Tell me, do you even know the left from your right?’
In my head, there is a brief moment of short circuit: This rude, middle aged man, standing in front of me, towering over me, staring at me. Left from right? Does this man have a daughter? Then how did he raise her, with what values and beliefs, and has he taught her dignity and self-respect? Where he gets the nerve..? Ah well, quick now, he is actually waiting for an answer:
‘Left, right? Who needs to know about that? I got my pilot license when I found it in a pack of cornflakes. Enjoy your flight sir.’
I nod and smile, and walk back into the flight deck.