Rachelle

Athlete

Become A Pilot

Last month, I was asked to write some answers for the following questions for an article by Marie Claire Spain, focusing on easyJet’s Amy Johnson Flying Initiative. The article was published in the July edition. As I wrote quite a lot for it, I thought I might share my original answers with you all, especially as some of the information you may find useful. If you happen to speak Spanish, the article can be found via the following link, which focuses on the Initiative and the work easyJet is doing:  https://www.marie-claire.es Marie Claire is a great women’s lifestyle magazine with a whole range of topics to spark your interest, they offer a monthly subscription and many articles are available online. Additionally, if you are considering becoming an easyJet pilot, the company have recently published a fantastic website with lots of information about how to make those steps to the flight deck become a reality: http://becomeapilot.easyjet.com

When did you decide you wanted to become a pilot?  Did you go to university first to study a degree before attending flight school?

I finished senior school in July 2013 and at that stage I was still very much dedicated to my athletic career. I applied to university in September to study Geography, with the intention of accepting an offer and then postponing it whilst I focused on furthering my potential as an athlete. I had a fascination for volcanoes and was considering eventually training to become a volcanologist. During the following year, I changed my mind and re-applied to university to study Sport and Exercise Science with the aim of becoming a physiotherapist or sport scientist, as I found it interesting discovering how my physical training was changing my body and adapting it to suit the requirements of my sport. In the spring of 2015, I suffered a knee injury and my competition season ended early; I returned home to the UK at the beginning of April. One evening, I was driving my parents to a restaurant (ironically called “Wings”) for their wedding anniversary. We came across this rather complex roundabout, which I negotiated with no problems at all, displaying some very smooth, slick driving skills. As I accelerated onto the dual carriageway with elegance, my father says “You’re quite good at driving now. Your driving has come a long way.” I merely replied with a thank you, not aware of where he was going with such a comment. A few minutes later, he came out with “Would you like to have a go at flying? I reckon you’d be good at it” as we pass Farnborough airport. Shocked, I sat there processing and I just replied “Why not?” Fourteen theoretical exams, eight hundred hours of classroom lessons, many more hours of independent study and more than 150 hours of flying later, I found myself graduating from FTE Jerez, a mere two years after the last time I carved my way down a snowy slope somewhere in Austria.

Flying is something that underpins your life, how does it make you feel? Why do you prefer flying over an office job?

Whilst flying is a very dominant part of my life, it is not what defines me. When I was an elite athlete, I was always referred to by my school peers as “the skier”. When I took the decision to retire from my former career, I was worried about what people would think because my entire life up until that point had just been about skiing. I was very career orientated and focused solely on furthering my sporting ambitions. Flying on the other hand, has taken the essences of my personality and helped them flourish and mature. Now, whilst my career does require a lot of dedication as I strive to continuously improve my knowledge and skills, the intensity to which I approach it is less because I have a more balanced approach to my work and social life. I value time with my friends, family and loved ones, always making sure I can be there for them, even if it’s just on the other end of a phone call or text message. Additionally, I am no longer required to be the best at something, I just strive to be my best, comparing my performances with my own ability and potential. 

I have worked in both an office and a flight deck now, without a doubt I definitely prefer my new job! One thing I really love and never tire of are the views out the window. I have seen the Alps countless of times but I never get bored of them. I also love flying to Malaga and spotting Jerez in the distance on a clear day, reflecting on my time spent in Spain. When I worked as an assistant last summer, I would find myself looking at the clock wishing the day would pass quicker. Now, I don’t. Time passes quickly as the Captain and I are busy, especially on short flights such as Paris to Milan, Nice or Gatwick. The only moment I find myself looking at the clock is when I am doing a PA to the passengers mid flight to update them on our estimated time of arrival at our destination.

Which values or abilities does someone require to become a pilot?

The training course to become a commercial pilot requires a lot of dedication and hard work. The content isn’t necessarily difficult to understand, it’s just the volume of work is large and you have a short period of time in which to learn it! In addition the world of commercial aviation these days has a heavy focus on non-technical skills and how you interact with other people. The fundamental competencies for a pilot include teamwork, leadership (even as a First Officer), situational awareness, decision making, problem solving and customer service skills. I also think it is important to be open, a good communicator, have a good understanding of people (paying particular attention to how they may be feeling), be calm and have a solid professional attitude. 

Why do you think the percentage of female pilot worldwide is so small? Do you think women lack of references in this field?

In March 2018, easyJet published the results from a pilot survey which highlighted only 44% of female pilots were over 16 years old before they considered it as a career, compared to 55% of male pilots knowing before the age of 10, and even 22% knowing by the age of 5. I think the main reason why there are only a few female pilots is because it’s not a job girls tend to have awareness of as they are growing up. Due to the lack of female pilots compared to male pilots, there are fewer visible female role models young ladies can look up to. 

However, recently the low percentage of female pilots has caught the attention of the public eye, with an increase in articles being written and shared via social media about the female pilots out there. Additionally, many ladies do have social media accounts where they share information about their jobs and inspire others, as well as participating in school visits to encourage interest among students. I believe now more women are considering it as a career and with easyJet for example we have the opportunity to go part time as we become more senior, which is certainly appealing with regards to raising a family. Hopefully, during the following years, we will see the numbers grow and the current First Officers progress to Captains, becoming role models for younger generations and increasing the number of women in more senior positions within the pilot profession. Currently there are only just over 450 female Captains in the entire world! Being a pilot requires leadership skills if you wish to further your career and in order to become a good leader, you need to be able to observe the behaviour of those who are already in those roles. I was fortunate to fly with two lovely ladies who are Training Captains and by working with them I was able to admire their exemplary leadership styles, which inspired me. The way men and women behave in management roles can vary, therefore it is important for those less senior to find someone whose style they aspire to adapt to their own behaviour, hence acting as their role model. With school visits by both male and female easyJet pilots, hopefully the younger generations can find role models to aspire to.

Did you experience some difficulties on your way to becoming a pilot? 

The main issue the vast majority of trainee pilots face (whether male or female, younger or older) is financing their training. It costs a lot to become a commercial airline pilot and many of us take out a loan in order to pursue our dream. Aspiring pilots have raised their concern with me regarding this issue and I share my view with them. Whilst the financial commitment is large, the long term gain is worth the investment. One thing my father always said to me was an education is worth investing in because it is something no one can take away from you. As a twenty-three year old, my starting salary is one of the best ones available and it will only improve as time passes and I gain seniority. The rate of salary increase is good compared with other careers and we know when we will reach the next pay rise as it is based on time in the company / hours flown. If I had gone to university in the UK, I would also be in debt; whilst the value would be less, it would take me longer to pay off, unless I was fortunate to obtain the few well paid first jobs available to graduates. Choosing that route would not necessarily position me with the same opportunities I now have as a fully qualified airline pilot.

What would you like to achieve in your carrier? If you were one of the first female pilots to fly, which milestone would you be proud of achieving (for example, being the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic ocean)?

When I was an athlete, I used to have very fixed goals in mind and I think it resulted in me being too focused on achieving them. Now I approach life with a ‘live in the moment’ attitude and take each day as it comes, which is great. Whilst eventually I know I would like to become a Captain and hopefully move into training other pilots, I am just enjoying being a First Officer at the moment and learning new things all the time! One thing I mentioned when I was being interviewed by easyJet for my job was that my long term goal was to make a difference somehow. Hopefully by sharing my experiences as both an athlete, pilot and the transition from one to the other, I can begin to make a difference and help others, giving them a story they can relate to or feel encouraged by.

I think for all pilots, our most significant milestone of which we are all proud to achieve is our first solo. When you complete it, you experiences this amazing sensation and feel pure happiness because you realise you have flown an aeroplane entirely by yourself. But if I was one of the first female pilots to fly, I think I would have liked to have flown over the Alps in a bi-plane, if that is even possible!

Have you ever experienced any unpleasant situations from passengers when they discovered the pilot of the flight was a woman? Did you experience some positive reactions for the same reason?

I’ve actually had very positive remarks from a fair few passengers now when I’ve had the opportunity to say goodbye to them as they disembark the aircraft. In fact not so long ago I even had a lady mention she actually prefers the idea of a female flying, which made me chuckle. Those that do mention it mostly congratulate me and some are more amazed by my age than my gender! As mentioned earlier, I have flown with two remarkable female Captains and the passengers expressed how it was a pleasure to have two ladies flying the plane together.

I imagine it must be tough to find balance between work and personal life when you have to travel often for your job. How do you manage? 

Working for easyJet actually makes the balance between work and personal life easier, ironically! We rarely do night stops, unlike legacy airlines, which means we are home every night. I prefer this idea as I would much rather be in the comfort of my own bed in my own home than in a hotel room somewhere! The low-cost life style also suits family life better. At the moment, due to living away from my friends, family and loved ones, I do spend time traveling to see them and value the time I get with them as it is precious. I try to live each day to the fullest and enjoy the opportunities available to me due to working in the aviation industry. 

Did you ever experience any unpleasant behaviour from a work colleague for being a female pilot? 

Not at all, my colleagues are indifferent to my gender. Pilot selection for easyJet does not differentiate between gender, age and background, it is based on ability and suitability for the job in hand. Throughout the training process to becoming an easyJet pilot the focus is developing a safe operator of the A320 family who meets the required standard set out by the company. The attitude within the company is equal, I am just an average First Officer no different to anyone else and we all work together as one team. In fact, easyJet has a positive attitude towards gender equality and is actively encouraging women to become pilots though their Amy Johnson Flying Initiative, which aims to increase the proportion of female pilots in the company to 20% by 2020.

Did you ever visit a school to talk about your job? If so, what was the reaction of girls attending your talk?

I had the pleasure of going back to my old school and talking to the 14 and 15 year old students about my pilot training, which was really great to do. It was hard to gauge their reaction but I’m guessing by the large number of questions at the end they found it interesting. If even one of them considers becoming a pilot, then that is making a difference. 

What is the major change you expect to see in your profession? How do you think the aviation sector can get there?

I think very interesting times lie ahead in the aviation industry as we cope with expanding numbers, changes in technology and adaptations of regulations. Currently, easyJet is working with a company who are researching and developing an electrically powered commercial aircraft so that’s quite an exciting prospect for the future! Another aspect of the industry is the forecast growth, will it reach this or will it peak at a maximum capacity? We will see!

What is the best way to get more women in the cockpit and encourage them to join the aviation world?

I think the key going forward is to continue to obtain more role models, the work easyJet is doing through the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative is a positive force for this to occur. In addition to providing some financial support, the Initiative aims to recruit more pilot ambassadors, both male and female, from within easyJet’s pilot community, looking at how the company can reach out to more young people and engage with women of all ages to educate them about the profession. The whole industry is becoming more supportive and aiming to improve the current global statistic of only 4% of pilots being female. 

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