Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart are celebrated names in aviation history. Currently in the UK, it is estimated that 6% of commercial pilots are women. Ambitious Alice asks Sue - a private jet pilot - about her profession and what it is like to be an aviatrix in the skies today.
Could you tell us a little bit about your job?
I’m a pilot. I work in business aviation, as a First Officer (co-pilot) flying private jets. I fly a Citation XLS for a company based in London flying clients across Europe.
There is no typical day for a pilot. That’s one of the things I love about it. Each day is different. The weather is different, the airports are different and especially in the private jet industry, every job is different. I could be flying passengers to Cannes for a holiday, an aircraft part out to rescue a grounded plane and stranded passengers, or transporting a patient and their team of doctors to a specialist hospital. Having said that, the set-up structure for every flight is fairly standard.
First is the planning stage. So I come in well before the flight is due to depart and meet with the captain to brief. We work as a team and pull off all the information required for the flight; from the latest weather, to routings, to the charts and airport maps required.
Then we’re off to the aircraft to start the exterior checks and organise the refuelling. After checking the cabin, it’s time for the internal checks to begin and firing up the avionics so we can load the flight plan and aircraft data. On to meeting the passengers, welcoming them aboard and conducting a safety brief. As private jet pilots we are usually involved in all stages of the flight from completing our own load sheets to ensuring the baggage is on board. After more checks, we’re ready to go and the flight stage can commence.
The flight stage can be very busy, completing checklists, speaking with air traffic control and actually flying the plane! But as a pilot it’s the bit I love the most. Apart from the actual flying, there is nothing like breaking through a dismal overcast cloud bank and bursting into the sunshine above, flying over the snow capped alps or watching a beautiful sunset! I think the pointy end definitely has the best seats in the house!
Finally the post flight stage. Taxing onto stand, shutdown checks, waving goodbye to the passengers, debriefing and paperwork … lots of post flight paperwork!
How long have you been flying for?
Almost three and a half years.
How did you train to become a pilot?
After just one flying lesson, I was absolutely hooked and determined to become a professional pilot. Working hard to raise funds for further training I was able to complete my Private Pilot’s Licence and I then built up the hours needed for the next stage of training as a Tug Pilot, towing gliders. Soon afterwards, and with the assistance of savings, scholarships and loans, I completed my Commercial Pilots Licence, Multi Engine Rating and Instrument Rating together with a Multi Crew Cooperation Course leading to a frozen Airline Transport Pilots Licence. Whilst saving for the last stage of training (to work for an airline), I worked as an apprentice in a workshop re-fabricing vintage aeroplanes and later instructing members of the public on B737-800 simulator. An integrated course which starts you from zero hours and delivers you fully trained ready for the airlines, can be completed in about 14 months – 2 years, depending on the training provider, however, these courses can cost up to and above £100k. The modular route is cheaper but can take longer.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I wanted to fly in the private jet industry for a long time. The variety of flying appealed to me the most and as a ‘people person’ I get to interact with the clients which really appeals. I have flown some really interesting people, including top business entrepreneurs, celebrities and even royalty. As clients can choose to travel almost anywhere they like, I have been lucky enough to fly to a huge variety of airports from tiny strips to big internationals and this also means we get some real hands on and interesting flying. Another great part of my job is that this type of flying means I get to see some of the places we visit as we can be down-route for a few days and as a result I’ve stayed in some really great cities.
Some of my proudest moments, however, have been doing medical flights, such as organ transportation, where I’ve been happy to be part of a team that’s hopefully changed someone’s life for the better.
If you could change something about your job, what would it be?
I would love to see more women taking to the skies. Unlike some other professions, which have become more gender balanced in recent years, female pilots make up just 3-6% of commercial aviation. This is changing however, and companies like easyjet, for example, are pushing to redress this imbalance.
The Aviatrix Project is one such organisation set up to help inspire and encourage women and girls to take to the skies. In partnership with a number of aviation and STEM organisations, one of the main aims of this project is to raise aspirations of young girls and to promote aviation as an exciting and accessible career choice. The project aims are to work closely with primary and secondary schools as well as higher education institutions to encourage girls into STEM and enthuse them into aviation.
What advice would you give someone setting out today who would like to do what you do?
You must be passionate about flying. There will be a lot of ups and downs so you will need to be resilient and enthused by the “flying bug” to keep you going.
You must be motivated and prepared to work hard. The training requires a lot of dedication, study and effort.
Be under no illusions as to the cost of training. It is expensive. Unless you have the finances readily available or you manage to get one of the very few places a couple of the airlines are now offering to underwrite the loan, you will need to be persistent and get creative.
Can you tell us something about your job that only an insider would know?
There are many routes into commercial aviation. Some are not advertised. Often it’s “who you know, not what you know…” so make lots of friends in the aviation industry and do lots of research. I built my hours as a Tug Pilot, pulling up gliders. I wasn’t paid but I did get to build my hours for free and the experience was invaluable. It saved me a lot of money and was great for my CV. I know others who built their hours in the States as it was considerably cheaper and some who even bought a share in an light aeroplane, which is not as expensive as you’d think, enjoyed the cheaper flying and sold their share at the end of it.
If you would like to find out more about the Aviatrix Project visit them at http://www.theaviatrixproject.com/
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