That flight left from Addis Ababa, on Wednesday, November 18th 2015 going to Bangkok, Thailand. That was the first flight by the Ethiopian Airline Company run by a completely female crew. The women were present throughout all aspects of the flight, such as planning, aircraft maintenance, piloting, and the aircraft control tower. The departure was accompanied by important women and men from Ethiopia (including the first lady of the country — Roman Tesfaye) who sought to promote the empowerment of women and encourage African girls to follow careers in aviation. “Here, on the African continent, we are extremely supportive of this issue of empowerment of women”, recognizes Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines.
About one third of the company’s employees in the Ethiopian airline company are women. But the proportion is even lower in certain jobs, such as pilots and technicians. The situation is similar in the SAA Group from South Africa that reunites the South African Airways Company and its subsidiaries, such as the case of the low-cost Mango Company. Women make up 38.96% of all the personnel in the Group, as 24.85% are general staff, 13.29 the cabin crew, and only 0.83% are the flight crew. “We are extremely proud of the achievements of the women at SAA, where we are represented throughout the entire company, whether in leadership positions, as well as in the main operational areas”, boasts Zukisa Ramasia, general operational manager of the SAA Group.
The proportion is also similar in Brazilian airline companies. At Gol Linhas Áreas, among the 1.6 thousand pilots in the Company, only 29 are women. And among these, six pilots are captains and 23 are co-pilots.
Making the dream come true.
“Being an airline pilot is not only a career — it is a rewarding style of life, although it demands dedication and discipline. It requires perseverance, determination, and lots of hard work to make one’s dream come true”, explains Capitan Kavistha Maharaj, who pilots a Boeing 737–800 from South Africa Airways (SAA). “There will be obstacles along the way, but with hard work, being strong and not losing sight of one’s objective”, adds Kavistha, who joined the SAA team in June 1995 as a cadet pilot, and became a captain in 2013. She says that since she was a child she always wished to go on adventures and travel. “Being an airplane pilot made this dream come true”.
Ana Luiza Mignone Vieira, 33 years old and a pilot, who studied in the city of São Paulo was the only woman in a group of 25 men while taking the theoretical course for pilots. “My father just loved airplanes. Because of that, since I was six years old, he liked taking me to the airport to see the airplanes. And there he would tell me about them. And that is how I became interested in them”, she remembers. Ana Luiza says she always loved airplanes but could not imagine becoming a pilot. Then four years ago, I felt like studying for that. “I confess I was apprehensive facing so much to learn. I even thought about giving up in the beginning as I did not have so much time to study. So, I decided to give up some time from sleeping in order to study more. I was even sleeping only 4 hours per night sometimes”.
Only six people finished the first part of the course. One of the main factors is the cost for this course, as in general it is quite expensive, but varies according to each case. I graduated in hotel management. Ana Luiza had to study for some more years until she could get her license and become a commercial pilot. “As I am a woman made this objective even more challenging”, she sighs. “Even though women are becoming more common in this field, the field of aviation is still an absolutely male universe”. Ana remembers a great deal of negative reactions when she told about her choice for her life, but nowadays she gets support from her friends and family members.
“I think it is cool to have workmates who are women. I have even flown with a woman. For me it is normal. I have never witnessed any prejudice against women, but I have already heard of some cases”, tells Tiago Tarifa, Brazilian, who is a pilot of an air taxi. It is necessary to put prejudice aside; the fact is that women have worked for a long time with workmates from the opposite sex. In August 2014, the Kenyan Irene Koki Mutungi became the first African woman to be promoted to the position of captain of the most modern commercial aviation in the world, dedicated to long-distance flights, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner form the Kenya Airways airline company. For six years, Irene was the only woman pilot in the company, until other women were hired. “I am anxious to one day, in the near future for this aircraft to be administered by a 100% female team”, she reveals.
The hardships in becoming a pilot do not end just in the training. “Marriage, family, children, separation, moving, as all these things strengthens us in our journey’, shares Claudine Melnik, captain in the Brazilian airline company LATAM (that was called TAM until 2015). “I had to give up my social life, and have daily contact with my family and childhood friends who stayed in Curitiba (a city in southern Brazil) where I was born. As an option, I had to move to São Paulo and then it is not possible to always return home. Another thing I had to give up was not being able to be present on festive dates, birthdays, and celebrations with my family. Countless times, we have changed these dates and celebrate on different dates for our meetings”.
She has been flying for 24 years for the company and she had to face the challenge of getting a job in a scenario where there are few women aviators in the market, especially flying in commercial airlines. That was when I decided to compete for a job as a flight attendant. “After a period of one year and a half flying as a flight attendant, I was able to begin my training as copilot of a C208 Caravan, a single engine plane transporting from 8 to 12 passengers”, she tells. Claudine said that she went through some prejudiced situations. “Yes, there was always the presence of a connotation of joking”. Once in a while, it was necessary to make a harsher comment. “Aviation is a dynamic environment and it is necessary to keep up-to-date with all changes. The day you stop learning is the day you must stop flying”, explains Captain Kavistha Maharaj, who pilots a Boeing 737–800 from South Africa Airways (SAA).
Esther Mbabazi was eight years old when her father was killed in an airplane accident. But that trauma did not prevent her from seeking a career in aviation. When she was 24, she became the first woman pilot in Ruanda; I did not get any resistance from my mother, she remembers. She is fluent in five languages. Esther began studying in the Sorotia flight school in, until she was promoted by the company to the Rwandair area to continue her training in Florida. Nowadays, she flies all over Africa on Bombardier CRJ-900 jets. However, she reveals not to make announcements on flights, because she believes it will make the passengers afraid. “If you work really hard, you will prove you are able to do something well-done. I do not think my being a woman is an issue in this equation”, she believes.
In November 2015, Chipo M. Matimba and Elizabeth Simbi Petros were piloting together on a Boeing B737–200 aircraft from Air Zimbabwe, on a flight from Harare to Victoria Falls. From Facebook, Matimba celebrates their partnership and she wrote: “Painting the sky pink “.
Brazil has 261 women currently as pilots in airlines; compared to 9488 men. And in commercial airline pilots, the female participation accounts for 29 professionals compared to 3708 men. However, the number of women who have gotten airplane pilot licenses has increased from 2014 to 2015. The number increased from 26 to 29 among the female pilots for commercial lines and increased from 238 to 261 as pilots for executive lines.
The first flight for a completely female crew was registered in 1984, when Emily H. Warner and Barbara Cooker piloted an airline plane from Denver to Lexington, in the United States.
The number of women in aviation has increased in the past few years all over the world. IN the last few years, the main international airlines, including in Africa, have announced symbolic flights with airplanes completely run by a female crew, showing the interest of airline companies to equate the genders and empower women. However, the number of women commanding aircraft is still very small compared to the number of men. According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWA), only 4,000 out of 130,000 airplane pilots are women.