A Pilot's Perspective.

     By Barry Meek. 

November 2013     

“This is your captain speaking”  SHE said.

When my daughters were younger, around about 10 years old, I took them flying as often as I could.  Although they didn’t seem really crazy about flying, they could both control the airplanes quite well.  Sitting up on a couple of cushions to see over the panel, they would hold on to the yoke with both hands and fly the approaches with great precision.  I was quite amazed at how well they did, and credited their vast experience on video games for their smooth transition to controlling an aircraft. 

For a period of time, it was in my mind that one or both girls may someday go on to a flying career.  But as the years passed, their interest in aviation waned to the point where they expressed no interest if the topic of becoming an airline pilot ever came up.  It wasn’t a big disappointment to me because I’ve always thought they should do what makes them happy, not what someone else would like them to do.   

Today, only about five percent of airline pilots are women.  That number has remained fairly constant for many years.  Some occupy the left seats, and continue to surprise their passengers with remarks over the intercom stating, “This is your captain speaking,” and  welcoming them aboard.   

I’ve not personally known many women who are airline pilots, but I recently received an invitation to meet a delightful, enthusiastic young lady who has earned a right seat with a regional carrier in Western Canada.  Jennifer Lyons works for JAZZ and is based in Vancouver.  We met for coffee at a little shop on the docks in Nanaimo, where we chatted and watched the float planes come and go. 

I discovered, but wasn’t surprised to hear that her history was not unlike the hundreds of young fellows who end up with the airlines after a stint of flight instructing then doing some commuter or bush work.  Jennifer’s instructing jobs, three of them, were all in Victoria.  She was never fired, but lost each job through “attrition”.  The schools closed for one reason or another.   

After the last one and while unemployed, her shot-in-the-dark application to a Toronto-based aerial photo/survey company paid off.   They were seeking a chief pilot and Jennifer’s application pointed out some of her administrative and teaching background.  As she puts it, “I was more qualified for the CP position than any of the other applicants were,” so she was hired to a job that lasted six years.  The work took her all over Canada, including both coasts and into the north.  She’s flown in the Caribbean, and even into Central and South America.  An eighteen-month stay in Ecuador with both good and bad times was the highlight of that career.    

She told me that there was a high degree of stress involved, and when settled back in Canada, she updated her CV with JAZZ.  One day in early 2012, she received a call from their HR department inviting her to be involved in their selection process.  The interview then the simulator ride went well, but that appeared to be the end of it.  She waited for six more weeks before the call came with the news she would be in the next class of pilots.  That, says Jennifer, felt like winning a lottery. 

Flying the airliners is still by far, a man’s world.  Ninety five percent of pilots are men, and while at one time it seemed there was an “old boys club”, most of the dinosaurs are gone.  Attitudes have changed and now there’s nothing holding women back from an airline career, except perhaps the personal sacrifices.  The fact is that in society today, women choose their own roles.  While some choose professions that our parents and grandparents would not have considered, most will also decide to be in charge of a home and family.  Jennifer admits that working as a pilot can involve being away from home for long periods, living with the fatigue and stress of travel.  There are also the very real demands of strict training, along with maintaining her good health.  The nature of the work can clash with the stability and leadership required for a happy home situation.  So for now at least, that part of her life is on hold.  But she hopes that someday the husband and home will be a reality and somehow she will balance it all.   

Jennifer has some thoughts to share for anyone, women in particular who seek an aviation career.  She submitted the following to me:

 “Speaking as a flight instructor, I would say to someone wanting a career in flying: aim for flexibility while planning your career.  The three most rewarding jobs I have had in flying were in fields I never knew even existed. One day you could be sending a young student on her first solo.  Next you could be flying solo across the country, or counting harp seals on the Labrador sea ice from 600' ASL.  Then it could be requesting permits to cross Colombian airspace at FL270 en route to Ecuador.  And it could all be in the same month.  I couldn't have fathomed the variety that exists in this crazy industry.”

 “Speaking as a pilot, some of the best times I've had were at work.  It's the old adage of ‘never working a day in your life’ if you love your job. But I went into flying just being happy to get up there sometimes, and if someone paid me for it eventually, that was a nice bonus. In pursuit of a commercial license and an eventual job in flying, consider this: you could build 200 hours flying from Victoria to Nanaimo and back several dozen  times.  Or you could fly to the Bahamas and back. Costs the same, so which would you prefer?”

Jennifer’s most rewarding job: teaching.
Most fun flying:  photo/survey.  That meant sometimes running down a frozen river valley or circling blue icebergs near Blanc Sablon, Q.C. in February; then flying over reefs and islands in the Caribbean in June. The variety was never-ending.

Best recent flights:  Hand-flying a Dash-8 down a mountain valley, on a clear day on the visual approach following the Blueberry Paulson Highway into Castlegar.

Best perks:  overnights at resorts in places like Acapulco, Vallarta and Grand Cayman. Paid vacation, as they say.

Most amazing concept: being handed a Navajo or Twin Commander and telling me,  "Find your way to Ecuador" (or Monterey CA, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Mexico, the Arctic).

 I was impressed with the joy and enthusiasm that radiated from this woman.  She’s truly found her niche in life.  Perhaps if my daughters had someone like Jennifer as a mentor, there would be at least one more pilot in my family.   

Jennifer Lyons has a travel blog up on the Internet, started during the days of flying in South America.  She is also posting stories and thoughts about her new career with JAZZ. You can find it at:    http://skyhighone.blogspot.ca/  

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