Female Pilots Are Flying High

Female pilot in commercial aircraft cockpit

Angelo Giampiccolo / Shutterstock

I recently saw an image of a group of all-female pilots who had landed in Saudi Arabia — where women aren't allowed to drive — that has been going viral. Shown in the image are Capt. Sharifah Czarena, and senior first officers Sariana Nordin and Dk Nadiah Pg Khashiem. The all-female crew flew a commercial 787 Dreamliner from Brunei to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the feat was a first for Royal Brunei Airlines. The picture got me wondering about other commercial airline pilots who also happen to be women.

In all my years of flight, I can recall only two occasions when my pilot was a woman. Both times I was pleasantly surprised to hear a woman's voice on the loudspeaker. There have been instances when passengers refused to board a flight commanded by a female pilot, but I had the opposite reaction. I was more relaxed, maybe because my grandmother flew small planes.

Still Underrepresented

But women are still dramatically underrepresented in aviation. Only about 5 percent of pilots are women. This statistic has changed little in the United States since the 1980s, though it seems to be rising in other countries. It's strange when you consider that the most famous pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart, was an American woman and that women have a long and storied history of flying planes. But a recent push for more women at the front of aircraft has gotten lots of press, and it's exciting to see the tide is turning.

On March 8, International Women's Day, Air India flew 20 all-female flights throughout India and the world. These flights included the long-haul San Francisco to New Delhi flight, which is a more than 17-hour haul. Not only were the pilot and first officer women, so were the flight crew, the cabin attendants, and the on-board doctor. Even ground staff including the air traffic controller, check-in staff, and customer care agents were women.

Noteworthy Trek

According to Conde Nast Traveler, "... this particular trek is noteworthy for its length: The 14,500-kilometer (9,000-mile) route, led by Captain Kshamta Bajpayee and Captain Shubhangi Singh, makes it the longest flight ever operated by an entirely female crew." Air India was the first in the world to have an all-women flight crew back in 1985. Check out Air India's other all-female crews on the airline's Twitter feed, which documented the lady-helmed voyages.

In the video, you'll meet Capt. Irene Koki Mutungi, who piloted Air Kenya's fourth 787 Dreamliner home from the factory. She and the first officer talk about their different routes to becoming pilots and flying one of the world's largest airplanes.

Air Zimbabwe had an all-female crew on a November flight from Harare to Victoria Falls, and the pilots were pretty excited about it. As Lilit Marcus' reported, Copilot Matimba wrote, "History has been made! First all-female flight deck crew on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737! Two CAPTAINS!! Absolute pleasure Captain Elizabeth Simbi Petros! #FLYBABES. #PaintingTheSkyPink!'"

Shortly thereafter, Ethiopian Airlines followed suit on a route from Addis Abba to Bangkok, Thailand. In 2013, Air France had an all-female crew in charge of an Airbus 380 that flew from Paris to Washington. Capt. Christine Debouzy was in charge of that flight, and she's also the treasurer of the French Women Pilot Association.

Debouzy wants more women to get involved in flying and she wonders what's stopping them: "... in Europe, there no real barrier today preventing women to become a pilot. There is still a mental restraint, a lack of knowledge that the possibility exists. Also, we need more women executives and instructors, to whom girls can look up to for inspiration,” Debouzy told the Gender Gap Grader, which created a detailed report on women in aviation.

Women working in other areas of aviation have increased their roles more than pilots have: According to Women of Aviation Week:

"Female air traffic controllers now represent 26% of the air traffic controller population. Female flight dispatchers stand at nearly 18% of the people working in this field. Even female aerospace engineers have made greater progress. Virtually non-existent in 1960, the percentage of women making a living as aerospace engineers reached 9.2% in 2010."

Women's pilot groups are also working to get more women entering flight training schools: JetBlue, British Airways, and Air France all have programs to recruit well-qualified women to increase diversity, so chances are, we'll see more women in the cockpit in coming years.