April 21, 2015

Getting Chicks Into the Cockpit

Turkish Airlines CEO Temel Kotil triggered some debate and had a few pilots chuckling in response to his suggestion that in order to avoid another Germanwings suicide scenario, pilots should get married. He also noted that Turkish Airlines only has 40 female pilots on its roster out of 4,000 pilots. Mr. Kotil said he would like “…at least 10% of our pilots [to] be female, meaning 400 in total. I invite all women who meet the criteria to become pilots.” While Mr. Kotil meant no harm by either comment, both sentiments were spoken by someone who truly doesn’t understand what it takes to be a pilot. It points to lifestyle issues that all pilots, male and female, have to deal with.

The marriage solution is laughable. According to Airline Pilot Central, “Nearly 75% of some pilot groups have been divorced at least once.  Some have been divorced even two or three times.” Marriage is by no means a guarantee of satisfaction. The significance of marriage varies between cultures. With some marriages also comes the devastating effects of divorce. While devastating, most mentally healthy people can still handle the turmoil. It’s a life event that has become common, even though it’s not easy. People dissolve relationships all the time without killing a plane load of people. It wouldn’t have mattered what his marital status was but according to the report, Kotil said, “That [Germanwings] crash happened after the pilot, who caused the accident, broke up with his girlfriend. Hence, my friends, know that we are absolutely encouraging single pilots to marry.” The Germanwings’ copilot fell into a fatal depression due to a mental illness, not because he broke up with his girlfriend.

Any industry that requires its workers to be away from home for long periods of time, combined with low pay, high stress, furloughs and mergers is an added burden to any relationship. The reality is that there aren’t a lot of women pilots because not a lot of women want to be pilots. Women have proven to the world that we can hurl a piece of machinery through the air at a high rate of speed just as gloriously as a man, but it’s just not that high on our list of priorities. If a woman wants to be a pilot, she can be a pilot, so why are only 4% of all Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) licenses issued to women, and how does our society change that statistic?

There is an international qualified pilot shortage. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been requested to research this phenomenon by influential aviation stakeholder organizations. Among the extensive list of concerns is the general question of why Private Pilot certificates have declined by 10,000 each in the past few years? But more specifically, why isn’t anyone asking: Where are all the women? By simply asking the specific question, we may be able to change perceptions.

One of the many answers is as simple as the lack of role models and mentors. While I was growing up, the most famous female icon I knew of disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, ending up in the bottom of the deep blue sea wasn’t necessarily on my list of wants or desires. I also didn’t immediately embrace the idea of flocking to a high-stress, high-demand job that requires long absences from home. My addiction started unintentionally when I got a job working the front desk of a busy FBO in Minnesota. Since I was in the right place at the right time, I met a series of mentors that propelled me forward. I was guided by their enthusiasm as well as their knowledge, but only two of them were women.

My aviation desires began with dreams of flying machines and traveling the world. I had yet to learn about crew scheduling, furloughs, junior assignments, seniority, commuting, and base changes. I learned quickly that it requires sacrifice and self-discipline and those that thrive in commercial aviation are pilots that can compartmentalize career from family. We might as well admit that women, by design and desire, are still the primary family caregivers. Political correctness aside; it’s just the way it is and we have to acknowledge it’s a factor in the cycle. We’re good at it and it comes more naturally. There are millions of men who are just as good if not better at child rearing than women, but they’re not often pilots. And of course, that’s the catch of being in aviation. For far too many women, it’s a fabulous ten to fifteen year career until “it” happens. Your schedule goes haywire, you miss your child smiling, walking, birthdays, holidays, and just being home. A mechanical problem in a foreign land means you are three days late getting home…how do you find daycare to handle that kind of schedule? It’s not that men don’t feel this way about it; it’s just that more women are willing to sacrifice their careers to fix the problem and be the stay-at-home parent.

Our culture has not caught up with its ideology (letting women “have it all”), but I will firmly state that it’s headed in the right direction. I gratefully and deeply thank all those men who watched me walk in the cockpit, never having flown with a woman before, and treated me just like everyone else. Despite what they might have thought internally, the majority were respectful, professional, and eventually got used to the idea that the chick in their cockpit was just trying to earn a living like they were. They got used to me being there and thankfully forgot that I was anything but a pilot and in return, I learned a deep appreciation for the ability of men and women to work together and thrive as a team.

When the airlines and charter companies recognize their enormous return on investment by creating an environment that acknowledges that pilots also have families, which is important to work/life balance, then you will see more women coming to aviation and more woman and men staying…but it will take time. It will take mentors encouraging women and men to join the pilot ranks and it will take company executives to create a supportive business culture that recognizes the stress this career puts on family. It is too often with heavy hearts that many seasoned pilots cannot enthusiastically recommend this magnificent profession and in the end, women are cognizant that even though we’ve broken through the glass ceiling in the sky, we’re still the ones that have to pick up all the broken glass at home.

Erika Armstrong has been in aviation for 25-years. From the front desk of an FBO to the captain’s seat of an airliner, she’s experienced everything aviation has to offer. If you have comments or questions, she can be reached at [email protected]

Zimmer, Ven. “Why Is the Divorce Rate so High for Pilots.” Airline Pilot Cental. N.p., 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 20.

Photo by DHA

About the Author

Erika Armstrong



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  • Laura Laster

    Erika – great post. You have come up with an excellent summary of so much of what I have seen in the world of aviation. You have also pinpointed why there aren’t more people (men and women) being attracted to a career in aviation anymore. Bravo!

  • Dave

    Nice work Erika – I have seen the gender ratio in my field change significantly over the years with more women chosing the engineering field. Hopefully avaiation can accomplish the same thing by addressing the lifestyle issues you bring up in your post.

  • ewrcap

    First of all, married guys go bonkers too. Secondly, I am an official old fart and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to have more female first officers. A nice change from the all male (and all white) hyper macho, conservative group i grew up with. I remember in 1976 I was flying for Saudia. A female pilot was flying in a Citation from Switzerland. Jeddah ATC refused to answer her.