There are many notable women who have been pioneering and excelling in their industry all over the world this year. Today, we celebrate a fellow mama in her accomplishment in the aviation world!
In the spirit of honouring aspiring women for International Women’s Day, we interviewed British Airways senior first officer, Alex Smith as she celebrates her 20th anniversary with the airline. She shares details of her typical day, discusses juggling flying life with family life and explains why too many women wrongly assume being a pilot is only a job for the boys.
Sassy Mama: What made you want to become a pilot?
Alex: Lots of pilots have family who are pilots too – but not me. A friend’s dad was a gliding instructor in the Air Force and he introduced me to flying, so while at university studying for my bio chemistry degree I joined the university air squadron. I always knew I wanted to work for British Airways once I’d completed my course. I enquired but the scheme wasn’t open yet. They said to keep an eye out and low and behold a few weeks after I was reading Cosmo and spotted an advert for the Cadet Pilot Scheme (now the Future Pilot Programme) so I applied and was accepted! Today, I’m a teacher on the Programme.
SM: Talk us through your average day as a pilot?
A: As a 747 long haul pilot, I report to work between 7am and 9pm depending on where I’m flying. I’ll meet with rest of crew and one or two other pilots. We gather together all the relevant info for the flight, then go to aircraft and spend 40 minutes preparing the plane. The busiest time is often on the ground making sure we’re going to have a safe flight, fully briefing for departure and flight ahead. Once we’re in cruise we can relax a little bit, making sure we always do regular checks on things such as fuel and weather to ensure a safe flight. As pilots, we like to go out and meet the passengers during the flight. It gives us a chance to say hello, but also put the minds of nervous flyers at ease. Sometimes all it takes is a smile, while others have questions about the flight or flying in general. I think hearing things explained by a pilot can really help people who suffer with a fear of flying a great deal. On route we’ll hold an arrival briefing to update on any information as required. With flying it can be a normal day but I always have to expect the unexpected.
SM: What advice would you give to women who would like to become pilots?
A: To do it! It’s a wonderful career. But I think women often make the mistake of self-discriminating by telling themselves that being a pilot is a man’s role. Don’t self-discriminate because you’re a woman – British Airways is an equal opportunities employer! If you are indeed interested in flying, go to local flying club and have an air experience flight. People who fly are passionate about it and you’ll soon realise if it is or isn’t for you. But be sure to research the role as it’s a lifestyle career with irregular hours which won’t suit everybody.
SM: Do you think it’s harder for women to become pilots?
A: No! If you have the aptitude it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. There are certain characteristics pilots have but women are just as likely to have them as men. If you’re somebody that needs a routine it won’t be for you as it’s not a 9-5, but if you enjoy variety then it’s great.
SM: Would you recommend your job to other women?
A: Absolutely! I have friends who say “Look at you going off to hotels!”. The reality of doing it four times a month isn’t quite the same as doing it as a treat now and again. But it really is a family friendly career as you can do full time or part time to suit your lifestyle. Before I had children, I was lucky enough to live and work abroad in Germany (I can now speak the language!), Portugal and a year in Australia where I completed my British Airways sponsored pilot training.
SM: As a working mum, how do you balance your time with your kids and your spouse?
A: It does take effort juggling work with family time, especially as I can be flying on weekends when most families socialise together and see friends. I put a lot of thought into my monthly flying roster, collating dates I’d like to be at home for different events and entering them into the sophisticated bidding program that British Airways has, which we use to request our trips. When I am away from home flying, I plan my sleep accordingly and make sure I rest as much as possible so I’m fresh for the flight and for my time at home.
SM: Are there any special traditions you do with your kids before you fly? What are they?
A: My children have only ever known me as a pilot and are very accepting of the fact that I go away. If I leave early before they are up in the mornings or while they are out at school I like to leave them a written note, wishing them luck or to have a lovely time in whatever they might be doing. I also make every effort to take them to school before I leave, or to get back from a trip in time to do so; this way it feels like I’ve been with them that extra day, rather than at work.
SM: In light of International Women’s Day, who do you look up to as a female role model and why?
A: I admire all working mums! We’ve been educated to have such amazing career opportunities but the balance between a successful career and being a successful mother is a fine one. Media criticisms can be harsh and we can feel guilt that we give neither one nor the other 100 per cent. We work hard at both and hope we are setting the best example to our children.
We’d like to thank Alex Smith for sharing with us her incredible role as a senior first officer and a mama!