We fly straight into the world of female pilots as they commandeer and maneuver a winged vehicle so high off the ground, stowing away whatever it is that we are doing to listen to what it truly takes to become successful in the aviation industry.
As we rattle and shake with anticipation in the same manner as the aircraft before takeoff, we must first buckle our seatbelts and get ready to sit back and enjoy the flight as we hear of the thrills, sorrows, and joys of being way up in the skies.
Female pilots are well-hidden gems in the male-dominated field of aviation. Though the job description boasts masculine words like “dangerous” and “risky” firmly attached to it, women pilots are rarely absent from the action. Today’s cockpit has airline pilots like Iya Halagueña, Emily Esguerra, and Jazmine Tia, who navigate the everyday rise and dip of the sun, knowing they would have — and love — to do the same thing again the next day.
Being in the aviation industry for seven years now, Iya Halagueña shares, “I’ve been flying commercially since 2011. This is my seventh year flying the Airbus 320. I was a First Officer or co-pilot for six years before I was finally upgraded to Captain in Air Asia.” Coming from a family background of airline professionals, flight school had always been a career she considered, but one she wasn’t necessarily aiming to pursue.
Iya still remembers the moment when her ambition to fly was solidified. She recalls, “When I was 19 years old, I was a passenger in a commercial flight from Ho Chi Minh to Manila. The first officer was a beautiful female pilot. I met the captain and the female first officer and I remember being so enthralled with the fact that a woman was flying the aircraft,” Likewise, current First Officer Emily Esguerra remembers what it was like working with the cabin crew before hearing an eventual calling to take command of the controls. She says, “After getting my nursing license, I tried applying with Philippine Airlines. When I fortunately got in, I got to experience how it [was] like to be part of the flight crew. During my first flight, my curiosity kicked in, so I started asking the captains on how they fly the aircraft and how to become a pilot. That’s when my dream to become one started.”
The job itself is no easy flight, despite whatever airy misconception people have about being up in the clouds. It is through undergoing a number of tests and flight simulator sessions that pilots finally get the chance to prove how worthy they are of the position. Emily explains, “Primarily, to be able to start flying, one would only need a Student Pilot License, a medical certificate, and some basic flying classes. But as you move forward with your career, it will take a series of written and practical tests and hours of simulator sessions.”
Giving us more depth and detail, Iya adds, “In the Philippines, to be able to qualify as a student pilot in a flight school, one has to pass the medical screening in the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines. This entails going through an extensive physical exam (vision, dental, x-ray, ECG, etc.). After having been cleared by the doctor, one can start with the application process and training in a flight school,” If that long list of screening requirements wasn’t enough, Iya also talks about the classes that aspiring pilots are required to take in order to gain the knowledge and skill set they have now. She continues to go on, saying “One will have to take classes, trainings and exams on ground and in flight. The classes include subjects like navigation, meteorology, air law, operational procedures, and so on,” Even then, passing the required classes and then sitting in the cockpit, knowing the many different controls and features, and merely activating Autopilot does not guarantee smooth sailing. Emily attests to that fact, saying, “People usually ask me if we do anything during the flight or do we just turn on the Autopilot as soon as we take off. Ultimately, yes, we turn on the Autopilot as soon as we can, but our jobs do not end there,” From the very second of departure to arrival, pilots will not rest unless they have successfully ensured the safety of the hundred or more passengers on board for the whole flight; and just like any other office worker, they too have to tackle heavy mountains of paperwork afterwards. “We still do a handful of other things like paperworks, position reports, fuel computations, and weather monitoring.” shares Emily.
It goes without saying that while the aviation industry has yet to arrive at its destination of a gender role-free zone, people do still have their initial stigma and judgement against the idea of aviation under female hands. Being another First Officer of an Airbus 320, Jazmine Tia has been in the business for 11 years — a timeframe long enough to make the double standards evident. Jazmine explains, “Most of the time, when people ask me what my profession is and I tell them that I am a pilot, they always make a comment that the pilot profession [is] for men, with relation to my male counterparts. Some underestimate my capability and treat me lightly, which can have a positive or negative repercussions depending on the specific situation.”
Moreover, Iya shares, “As a female captain, I would still get comments like ‘Oh, bakit ayaw mo pa magka-anak?’ I think remarks like these stem from the old cultural belief that females are meant to stay home and take care of the household,” On the other hand, Emily also acknowledges the gender stigma, but only to shake it off as a small obstacle compared to the rest of the unwanted opinions and comments that comes with being a female pilot. “It was somehow challenging to fit in at first, but I would not consider the gender issue as the greatest one,” she admits, then later on adds, “I can say that the challenge I face everyday as a pilot is being able to bring home your passengers safely to families. Having 180 lives on board an aircraft is definitely a big responsibility.”
Regardless of whatever pushback or judgment that may arise, Iya has found her true passion up in the skies and it is her confidence in her abilities that keeps her grounded at all times, as she shares, “This may be a male-dominated career, and it may be challenging for us women to fit in. However, if we put our heart and mind to it, we can do a job as good as men. This is not the easiest career path, you have to love and be passionate about it. It would be physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding but the sense of accomplishment that you would feel for every take and landing would all be worth it.”
Moreover, she affirms that she is a believer and supporter of women empowerment, saying, “Women, just like men, are meant to have rich and fulfilling lives. I think it’s important for women to identify what makes them feel empowered. In my case, I feel fulfilled being able to manage the stresses of airline flying. I feel fulfilled being able to inspire more women to take up the challenge of being in a male dominated industry.”
Speaking for all pilots like her, Iya ends the interview with encouraging words. “For aspiring pilots, believe that anything and everything is possible, and things you desire are available to you. When you operate on this mindset, you are able to do and offer more things that are of substance. When you love yourself and do things that bring you joy, you become your highest self.” And with that, as the saying goes, the sky’s the limit after all.