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A long haul flight: Filipina pilots defy gravity and gender stereotypes

For many, a pilot’s job may seem like the ultimate dream—but female pilots find the industry marred with gender disparity.

Imagine taking a sip from your morning coffee in the cockpit while you cruise through the morning skies.

When you land, you’ll be in a rendezvous with a foreign country’s culture, food, and landmarks. And if that wasn’t enough, you’re getting paid for every hour spent cruising through the heavens. While a pilot’s job may seem enticing to those who want to touch the clouds, the aviation industry is a rocky field to navigate. And in a male-dominated profession, the road seems trickier and unpromising toward female pilots.

To be a female aviator means to be a part of the global five-percent minority, a CNN article posits. The antecedent of this figure is rooted in layers of flawed societal construct, leading to the complex gender bias in the aviation industry. “[You need perspective], determination, and ‘yung lakas ng loob, kasi not [everyone] can handle being in [this] industry,” Airbus A320 pilot and Philippine Airforce reservist Chezka Gonzales—famously known as Filipina Pilot Chezka—imparts.

(You need perspective, determination, and mental fortitude…)

Making it to that five percent was a long-haul flight for these women. But Filipina pilots consistently prove they are capable of soaring across the altitudes.

Gracing the runway

To some, being a pilot may sound like the ultimate dream. For Veronica Limcaoco, a second officer for a leading international Filipino airline, she’s always floating on the clouds, literally and metaphorically.  “I think it’s a very fun job,” she attests. “Everyone wants to be a pilot, to travel more often than not.”

Speaking of travel, Malaysia holds a special place in Gonzales’ heart as it was the first time her parents witnessed her flying the plane they’re on. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away lies Limcaoco’s favorite destination: London. “There’s so many things that happen in that city, you just don’t get bored,” she claims. After all, what’s not to love about a place teeming with castles, culture, and the home of Freddie Mercury just two blocks away from her hotel.

But it is not always about fun layovers, because pilots must constantly meet the practical demands of the job. “It’s not [a] vacation your whole life,” Limcaoco jets. Pilots frequently undergo rigorous training, simulations, and exams to keep their licenses up to date. The meticulous process is only reasonable because pilots are responsible for safely delivering passengers to their destinations—even if it takes them 12 hours to do so.

Impending turbulence

But there are still many who underestimate women taking command in the cockpit. Both pilots believe that the reason why others see being a pilot as a man’s game is because of its association with militaristic imagery, which is more commonly seen as a masculine field. “Sa uniform pa lang, pang lalaki na…kaya ‘yun ‘yung thinking na baka pang lalaki talaga ‘tong trabahong ‘to,” Gonzales supports.

(Even the uniform is seemingly for guys. Hence, people think that being a pilot is for men.)

Further, hurdles faced by female aviators can also be traced to stereotyping women in the industry as stewardesses. “If you’re a kid…you automatically think that…if I’m a girl [working in the airline industry], I’ll be a flight attendant…because that’s what [we] were taught growing up,” Limcaoco explicates. Even with their license and certification, female pilots encounter heavy discrimination and discrediting from passengers. Gonzales recalls a rough experience with a foreign passenger who refused to board the plane upon learning that a woman was going to fly it. She quips, Feeling lang nila mas magaling pa rin [kapag] lalaki.”

(They feel that male pilots are better than us.)

These bigoted remarks are all the more upsetting when it comes from their colleagues. “You really start off with people thinking you’re [disabled], that you were given an advantage because you’re a woman,” Limcaoco disputes. “Do [they] think that I’m passing [the trainings and exams] ‘cause [I’m a girl and] I have [it] easier?”

They are also outnumbered in the cockpit; an all-female flight is rarely ever encountered. So, female pilots have to project themselves in a high regard in the workplace. “[I have] every reason to perform at my best—if not better than my colleagues—because I never want them to have me being a woman as an excuse,” Limcaoco avers.

Clear skies ahead

Through these means, female pilots represent the minority, breaking gender stereotypes and striving for equality in the aviation workforce. But Gonzales’ and Limcaoco’s mission extends beyond the flight industry.

“For 10 years, I was very comfortable [in my job], then in one snap nawala siya,” the Airbus A320 pilot expresses, reminiscing how she lost her job as First Officer at the cusp of the pandemic. But she refused to let strong winds falter her; she turned to YouTube and TikTok—which made their debuts prior to the pandemic—to tell her journey. Through her educational content, her mission is to amplify the message that one can be who they want to be, despite the hurdles that one could face in their journey.

(It all disappeared.)

Meanwhile, Limcaoco continues to advocate for women’s empowerment through Girls Got Game PH—an organization which “aims to equip pre-teen girls with an athlete’s mind and body to help them rise out of their current situations and break the cycle of poverty.” “We want to create a safe space for young girls to discover [a] sport and at the same time, [to teach] them values like discipline, hard work, [and] teamwork,” she expounds. Whether in sports or aviation, she elicits the same ethos of gender equality to inspire women in championing a world free of bias and discrimination so they can have an equal footing in society’s playing field. “Regardless [if you’re] a guy [or] a girl, [I hope, one day]…we have the exact same opportunities in life,” she imparts.

Despite their encounters with gender-related crosswinds in the industry, both pilots agree that the job is rewarding and fulfilling. “I want to be in the airline industry forever,” beams Gonzales. Aviation bequeaths its wings to those who dare to reach for the skies. As a word of inspiration, she encourages one to follow what they want to do in life, “[because] it’s not about the title, it’s [about] happiness.”

To truly be a Filipina pilot means to start so that the others can. “Even if [people] think it’s impossible, maybe [one woman] can be that person to take the first step and pave the way for other girls,” Limcaoco imparts.

So for all aspiring Filipina pilots, the bright horizon awaits your arrival.

By Laurence Pontejos

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