Ever settled into the stiff comfort of a commercial airline flight, nestled with snacks and books and beverages, and then jumped out of your seat when a female voice rings out from the Captain’s chair?
Yeah, it’s a thrill. But an impractical one, since there’s no reason why more female voices shouldn’t be humming from the flight deck.
Logically speaking, the entire field of commercial aviation is still relatively young. Early pioneers were largely culled from retired military pilots, who obviously skewed male. Planes aren’t exactly designed to be body-friendly: Changing a tampon in an airline bathroom demands Cirque du Soleil level contortionist skill, and pumping milk on a long haul requires about 60% more space than ever built in the limited lavatories of economy class. But with women still representing only 4% of commercial pilots in the United States and practically no protocols or laws in place to help pilots who are new mothers both keep their jobs and spend time with their families, there’s really no excuse for non-movement.
Nursing a bloated belly during an overnight flight on Norwegian Airlines, I pondered this conundrum. So upon landing, I sought out a source.
Jessica Sundquist is Norwegian Airlines pilot from Stockholm, Sweden, where she’s currently training to become a captain; one of around only 450 female captains worldwide. We spoke about the romance of flying, the responsibility of having hundreds of lives in your hands at a time (“You know you have these passengers, but the focus is still on bringing the aircraft in”), and what thrills her about flying still, today.
What sparked the interest in becoming a pilot?
I don’t remember exactly when I got the idea, but ever since I was a really young kid, I really enjoyed technical stuff. My dad likes to remind me that he’d come home to me having taken the VCR apart because I wanted to see how it looked inside. I loved to play with cars, and seeing planes flying in the sky was a big adventure.
What moved you forward into aviation?
When I was fourteen, I heard about this government funded flight school, thought it sounded really cool, applied, and got in. I had never flown a small plane before, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. It was just a cool adventure and a big challenge.
One of the first days in school we took a small plane up. It was pretty cool. It’s really noisy, but in another way it feels really quiet because everything is so small. The area we were flying over was 100km, all lakes and green, and I remember this feeling of feeling free, of going wherever I wanted. And then I got horrible motion sickness! It was really bad, and I was like, “Oh, I can’t do this!” And then I was like, “No. I’m going to make it through.” The first few flights were really bad, but then I took a turn and it never happened again. Thank god.
What was the gender demographic of your school?
My school was not only about pilot training: they do all kinds of training surrounding aviation like engineering, education, mechanics, airport staff work etc. At the time I went, there were maybe thirty or forty girls of four or five hundred students.
So overall, those are low numbers.
Yes, but the pilot classes were the most even —I think we were 30%. Fewer were studying to become engineers.
Did you feel that your careers were looked at with the same potential?
I never personally had a problem. I’ve heard a lot of stories that girls don’t get the same opportunity or that it’s harder to get that first job, but I never experienced that; I was lucky to get my first job out of flight school on a 737. It was more about putting pressure on myself, that I felt all of the time that I needed to be better because I am a woman.
But looking back now, I think that was more in my own head than pressure from the outside, and I’d be like that in any profession. You want to be good at what you do, and I just wanted to prove that I was as good.
So if gender wasn’t a particular problem — which is stellar to hear — what is the greatest challenge now?
As a pilot, you spend a lot if time away from home, no matter if you are male or female. This means a big challenge when it comes to maintaining good relationships with your partner, family, and friends. You will always be the one to miss a lot of get-togethers, holidays, events and so on. That is the sacrifice we make to be able to do this job.
The biggest difference is that as a woman you always get questioned about your life choice. The three first questions I usually get when people hear that I am pilot are:
- Is it not difficult? So many buttons! (I’m always happy to answer this one: Anything you cannot do is difficult. But if you study and train for it, you’ll learn it!)
- Are you not scared? (No, I’m not scared. The biggest reason for being scared of something is that you do not have the knowledge or understanding of it.)
- How are you ever gonna be able to have kids? What’s your plan? Are you gonna keep on flying when you have kids? Is it not hard to spend all this time away from your family? Is it worth it?
These are questions that I do not think are the same if you are a man or woman. People do not question men for choosing a profession that is going to be hard to combine with family life. Men are not questioned for prioritizing their career in the same way as women are. And 8 out of 10 times these questions come from other women. I have been married to another pilot for a few years, and people do not question him if he is going to keep on flying if/when we have kids, so right there is a big difference.
There are many things employers can improve to help out, but it also comes down to what kind of people and attitudes you choose to surround yourself with. We have to be better to push each other no matter our life choices.
Do you know your airline’s maternity leave policy? The absence of regulation in the U.S. seems to be a big problem.
We get three months paid maternity leave, and then you can have more unpaid if you want. We can only hope it will get better because it can be really hard to make it work. And I think that’s the main reason why more women don’t get into flying.
Has the pressure you’ve put on yourself shifted with time and achievement?
When I started, I had a lot of things going on in my head. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be seen as “the girl.” So I did things to fit in like not wear nail polish, because I didn’t want people to look at me and me being female to take focus. But all of that is gone now. I’m as feminine as I want, I fly this plane, and they go perfectly together! It’s not a problem, at all.
Where did that change come from within you?
I think when you get more experience, and maybe with age as well, you get more self-confidence and self-esteem. I realized that I know how to do this, I can perform well, and I can be a good pilot. I don’t think it’s just me that’s changed — I think a lot of female pilots have changed. Now there are so many young, beautiful, really cool girls that are flying, where it used to be only the military kind of girls that would fly. It’s gone from being a masculine profession where you have to be one of the boys, to where you can be a girly girl and go flying, and it works perfectly.
It’s very different now, because the number of female pilots has grown a lot in these nine years. When I fly, I listen on the radio and really notice if there’s a female voice coming from another aircraft. Now there are female pilots all the time in the air. So that’s great.
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Jacqueline Raposo writes about chefs and food culture. Gathered on WordsFoodArt.com, her stories connect food with family, faith, the environment, and the world at large. She’s written hundreds of interviews and food-focused stories for clients including Saveur, Plate Magazine, The Village Voice, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. Now and then, she writes about living with a chronic illness for clients including Cosmopolitan and BlogHer. And she produces and hosts Love Bites Radio on Heritage Radio Network every Monday at 4pm EST.
Jacqueline lives in New York City with her dog, Mitra, and far too much cooking equipment of formidable weight. She has a thing for hot whiskey and fireplaces in the winter, hammocks and cold-brewed tea in the summer, and manly feminists. Chat her up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.