The Women Pilots Changing the Landscape of Aviation

By Shaan Khan (01/10/21)

Taking the helm of 90,000 pounds of metal that hurls across the globe in terrific conditions with hundreds of passengers stored inside’ is a massive responsibility and an accomplishment that deserves the utmost admiration.

Since its conception, the honourable duty of a pilot has been culturally delegated to men disproportionately. It’s hindered the perception that women, in general, are capable of such tasks, that it’s more probable for men to succeed over women in the field of aviation.

Women pilots before and now, play a pivotal role in breaking the mould and here are the inspirational pilots who go beyond the call of duty of flying planes to take advantage of press and social media to inspire the next generations.

In a World Before Social Media

Aviation was rooted in the West and completely changed the landscape of transportation. The early 1900s was its early experimental years and with gender roles being a prominent part of society—naturally, men were the ones signing up for the brave task of testing this unusual technology to its limits.

The woman who decided not to sit down and let this happen was Amelia Earhart, that had a life goal—to fight the infuriating cultural limitations set on her gender while the technological world was rapidly evolving with new opportunities being hogged by men.

Courtesy of Amelia Earhart Official on Instagram

Amelia wasn’t fortuned to be part of a family of aviation pioneers or having strong ties with higher-ups in the industry, she and her family had gone through financial turmoil and Amelia would go on to picking up a range of jobs such as nursing, teaching, social working, truck driving, photography and stenography.

While nursing in the deadly age of the Spanish Flu, she had contracted the virus that would haunt her with permanent symptoms and several surgeries throughout the bulk of her lifetime.

Her life of selfless duties did not distract Amelia Earhart from her passion for aviation as she tirelessly saved up money for flight lessons and studied the field as the intellect she was that loved reading books—becoming an author herself someday.

Earhart earned her license to fly and spent her lifetime breaking records in aviation with over ten records and achievements to her name. Earhart’s fame had catapulted when she became the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

She used the fame to voice her inspiring story, promote her views and actions of women empowerment, and even helped form the organisation ‘The Ninety Nines’ devoted to supporting women into becoming pilots through education and funding—which is still running till this day.

Amelia Earhart was a daring adventurer who sought out complex flight missions to test herself. In 1937 at aged 39, Earhart attempted a mission to fly around the world but sadly disappeared while crossing the Pacific Ocean. Despite the conspiracies to her vanishing, she had left her mark on the world, inspiring many future female pilots to come, in countries where women are massively unrepresented in aviation.

Following in the Footsteps

South African born woman, Refilwe Ledwaba, could relate with Earhart since her present-day nation faced similar gender disparity in aviation as America was in the early 1900s. Refilwe was on the path of becoming a doctor, having graduated with a degree in microbiology and biochemistry. In her time of study, she was surprised that a pilot on a plane had made an announcement over the speaker with the voice of a woman.

Ledwaba was in disbelief that the pilot was a woman and while captivating her, it spurred on a new dream of hers to become a pilot. She decided to save up money for flight lessons while working as a cabin crew member for South African Airways.

Writing over 200 letters to companies offering pilot opportunities, Ledwaba finally found one that would fund her training to become a helicopter pilot while further supporting her in acquiring a commercial pilot’s license.

Becoming South Africa’s first black female helicopter pilot, Ledwaba also decided to start up a non-profit organisation known as the Girl Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) that aims to empower young women by supporting them into STEM fields and organising flying camps that teach members the essentials subjects of aviation and offering free flying lessons at the same time.

This inspiring story was highlighted by international media such as the BBC in 2018 and the Malala Organisation in 2020. Undoubtedly spreading the word to further inspire women similarly to Ledwaba had been. 

Amelia Earhart was a seed planted in America with roots that have reached continents as far as Africa, but there are more ways to supplement growth than press—social media.

The Insta Pilots 

Instagram is a home to individuals capturing their lifestyles through the power of photography and video. With around one billion users, it’s far from a niche communication platform. Instead, a perfect platform to spread a message and invoke cultural change.

Whether orchestrated or not, the women pilots on Instagram are not hard to find with many proudly including the title of ‘pilot’ in their usernames or at least a reference to aviation. Opting to be non-discrete shouts attention to their profession and rightfully so as a tool of promotion—making it easier for people like myself to find women pilots and learn about their experience and lifestyle surrounding the field. But how do they use their platforms with this added responsibility being the 5% of women in aviation internationally?

Let’s take Mariathepilot on Instagram for example, raking in a total of 523k followers; her posts surely hold weight on being influential. She captures a health & well-being centric lifestyle full of travel and leisure, attracting many women to achieve this goal that’s possible as a pilot. 

Courtesy of Mariathepilot’s Instagram page

While being a motivational figure who promotes positive ways to live and not just flaunting her wealth, Maria also produces informative content about piloting and aviation that’s made palpable to people with zero knowledge of the field.

She will make short videos attempting to quickly debunk conspiracy theories with her knowledge and will offer plane facts with text bubbles over exclusive video content that she captured being in the position of a commercial pilot.

Mariathepilot uses her social influence for the greater good of society by repeatedly pushing for women empowerment in posts that call out the negative stigma of women not being fit to be pilots in general.

Another positive way Maria used her platform was to post a video interview where she gifts attention to another woman in aviation, Nashat Jahandari from Iran, the only female pilot captain of her nation. 

It’s good to see women pilots on social media promoting one another to continually prove the naysayers wrong, but with a build-up of more examples of successful women pilots presented to us, then we can begin accepting that women are just as suitable at the role as men and women witnessing this will garner more confidence in becoming pilots themselves.

Nashat Jahandari gives hope to many women in the Middle East as she proudly wears her hijab and dresses modestly while being in a role with great responsibility. Its shattering traditional representations many uphold on Muslim women and when Jahandari first received her title as captain, it was recorded on video and posted onto her Instagram and received worldwide attention—another huge milestone for women in aviation.

Courtesy of Nashat Jahandari’s Instagram page

You can find many women pilots being active on social media and all transmit different types of positive messages to the world with their creative twists influenced by their unique backgrounds. Since I can’t mention them all, here are some honorary mentions I want to include of women pilots on a variety of social media platforms:

  • Pilotsalma on Instagram – The first Emirati female pilot in Etihad Airways that makes insightful posts surrounding her daily life as a pilot from the Middle East.
  • Pilotmarie on Instagram – A female airline pilot of Swedish origin. Her posts give an inside look at how she balances family and pilot life having a child herself.
  • Pilot Brit on TikTok – This female pilot offers a TikTok page full of facts and details associated with being a pilot. Also, the opinions and experiences that pilots share. Watching a few videos might surprise you with a new outlook on pilots you never had before.
  • Just Planes on YouTube – A channel with a range of content of women all over the world piloting planes, giving you an inside view of how these pilots operate from within the cockpit. These videos are not only informative; they also showcase the brilliance of these women first-hand and can instil admiration for them even in the sceptics, once presented with such irrefutable proof. Well, maybe not because there is an excuse or conspiracy theory for everything these days!

The All-Women Crew

While the press and social media are great tools to spread the message of women pilots, Amelia Earhart knew her actions would speak louder than words and breaking multiple records as a woman was a way to say, ‘not only can I fly a plane; I can do it better than most men!’. There’s no better way at instilling confidence in passengers than knowing you have an exceptional pilot.

The Air India airline employs the most women pilots globally, with roughly 12.4% of its pilots being female—consisting of 210 pilots and 103 captains. The airline has a forward approach to continue this growth and become the first to break the gender disparity within airlines. However, they recognise international stigma and that many of their passengers are foreigners.

The Indian government and Air India decided to support a mission where an all-women cockpit crew representing the nation and airline would go onto fly the world’s longest air route between San Francisco to Bengaluru—passing over the North Pole in the process.

Their triumphant return at the airport was captured on video and posted onto YouTube with both men & women congratulating their accomplishment in the comment section with this new leap they had made in aviation—proving the competency of women pilots.

The All-Women Cockpit Crew – Courtesy of ndtv on Instagram

The Future for Women in Aviation

Once we had dolls that represented glamour models, we now have a barbie-inspired Amelia Earhart dollreleased in 2018. 

Refilwe Ledwaba struggled to find a uniform suitable for women after becoming a helicopter pilot; in the future, there should be many pilot uniforms tailored for women.

We are in a time of change. Still, it’s important to raise awareness to the stone-cold truth that becoming a pilot is hardly accessible for most people who aren’t wealthy with lots of free time to spare. 

Thankfully, there are scholarship programs that will offer all the support into making you a pilot if you’re willing to prove your dedication to succeed as one. CAE Women in Flight is a scholarship program run by women pilots and catered to aspiring women pilots. If you feel like you’ve got what it takes, then consider your options and determine if applying to a scholarship program is for you.

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