What challenges did I face on the flight deck?
My name is Joanne Jordan (nickname JoJo) and I'd like to share with you my experience as a pilot in the aviation industry which I've been fortunate enough to be in for over 26 years.
My dream of flying started at the age of 14 when my brother wanted to become a pilot and I thought of going into the hotel industry. I was invited to go up with him on an introduction flight to see if he wanted to pursue aviation as a career. During the flight, the instructor gave me an opportunity to fly a bit, and that’s when I knew I wanted to become a pilot. After we landed, I ran to my mom and shouted: "This is what I want to do with my life”. Subsequently, My brother studied hotel management and I became the pilot.
The next step was spent researching options on how to become an airline pilot, as coming from a single-parent home we couldn't afford the private pilot training path.
After high school, I took a gap year and worked as ground staff at the Johannesburg International Airport and during that time I applied for the Cadet pilot sponsorship program at SAA (South African Airways). The grueling selection process took 3 months to complete all the necessary tests (medical fitness, aptitude) and finally 2 interviews to get through the 6500 applicants. I was chosen to become part of a group of 13 cadets for the SAA cadet pilot program in 2004. I spent the next 17 years building up my hours and experience within the airline industry.
During COVID, SAA went through business rescue proceedings and I faced retrenchment. During that difficult time of uncertainty, I looked for various opportunities and I was fortunate enough to study and complete my degree towards an MBA in Operations and Project Management.
The aviation industry started picking up in South Africa and after I graduated, was blessed to start a new pilot job with a low-cost airline FlySafair based out of Cape Town flying the Boeing 737s.
There were a number of challenges in my aviation career but the following three stood out for me; finances, timing, and being a woman.
Training to become a pilot is still to this day extremely expensive, so initially I started out flying privately but quickly realised that I would need financial aid to go further and therefore looked for sponsorship programs or joining the air force, which I was very blessed to have gotten in at SAA.
Time was/still is a major challenge. Being a pilot is all about building up your flight hours, which takes time. So being patient during the "hour building" phases is extremely important to build up one's experience levels, and become more marketable. Also, timing when to move around to other airlines is vital as you start at the bottom of an airline's seniority list and it takes time to build up one's seniority level which has long-term repercussions financially and rank-wise if you move around.
The next challenge was being a woman. It's tougher for us girls in some areas, for example, many of us didn’t grow up with dads exposing us to technical aspects like guys sometimes get, so you’re faced with learning about carburetors and jet engines which are all very new concepts to you. whereas the guys on our course understood a lot more aspects as they were familiar with the concepts. But we are very tenacious as women and extremely hard workers so we went back to our dorms and studied those technical aspects in detail and once we got it, we got it.
As women, we tend to work and study much harder in our industry as there’s a lot at stake to prove that we can also understand aviation and be good at it. All the extra work pays off and it makes us very reliable, methodical, safer, and dedicated pilots.
There are very few women in aviation; as it's mostly a male-dominated industry. There are less than 6% of women flying with airline transport licences in the world. There are various reasons for the low number but one of the major reasons is that women weren’t allowed to fly when flying started and it's in some cultures still frowned upon.
Cultural reasons have/still add to the reduced number, as I have friends that want to fly but they're forbidden to and then on top of it all, add the issue of costly training into the mix, and the figures to incorporate more women become even lesser. There are also a few airlines that refuse to hire female pilots, therefore it limits our opportunities as women.
There is however a global shortage of pilots, engineers, and senior-level management within the industry, and getting women to join the industry can be promoted through more exposure, opportunities, and cultural changes to policies in the world so that they are able to apply for the top pilot jobs. There are already great initiatives globally promoting the expansion so things are definitely starting to move in the right direction but there's still a long road ahead. Many women don't think getting into the aviation industry is possible so having more awareness on all the various opportunities and divisions, the better.
Many companies will start seeing the potential of including women diversity in the industry, which will help a lot for the growth and sustainability within the aviation industry.
My advice to aspiring aviation professionals looking for jobs is to keep in mind that this industry needs your expertise in so many areas. Although it is a volatile industry and time-consuming, it is also very rewarding, fulfilling, and worthwhile. So keep your licences valid, stay healthy, plan ahead, keep researching options and sending out your CVs, stay motivated, and lastly, prioritise what's important to you and your family.