Do passengers react differently to female pilots?

by Hannah Kirkham on Jun 13 2019
My name is Hannah Kirkham, I’m 29 years old and I feel very fortunate to say that I’m a First Officer for Virgin Atlantic flying the Airbus A330.

Coming from a family of pilots, I have been lucky enough to have travelled the world, so flying was a career that inspired me from a young age. While it was always my dream job, it was never one that I felt confident to pursue; growing up there were very few female pilot role models and naively I always thought it was a job for men!

It was only after a Biology degree from Exeter, a Masters degree from the Royal Veterinary College, and my twin sister who took the “pilot leap” ahead of me, did I finally decide to pursue flying. Being offered a sponsorship by Virgin Atlantic made me believe that I could finally achieve my career ambition.

I trained at L3 Academy, which took me 18 months comprising of ground-school, flight-training in Phoenix Arizona, and Airbus A320 simulator time learning to fly the jets. For me, the most exciting part of my training was spent flying solo around the desert in Phoenix in a single engine DA-40. There is an incredible feeling of freedom and awe, flying at 6000ft all on your own. The views of rivers, mountains, remote towns, and aircraft graveyards were breath taking and exhilarating; it’s a time I will never forget.

Initially I had concerns about being away from home for long periods of time throughout the training, however there was a huge amount of support from the training school and instructors as well as from my fellow cadets who were going through the same intensive training. Being the only girl, the guys on my course were always there to offer advice, and very much took on a brotherly role!

Now that I’m flying on the line with Virgin, I really enjoy the daily challenge of achieving a safe, professional and efficient operation. The flying is a massive thrill; taking off from Heathrow and climbing out over the city of London never gets boring. The views from ‘my office’ are spectacular and I’m so lucky to be able to explore some beautiful countries worldwide. I feel privileged to fly with colleagues both male and female every day, who all share the same enthusiasm for the job. It really is an equally fantastic job for both men and women; it’s a career that enables you to travel the world, experience different cultures, languages, cities, and work alongside the most professional and passionate people.

While the role still carries the stereotyping of “being a man’s job”, as a female pilot myself, I feel we bring diversity to the pilot workforce, a better balance throughout the airline and a slightly different dynamic to the flight deck, which crews appreciate. There are many different aspects to being a pilot, it’s not a job that requires physical strength and women are equally capable of achieving high standards in technical flying skills, multi-tasking, communication and organisation.

So when it comes to the question - Do passengers react differently to female pilots? - my overall answer would be ‘No’. Very occasionally, some passengers do act surprised at seeing a young female pilot at the front of the aircraft, but any initial surprise is always accompanied by extremely complimentary and supportive remarks. My experience has been hugely positive both on and off the aircraft. Male and female colleagues have only ever been respectful, supportive and incredibly welcoming of me as a female First Officer.

A career highlight for me while flying recently, was hearing my twin sister on the radios. A remarkable coincidence that we were both flying into the same destination. I raced through passport control and felt so proud to see her come through immigration in her glamorous BA uniform. Walking arm in arm through the terminal, we were met with many smiles and compliments as our respective passengers were equally as excited by this coincidence. It was fabulous to spend a night stop together down route.

I think it’s fantastic that airlines and training schools are actively encouraging more women into flying. It’s the most rewarding job that I absolutely love doing, and I look forward to flying with more women in the future!

- Hannah