The more we encourage young women to think about aspirational careers – and careers that have previously been the domain of men – the better. Which is why I thought catching up with airline pilot Emma Youngman would be valuable to show girls what you can achieve if you want to (literally) ‘fly high’ on leaving school. Emma is at the top of her field, recently becoming a Captain at Virgin Airlines.
I’m not sure how many careers advisors at high schools put forward this option to women, and Emma says it certainly wasn’t a job she considered when she was in Year 12. ‘I really wish that I’d had more focus in school in those final years,’ she said. ‘Even when I started to learn to fly, it didn’t occur to me that I could do this commercially. I’m annoyed it wasn’t presented to me at school as a viable option.’
When you hear Emma’s family history, you might wonder why she didn’t. Emma’s grandfather flew in World War One and was a founding director of Ansett Airlines, and her father flew privately. Emma grew up in southwest rural Victoria, near Hamilton, where her father had a light aircraft on their property.
‘From nought to five, I spent a lot of time in Dad’s plane,’ said Emma, smiling as she remembered. ‘Sometimes I’d take the cat for a fly, or we’d take the dolls. It was a great form of entertainment back then.’
‘You were allowed to take the cat on the plane?’ I asked. ‘That was lovely of your Dad.’
‘It was,’ said Emma. ‘But it didn’t work out so well. The cat freaked out and poohed everywhere. So that went down like a lead balloon obviously.’
Sadly, Emma’s father died when she was just five years old, so the flying stopped. ‘It wasn’t until after I left school that I flew in a small aircraft again,’ she said. ‘It was the first time I’d been back in a plane and I couldn’t work out why I felt this strange attraction to it but it felt like it was home.’
For Emma, that light bulb moment was life changing. ‘I felt, oh my God, I have to do this,’ she said. ‘So I quit my job as a secretary at a sports marketing company and went back home to the farm to learn to fly at Hamilton.’
Even while Emma was training, she didn’t think about making a living from flying. Half way through her course, the instructor said she should think about getting a commercial licence. ‘I still didn’t really understand. I think I asked him what that was! It was still so far from my thinking that I could be a commercial pilot. So then he explained further and I followed up to see what was needed.’
At 19-years-old, Emma was on a mission. More courses were needed and weren’t cheap. She had a small business on the side, training and selling horses to help fund the lessons and her mother chipped in as well. ‘Mum’s always been incredibly supportive of any hare-brained scheme I’ve come up with. She was one hundred per cent behind me,’ she said.
After finishing her commercial licence, Emma flew for freight companies to build up her flying hours. She describes it as a tough business, where, twenty years ago, pilots were pushed to fly in unsafe conditions and there were many accidents. ‘It was quite confronting. You’d often come to work and a friend and his plane would no longer be there because he’d crashed the day before.’
‘So you lost a few friends?’ I asked.
‘Yes, many. It was hideous.’ We sat for a moment, while Emma reflected. It was a tough learning curve that left lasting lessons. ‘It reinforced to me that safety is critical. Don’t be cavalier and don’t let people push you around.’
Was it a bloke’s world back then? Did they accept women flying? ‘They did, although it was only seven or eight years before (1979) I started flying that Deborah Wardley won a case against Ansett to allow her to fly as a pilot. I was only seven years after that. I mean, fancy being told as a journalist you can’t do that? Deborah is an amazing lady.’
Now, Emma says the flying world is completely fine as far as equality goes. ‘We work in one of the most protected industries,’ she said. ‘As soon as I’m in a cockpit, all our conversations are recorded. We have a dialogue that is almost scripted. Often we have an all-female crew.’
The only disappointing reaction Emma occasionally receives is from passengers. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of people are encouraging, but sometimes you get comments. Probably because traditionally it was a male-dominated industry.’
Yet still the number of female pilots is ridiculously small. ‘It used to be one per cent. Now overall, it’s about five per cent,’ said Emma. ‘Although Virgin are quite pro-active in this area, so we probably have about ten per cent of pilots who are women.’
I asked Emma about the academic challenges of getting a pilots licence and surprisingly, she said that while an appreciation of maths and physics can help, she believes it’s more like studying for a law degree. ‘Technically, it’s not difficult,’ she said. ‘But there is a vast amount of theory. There’s a whole other language and set of rules to learn. The strongest trait needed for a pilot is common sense.’
For Emma, the hard work has paid off because flying is her passion. ‘I still, to this day, love the physical sensation of flying an aeroplane. It’s an addictive feeling of freedom. To see the sunrise, the sunsets, it’s just a straight out love of flying.’
And her advice to young women thinking of flying? ‘First, take a ride in a light plane and see whether you love it. You have to be dedicated because the lifestyle requires commitment. You miss a lot of personal events, like births and weddings, with your schedule but for me, it’s worth it.’
For me, the most reassuring part of this interview was when I asked Emma about turbulence. Don’t you hate it when you’re flying and the plane drops ten metres and you feel like you’re about to lose your lunch? I grip the arm-rest with sweaty hands and start praying. But Emma says it really is NOTHING to worry about!!!
‘Oh, no!’ she scoffs. ‘It’s really just like driving over a bumpy road. There have been some nights where you can’t get out of the bumps and it can be quite rough, but they’re pretty rare. And it’s only difficult because you know it’s uncomfortable for the passengers. But it’s much less bumpy up the front than down the back, so we don’t feel it as badly.’
Okay, so there’s the solution. Get rich quick and fly first class or become a pilot. Simple!