In 1934, Helen Richey was the first female to pilot a commercial airline in the United States. A little less than 80 years later, in South Africa, three female pilots embarked on the first long-range flight with an all-female flight deck crew for South African Airways (SAA).
“I’ve been a captain on the long range for seven years and I’ve never had two ladies on the flight deck with me. These things happened by accident, it was a coincidence,” says Captain Jane Trembath, who flew with Senior First Officers Taryn Hochstrasser and Jocindy Mars.
It’s also about the numbers – there are far more male than female pilots, hence the likelihood of having a male co-pilot is greater. Of the 130,000 airline pilots worldwide, 4,000 are female, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots; around 70 of SAA’s 780 pilots are female.
“At 9%, we are still higher than the international average, and [Mars’ cadet program] were at 25%, which is even higher. It’s been through the cadet program that we’ve increased our percentage of women. SAA’s aim was 50-50, but I don’t think that’s ever happened. There were some intakes where only women survived, and women have a higher passing rate,” says Trembath.
SAA has offered a cadet training program since 1994, and it is highly selective including extensive medical and psychometric testing.
“The cadet program only takes a selected number of people, not everybody gets in, you have to be chosen, you have to be good enough, like these two,” she says, pointing at Hochstrasser and Mars.
“It’s difficult to get into the cadet program, I was told they’d received 8,000 applicants. They only chose 16 from those and the selection process took a year,” says Mars.
“We did psychometric testing, if you passed that, you went for a medical and a personality test, and then there is a final interview before you get chosen,” says Hochstrasser.
“You never know exactly what they’re looking for. The most important thing is the actual desire, because it’s a hard road for men as well as women, if you don’t have that desire then you won’t have the tenacity to stick it out. That’s probably what they’re looking for: do you really, really want it,” says Trembath.
Trembath’s non-conformist parents loaned her money to attend a flying school, where she completed her private and commercial pilot’s license. In the early 1980s, it cost around R15,000 to qualify. Today, it costs a minimum of R350,000 ($33,000), and flight training costs around R1,300 ($122) an hour. Due to the cost, some qualify through the air force, many subsequently move into commercial aviation to clock more flying hours.
After earning her wings, it was time to fly, but no one wanted a female pilot, and an inexperienced one at that.
“You always think each step of your commercial license is the most difficult: exams are difficult, getting the hours is difficult, writing your final flight tests is difficult, but it’s not. The most difficult part was getting a job as a woman back in
“I got turned down for a couple of jobs because I was a woman and I was told that to my face. It took a lot of persistence and I had to hang in there,” says Trembath.
There aren’t many opportunities to gain experience, but newly-qualified South African pilots are hired by South African companies to fly their airplanes throughout Africa.
Trembath became a pioneer in South African aviation: “SAA didn’t have any women pilots before 1988. They accepted me along with two other women [Brenda Howett and Jennifer Burger], that was a whole new thing for the industry.”
In 1993, she was also the first South African female pilot who qualified to fly a Boeing 747-400. During her 32-year career, she is proud to have had many firsts and to have witnessed change.
“Today, as a woman, it’s a lot easier to find a job. In small companies, women are judged on their merits and no one is turned down because they’re a woman,” says Trembath.
There may be more female pilots today, but they still experience prejudice. Between the three of them, they recount stories of hesitant parents, unsupportive guidance counselors and mocking friends. Similarly, passengers do double takes when they see a female pilot, elderly men openly pray during a flight, and passengers pass snide remarks about empty kitchens.
“Two students came to the flight deck to say hello. He was from Netherlands and she was from Finland. She asked, ‘Are you the pilot?’ I said, ‘Yes, didn’t you hear the PA announcements?’ She said, ‘no, so you actually fly the airplane? Females can be pilots?’ It was strange because she comes from a first-world country and yet still has the same perceptions as everybody else,” says Hochstrasser.
They have learnt not to try change people’s minds, but to deal prejudice with humor and through empowering communication.
“Whatever you’re doing, you have to have a passion for it, because it won’t always be easy. Provided that you enjoy it and you’re doing it because you really, really want to do it, don’t do it for anyone else,” says Mars.
Truer words were never said.