The Middle East is a volatile region of the world where women are often discouraged from dreaming beyond marriage and motherhood. The simple things women in Australia take for granted such as the right to vote, education, careers and the freedom of choice, are concepts unfamiliar to many Middle Eastern women. But one nation is leading the way in encouraging its women to break the shackles and to dream the dream. That nation is Jordan, which now boasts 15 female pilots, including six who operate jet airliners for Royal Jordanian Airlines.
CAPTAIN Carol Rabadi first became interested in aviation when, as a 14-year-old, she flew in the jumpseat on a flight between Cyprus and Amman, Jordan. “I always say that was the day I fell in love with aviation,” the 33-year-old tells Aviator. “From that day forward I planned to become a pilot. It was a beautiful day with blue skies, no clouds and I could see the Mediterranean Sea and the land clearly. The pilots were very nice and I was taken by the professional environment, the uniforms and the complexity of the cockpit.”
Carol learnt to fly at Daytona Beach, Florida and went solo in April 1996. Then for four years she studied a Bachelor of Science Degree (aeronautical science) at Embry Riddle University. Graduating in May 1999, Carol two months later returned to her homeland and joined Royal Jordanian Airlines, where for two years she worked in ground personnel.
“At the time it was the company’s policy to hire cadet pilots as ground personnel and have them work as dispatchers, operations controllers, radio operators, and in the library update and performance sections,” Carol says. “After two years I started intense first officer training and was cleared to line in April 2002.” Carol flew the A320 and A340 for four years each before earning command on Embraer 175s and 195s.
Now boasting around 6,500 hours in her logbook, Carol’s experience as Royal Jordanian’s only female captain ensures she commands respect from colleagues of both genders.
“I think in any profession women will encounter some difficulties,” she says. “At Royal Jordanian the culture is that they treat you as a pilot and if you are up to the task then you will not be treated any differently. We have a total of six female pilots at RJ. The culture of the country is changing and being a female pilot is becoming more acceptable. Not quite the norm yet, but we’re getting there.”
A major part of the groundswell of change taking place in the ancient kingdom is attributed to Her Majesty Queen Rania, whose push for reform and women’s rights has enabled Jordanian women – indeed, Middle Eastern women – to dream and to pursue careers without suffering dire consequences.
“I feel we are on the right track, I think it’s important for accomplished women in Jordan to be showcased for all women in Jordan to see,” Carol explains. “It’s proof that whatever a woman chooses to do she can do. All she needs is the right support from family and superiors. She may have to work harder to prove herself but really women today do have more choices.”
In 2009 Carol and first officer Hadeel Khamash became the first all-female tech crew in Middle Eastern airline history to pilot an RPT flight when they flew between Jordan and Greece. Royal Jordanian made the most of the milestone, reinforcing the company’s equal rights and equal opportunity policies.
“I’m very proud of that accomplishment,” Carol says. “And since that flight I have operated many all-female crew flights, so for me it has become normal. There’s no difference really whether the first officer is male or female, or the flight attendants are male or female. All are qualified and perform the same standard of work.”
As proud as she is of her accomplishments, Carol is humble, dedicated to her profession and she embraces Jordan’s tight-knit female pilot community.
“Yes, we are all friends,” she says. “I try my best to maintain friendly relationships with the other girls and I keep an open line of communication with them. We also have some female pilots who work in general aviation, and I enjoy being friends and keep in touch with them as well.”
When asked what advice she would offer schoolgirls looking at pilot careers, Carol replies: “Aviation is not an easy career to have, it takes passion and commitment and self discipline. My advice is gather as much support from family members, trust your parents’ judgment and advice and go for it!
As successful as she is, Captain Carol Rabadi simply loves to fly and is vibrant when she says she loves “everything” about her job. “I love everything about it,” she says. “The technical aspect of the aircraft, the navigational details, the utimate office view of the land and sea, sun and moon; the feeling of great achievement after a flight has been conducted safely, smoothly and efficiently.”
So what would her ultimate flying job be?
“Being a Captain has been absolutely fantastic and for me, it doesn’t get better than this. However, I’m becoming more and more interested in the management and commercial aspect of the operation of an airline.”
BASMAH Bani Ahmad believes aviation is a great career for women. Why? “We have many advantages as women, we multi-task with ease and are very usually studious,” Basmah tells Aviator. “My advice is to stay physically fit, exercise, eat healthy and maybe even play a few video games every once in a while. Hand-eye coordination is important in aviation and we tend to not focus on developing those skills.”
Now chief pilot at the Royal Aero Sports Club of Jordan, Basmah seven years ago became her country’s first qualified female glider pilot, and recently earned the honour of being Jordan’s first female aerobatics pilot.
“Gliding is a sport that gave me the opportunity to expand my skills in aviation, and I continue to have that attitude when choosing other forms of education in the aviation world,” Basmah says.
“Aerobatic flying is blood pumping, exciting, thrilling, challenging, and in my opinion unmatched by any other sport in terms of adrenaline and skill. It has been compared to driving a racing car in three dimensions. It pushes skills to the ultimate, and completely changes your perceptions of time. Every detail counts in aerobatics, movements are small and complex. I discovered that in order to move and think simultaneously you have to become more aware, which means that you need to somehow slow down time.”
Basmah, 30, grew up in Canada to Jordanian parents and her father was a private pilot. “I always knew I would fly,” she says. “Once you are introduced into the world of aviation, it becomes an obsession … you’re always looking up!”
Now boasting more than 1,400 hours in her logbook, Basmah’s first job was instructing at Ayla Aviation Academy. She swears that since then, being a woman in a part of the world often criticised for being chauvinistic, has been positive.
“Surprisingly, it has been a very positive experience here in the Middle East,” she says. “The Middle East has opened up many doors for me as a pilot and throughout my aviation career I have had nothing but support and encouragement.
“As for students, like anything new, some are hesitant and curious about having a female instructor. But building confidence in people starts with the confidence you have in yourself. I know my ability and I know my limitations and this reflects in how people react to me. In my experience, because I am a female, there are people who ask to fly with me. They feel it is a unique experience for this part of the world and they want to be a part of that. For those who are sceptical, with time, dedication and hard work, you can create a reputation in this field and gain the respect of the people.”
Basmah says the female pilots in Jordan are a very tight community, with each being unique and distinguished in their own way. “We are very supportive of each other and continue to keep track of each others careers,” she says.
She also believes Queen Rania’s influence on Jordanian women – indeed, Arab women in general – is a huge step in the right direction.
“Queen Rania is a role model for women in Jordan and we are proud of her achievements,” Basmah says. “Families in the Middle East are embracing the idea of working women. This is a very important step for the Jordanian women of tomorrow. With the support of the community women can start to contribute to the development of this wonderful country.”
So, what does Basmah absolutely love about her job?
“What’s there not to love?” she replies. “Every day is different and every task exciting. I would love to work with Red Cross or United Nations bush flying in Africa or working with National Geographic photographers flying in exotic, remote locations.”
AIRLINE FIRST OFFICER
Royal Jordanian A320 first officer Alia Twal didn’t realise women were allowed to become pilots until she attended a careers day when she was 16. Listening to an aviation lecture delivered by a captain from Royal Jordanian Airlines, Alia was surprised to discover that the company had had female pilots since 1985, when Taghreed Al Akasheh became the first Arab woman to become an airline pilot.
“Since that day I knew that this was what I wanted to become and this was the life I wanted to live and to find my home in the sky,” Alia tells Aviator. “From that day I was that kid lying on the grass staring at the sky thinking, ‘what would it be like to be able to touch a cloud?’”
Alia started flying in 2006 and graduated as a flight instructor at Ayla Aviation Academy. She then joined Mideast Aviation Academy as a flight instuctor and marketing officer and spent much of her time recruiting students from throughout the Middle East and Africa.
“I didn’t log many hours as I was flying almost every month to recruit students and to meet with airlines as marketing for the Mideast Aviation Academy,” she says. “I wanted to inspire others just as I had been inspired.”
As a flight instructor, Alia admitted that some students didn’t feel comfortable flying with a woman. But in time they relaxed and eventually looked at her as both their instructor and an older sister to whom they could seek advice, both personally and professionally.
“I am still in contact with all my students, even the ones who have moved back to their home countries to become first officers,” she says. “And as an airline pilot at RJ, my colleagues respect me and have no issues flying with a woman. They simply respect me as another pilot, not necessarily a female pilot.”
Now 24, Alia is a proud member of the Ninety Nines club, an international organisation of female pilots from more than 35 countries. She currently holds the prestigious position of Governor, Arabian Section.
“The Ninety Nines Club promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honouring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight,” Alia says. “We have more than 5.000 female members and in the Arabian section we are thirty female pilots.”
Given her role of encouraging young women to fly, it’s not surprising that Alia believes girls looking at flying careers should just go for their dreams. “There are no longer male jobs and female jobs,” she says. “Whatever you want to be in life, whether it be a teacher, doctor, lawyer or pilot, love and live for it.
“Personally, I love the feeling of knowing that home for me is between the clouds. It’s the only place I feel at home as I love the idea of feeling that I conquered the sky. Flying’s everything I love and they say that if you love your work, you will never feel like you are actually working … even on my days off I fly gliders and single engines.
“It’s like what Leonardo da Vinci once said: ‘When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’”
MARY Mavis Uzaizi loves her job so much she considers it to be more a hobby than an occupation. “I’m one of the few people who get paid to do what I consider to be my hobby,” she tells Aviator.
Mary Mavis has achieved plenty in commercial flying, working for Royal Jordanian Airlines as a flight engineer on the Boeing 727 and Lockheed L1011 before earning her wings as a first officer on the A320. But now, the veteran of over 7,000 hours earns a crust as an instructor, “paving the road for future pilots”.
“My father was a pilot and I started learning to fly when I was 18-years-old,” Mary Mavis tells Aviator. She swiftly moved through the aviation ranks and after a decade at Royal Jordanian, decided that family was more important than work. “So I took four years off work to become a full time mom,” she says, looking after Christina, now 11 and Khaled, now nine.
In 2004 Mary Mavis returned to aviation, joining Mideast Aviation Academy as a flight instructor. “In the beginning, people thought it was strange to have a female instructor but now they’re used to it and often ask for a female instructor,” she says. Why? “Because females are more patient then men,” she replies matter-of-factly. “First the students feel shy, then once we pass that barrier they feel more comfortable.”
“Flying is not about whether the pilot is a man or a woman,” she says. “It is about the results of the actions imposed by the pilot and the responses returned by the aircraft. The aircraft does not know or understand gender. It only knows the difference in a true pilot, and one who was perhaps not meant to fly.”
She also stresses there is a special bond between female pilots within Jordan, each of whom offers the other emotional support and encouragement.
So what part of the job gives Mary Mavis the most satisfaction?
“I love when I hear the voices of my former students on the radio in different airlines,” she says. “It’s nice to feel that you have helped them fullfil their dreams. I am happy where I am at the moment. I enjoy teaching and feel it is the most fulfilling job being an instructor and paving the road for future pilots.”
Queen Rania recently said that while women in Jordan are very diverse, they still face challenges in their daily lives. “Women feel under pressure to give up their careers once they get married, even if they have educational achievements and wonderful degrees,” she explained. “But the idea is to just give them choices, so in addition to the choice of being a mother, or being a career women, there’s a third choice of being a working mother. It’s my job to try to spotlight the achievements and successes of these women because they’re very quietly and proudly eroding some of the negative cultural stereotypes” often attributed to the Middle East.
The Middle East may be one of the world’s most capricious regions; it also remains a region where many women do not enjoy the same freedom embraced in western cultures. However, Jordan’s proactivity in the field of human rights for women ensures that the likes of pilots Carol Rabadi, Basmah Bani Ahmad, Alia Twal and Mary Mavis Uzaizi, among others, can continue to lead the way for young girls who dare to dream the dream.