x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Female pilot flies solo into history

She has yet to learn to drive, but that has not stopped Emirati Salma al Baloushi from taking to the skies.

Salma al Baloushi has been described as a 'present day pioneer' and as a 'female aviator for the future'.
Salma al Baloushi has been described as a 'present day pioneer' and as a 'female aviator for the future'.

She has yet to learn to drive, but that has not stopped Salma al Baloushi from taking to the skies. Although she admits to being stumped when it comes to negotiating the UAE's hazardous roads, the diminutive 21-year-old from Al Ain is setting records as a cadet pilot. Already near the top of her class, she has just become the first female to fly a plane solo under an Etihad Airways programme to find and train Emiratis for new positions. While women have represented the UAE as fighter pilots in the air force for a number of years, Miss Baloushi is also thought to be the first female Emirati to train to fly a commercial jet. She is only 21, but has already secured a place in history. At six o'clock on a recent morning, Miss Baloushi is already immaculately made up, her brown eyes lined heavily in kohl. Every time she breaks into a smile - which is often - she reveals a glimpse of bubblegum-pink coloured braces. But behind her petite, 5'2" frame lies a steely determination. Dawn flights are her favourite. "The light is fantastic, the weather is good and you feel so fresh," she says. "It is the best feeling in the world to be up in the clouds." Miss Baloushi's achievements have been significant enough to earn her a mention in the new book The 100 Greatest Women in Aviation, which calls her a "present day pioneer" and one of the "female aviators of the future". James Hogan, chief executive of Etihad Airways, says the solo flight was "an impressive milestone". Miss Baloushi and the other two women in her class - Aisha al Mansoori and Rawda al Mansouri, both 19 - are a "credit" to the airline, he says. "They are a great example of the strong Emirati representation we are building within our multi-talented, multicultural workforce." But were it not for a stroke of fate, Miss Baloushi would have become a flight attendant instead of a pilot. "At school there were two things I was obsessed with, the hospital and the airport, because you meet people from different backgrounds," she says. She went to nursing school for one year, but failed anatomy and was thinking of becoming an air hostess, having done well in English at school. "I was training in the hospital one day when I flicked through a magazine and saw an advertisement for pilots for Eithad," she says. "I looked at the pictures of girls and boys from the UAE and was amazed as I had never seen anything like it before. It was the sense of responsibility that appealed to me." Miss Baloushi filled out an application online, not expecting Etihad to respond as she did not include the necessary approval from her father. "Even after I was invited for an interview my family took a long time to believe I had applied," she says. "My cousins thought I was going to be an air hostess and kept joking around, asking me to make them cups of tea and coffee. When I got my uniform and put my cap on for the first time, it shut them up straight away." She describes her first solo flight as exhilarating, adding: "I had been anticipating it for a week but weather conditions had not been right. "I was worried but excited at the same time and prayed for the whole 15 minutes I was in the air. Luckily everything went very smoothly. It felt as good as discovering gold and I am much more confident now." Just a year into her training course at the Horizon International Flight Academy in Al Ain, Miss Baloushi is already encouraging others to follow her example. "I hope this sends out a message to other girls that nothing is impossible for us. If you have faith in yourself and support from your family you can do anything," she says. When Miss Baloushi gave a talk to college students in Ras al Khaimah, she had no idea what the girls would think about her going into a traditionally male field. "But they all thought it was amazing and the boys joked that I was making big trouble for them by giving the girls ideas," she says. There are girls who want to be pilots, but they have not had the opportunity, encouragement or training, says Miss Baloushi. "I am hoping more girls will follow in my footsteps. I feel a responsibility because all eyes are on people like me to succeed," she says. "I feel I need to set an example as a role model - but I never dreamed I would ever be in this position. I only thought I would try my luck." While Miss Baloushi may have been apprehensive about the initial reaction of her parents - Mohammed, a property developer and Aisha, a housewife and mother of four - she need not have worried. Her mother found out she had been summoned for an interview when she accidentally read a text message saying her daughter had passed the first selection process. "My mother said, 'Where is this Etihad?' She thought it was a place," says Miss Baloushi. "Then she asked if it was Al Ittihad the newspaper. Even when I told her I had applied to be a pilot, she still did not believe me and thought I must have applied for a managerial job." With those around her saying they did not think she would make it, sleeping the night before the interview proved impossible. But after passing all the maths, physics and co-ordination tests, she says, "they had to eat their words". "Now my father says, 'Just warn me when you are flying so I can make sure I fly from somewhere else,' but I know he is proud of me," says Miss Baloushi. "My parents are very encouraging and a supportive family is important in this career." Most students are airborne within two months of starting training - albeit with dual controls - and progress to solo flights of up to an hour when they are deemed to be ready. They have to complete 100 hours in a Cessna before advancing to twin-engined Diamond jets, where they undergo another 100 hours in the skies. Miss Baloushi will have spent about 18 months training before moving on from the Horizon academy in April. The cadets then transfer to Abu Dhabi, where they will make observation flights with qualified pilots and fly on a simulator for three months. After a gruelling two years, they will be flying Airbus A320 passenger jets. Miss Baloushi and her two female classmates have already proven to be trailblazers at Etihad. In a subsequent recruitment drive, there were 75 women among the 500 applicants for posts as cadet pilots. Another seven women are students in the airline's graduate training programme for managers, and three out of 12 trainees are women studying to be aircraft engineers. The training instructor, Capt Ateeq Tayyab, beams with pride when describing what Miss Baloushi has accomplished. "She is doing very well and is ahead of a lot of her class, as only three or four of the other students have completed solo missions," he says. "There is definitely a difference between the girls and the boys in the class. Girls spend more time studying and have a better learning curve while initially the boys are slower." The males in the class catch up when it comes to practical exercises, which is when females have a greater tendency to panic, he says. "Salma is very calm, however. I have given her many emergency situations, such as other aircraft being too close," he says. "She stays level-headed - and instead of panicking, she becomes very quiet so I know when she is in trouble." Composed as she is in the air, back down on the ground Miss Baloushi is sheepish about one thing: her inability to learn to drive. "I have never managed to master driving a car," she admits. "I tried it once and had a few lessons from my mother but I find flying much easier." tyaqoob@thenational.ae