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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

When the sky’s the limit for ambition

When she was just 21, Salma Al Baloushi was the first female pilot to fly solo for Etihad Airways.
Salma Al Baloushi meets students at the Higher Colleges of Technology. Jaime Puebla / The National
Salma Al Baloushi meets students at the Higher Colleges of Technology. Jaime Puebla / The National

For her 21st birthday, Salma Al Baloushi was given the best birthday present she could have asked for. She still looks back at the morning of October 21, 2007, when she took to the skies at the controls of a single-engine Cessna 172 in her traineeship.

That was also the day she became the first female Emirati pilot to fly solo under the Etihad Airways training programme. Completing her traineeship programme, at 23, she operated her first flight, EY 091, from Abu Dhabi to Athens.

Her interest in flying was sparked by her English teacher in third year, although perhaps not in the way she intended.

“She always told me that I was very weak in English. I was not very fond of her,” says the First Officer, laughing. 

The teacher’s message was that English was best learnt by communicating with others rather than studying. Al Baloushi decided there were two places where she could best communicate with other nationalities. One was a hospital, the other was an airport.

She tried nursing first, studying for a year until the day she came across an Etihad Airways career advertisement. “I loved how the advertisement said that the airline wanted men and women alike as pilots to represent UAE.”

Then 19, she applied to Etihad and says it was perhaps the best decision she has made in her life.

“At first, it was challenging to convince some family members to accept my career,” she says. Her progress since has answered the critics. It is a career that has brought fond memories and some great stories.

One was when she was part of the crew flying to Saudi Arabia at the age of 22.

“There was this Emirati lady in the business class,” she recalls. The lady was relaxed and waiting for the flight to take off until she saw the young officer coming out of the cockpit to grab a coffee, Eventually her curiosity led her to ask more about the woman at the controls.

“She is a pilot,” the cabin crew told her. Shocked at the news, the passenger spent the rest of the flight in silence.

When they arrived in Jeddah safely, the lady waited for Al Baloushi to open her cockpit door.

“She hugged me,” she says. “I could hear her heart beating and she apologised for not trusting me at first.” That Al Baloushi had managed to fly a huge airplane at such a young age was a mystery to the Emirati passenger.

“I told her that I wasn’t carrying the flight on my shoulder,” she says. “It’s all technology.”

Today Al Baloushi is an inspiration for many young men and women who wonder if they should go into aviation. “It gives me immense happiness when people tell me that I inspired them to join aviation,” she says.

Being both a Muslim and an Arab woman, Al Baloushi says she gets some criticism. “People often tell me that I shouldn’t be in this field,” she says. But the naysayers were not enough to kill her passion for flying.

She is grateful to have been surrounded by supportive people who kept her focused on what she was doing and encouraged her to be the best.

One of the most frequent questions, she says, is: “How could you be allowed to fly an airplane while your head is covered?”

“I fly the airplane with my hands,” she says. “My head is covered, not my brain.”

Her professional life follows the advice she was given by her role model, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, whom she met when he visited Etihad in 2011.

“There are two traits no one can get back once they’re lost: credibility and trust,” she remembers Sheikh Mohammed telling her.

“When you step out of your house,” his advice continued, “you are not representing yourself. When you work in a company, you’re representing Salma and your family.

“When you fly from one country to another, you are carrying a flag at the back of the airplane which is the UAE flag – that’s what you’ll be representing.”

It has been a while since Al Baloushi, who is now 27 and is married, sat in the cockpit.

In a few weeks she will become a mother. But once her maternity leave is over, she plans, like on the day of her 21st birthday, to get straight back into the air.

aalhameli@thenational.ae

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