Girls with Aluminum Wings
by Anna-Maria Kymalainen
JetBlue Airways, Airbus A320 First Officer
When I was asked to write this TNH blog about being a female aviator, amongst a globally male dominated industry, I found it challenging to put it into a few words because it has been quite an extraordinary journey. After 12 plus (blissful and sometimes challenging) years of professional flying the message I want to convey is quite simple: anything you love where you have the passion to keep climbing for, is indeed worth fighting for. The same goes when we delve into any other professional career. I believe that there is no point in doing anything half heartedly, either you are all in or you wash out. I find myself very blessed to be taking part in this blog and encouraging women who may dream of a career flying airplanes instead of merely riding in them. Whether we like to admit it or not, even in this day and age, our society in general still does not envision a woman at the helm when the word “pilot” is mentioned. Partly, that is the reason why many girls growing up aren’t exposed to the possibility of flight and building an exciting career around it.
I was introduced to aviation from birth thanks to my father who is an aeronautical engineer and a recreational pilot. I spent many days of my childhood glued against the giant glass windows staring at all the commercial airliners at the Helsinki-Vantaa International airport in Finland where my father worked. On very special occasions I remember flying in a small general aviation Cessna to visit grandma as my father piloted the family on summer vacation. It was however when he arrived home from work that I spent hours in our garage tinkering away with him as he built an experimental helicopter that sealed my aviation fate. I guess you could say in my case that the aviation bug was planted very early on in my life. But in actuality it wasn’t until my sister Pia Kymalainen, who also is a pilot and currently a captain at JetBlue Airways, inspired me to go all in and never look back. Her faith in me that I could succeed in becoming a pilot was the last push I needed when it was time to decide what I was going to be when I grew up. I can pin point the exact moment in high school as I laid in a hospital bed after a serious car accident when my sister sat beside me and we had an honest heart to heart that changed my life. It was that very essential support of my big sister that paved the way for me today. It is a pretty interesting feeling looking back and realizing that exact moment when an unfortunate circumstance changed your life forever. Because in that instant I realized I never wanted to look back and regret not trying, wonder if I could have or settle for less because it might have been easier. Even though I always wanted to be a pilot I needed the encouragement to take the leap of faith and simply see what would happen. I am extremely fortunate to have had and continue to have such an amazing role model that has lead the way for many women in our industry.
If you ever find yourself wondering what it would be like to be a pilot it is always important to understand that this career (like most worthwhile professions) is a long process. It takes many steps but eventually you grow so familiar within your environment that it becomes a complete part of your being. Before you know it, all of your hard work and determination begins to pay off and you’re living a life with child like passion.
Many other people can attest to the simple fact that when you choose to get into a field you love, you are more likely to insert the extra effort it takes to succeed, which makes it a little bit easier to endure some of life’s challenges that inevitably come our way. It is easy to imagine the day to day challenges that being a pilot can bring. Weather conditions, mechanical setbacks, changing airline market etc. but we welcome those challenges while maneuvering through them. Utilizing our procedures, previous experiences, judgment and refined gut instinct. One experience however that I would like to focus on is an important one for any young woman to value. According to the Federal Aviation Administration women make up about 6% of the pilot group and only approximately 3% of those women have attained the required ratings to fly for an airline. To succeed in an environment where we are a NOT a dime a dozen comes with a certain responsibility. We might have to work a little harder, prove ourselves a little bit more often and simply expect more out of ourselves than our peers because to be in such a rare faction the world is paying attention. The wonderful thing about welcoming such a challenge with open arms is not only do we have the opportunity to continue growing in our skill level, becoming even sharper at what we do, but we get to surprise people every single day. It still surprises me how stunned some folks are when they realized it was a woman who transported them ever so safely from point A to point B. To this day I still take it as a compliment when passengers are shocked.
Another aspect of being a woman in this field is that I’ve recently been discovering how to balance motherhood and the career I’ve worked so hard to achieve. Again, one of the bonus’ of having a big sister years ahead of you is that in the last two years she has raised a beautiful baby girl with her husband while maintaining her career and a level of performance I hope to one day also accomplish. My sister Pia and I along with our friend and fellow JetBlue first officer Loraine Steinkirchner recently got together for lunch to get some insight into some of my sister’s recent experiences. Taking the 3% of women flying on the level we are in, I can’t help but wonder how many of them have raised families? When left with that even smaller unknown percentage in mind, who do we turn to ask the questions that inevitably a woman at a certain age begins to ponder? The wonderful news is that even though there may not be that many of us out here, we are here for each other and we continue learning from one another every step of the way. That kind of fellowship and support is invaluable as we continue to move forward, beating the odds. The bottom line is that it is possible. We’ve worked very hard to get here and it is achievable to get to a point in our lives where we just might be able to have our cake and eat it too..and what’s sweeter than that!
A friend recently asked me why does the world need women pilots? Fact of the matter is that the aviation industry in the upcoming years is anticipating a major pilot shortage leaving a need for more pilots. More importantly than just needing more women pilots we NEED more women to realize their own potential. We need more women to be taught that it is okay to build our own white picket fence while still searching for prince charming. Not only is that how we learn who we are, but we find out who we want to become. This career isn’t for everyone but for those women that have a desire to see the world, that have a spark for a challenge and are willing to sacrifice on a little tradition while avoiding the everyday 9 to 5 traffic; this just might be for you. My recommendation for discovering whether you have that spark is to search for a local flight school near you and ask to do a demonstration flight with a certified flight instructor. During these demo flights you will have the chance to hold the controls, experience the feeling of flight and find out if this is something you might be passionate about prior to committing any major finances. After that there are multiple universities, community colleges and branches of the military with aviation programs to choose from to begin your journey.
My sister and I are extremely fortunate that after attending different aviation programs and many years of working for separate corporate aviation companies we still eventually ended up with the same major airline. It was recently a dream come true that together my sister as my captain and myself as first officer that we flew a commercial airline flight on an Airbus A320 aircraft. We had the opportunity to work a two day trip together flying back and forth along the east coast of the United States. Three of the four flights we flew together was an all female crew which in itself is still a rarity. Only thing possibly rarer is two sisters operating a major airline aircraft together! And although we have flown a few corporate jets together back in 2004 we still can’t help but wonder if such a thing has ever occurred (we are currently finding out if this is the first time in history that sisters have flown together, as pilots, for a major airline). It truly felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity after years of hoping it would one day come true. After the completion of our amazing trip we are eagerly waiting for the chance to work together again. It just goes to show that anything is possible.
These days all commercial aircraft and majority of private jets are required two pilots; a captain and a first officer to operate. Sharing in the responsibility we choose to carry, we all work together as a team relying on one another to know our roles and to work in unison to complete the task at hand. The best advice I could give to any potential pilot or to anyone working closely with others is to be the person you would want to work with. Take pride in what you do no matter what it is, treat your environment with respect and carry yourself in a way that when reflecting back on years of experience you find yourself whole heartedly knowing you gave it your best. Once I tasted the freedom of flight and the independence it provides, it would be difficult for me to go back to a traditional way of life. The aviation world is constantly changing and can be unpredictable at times but it is exciting to be a part of none the less. I feel blessed that I took the chance to pursue and eventually achieved to live out my childhood dream. Instead of always wondering if I simply ‘could,’ I have chosen to realize that I actually ‘can’ and I continue to embark on that next flight to somewhere… while enjoying the remarkable views from my mobile office.
*Please note that not all experiences, beliefs and ideas are shared by each member of the “The New Hollywood.” We are a group of shepherds, not sheep.