As a black female pilot you could say Faith Odushola-Boegheim (Air Transport Management, 2013) is defying gravity; contributing to the reimagining of an industry that was typically male-dominated. Faith has had her fair share of doubtful passengers but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her dreams. Here she talks about her experiences as a pilot, the impact of the pandemic and being part of a different narrative for black people.
Can you tell me about your time at City?
It was quite an exciting time. I was accepted into City based on merits (points for my professional qualification, years of experience and hours flown as a pilot) and since I had never been to the university as most people would have, acquiring an Honours degree before the MSc. programme, I thought it to be a daunting task. As much as I loved the challenge, my first two classes at City were intense. Fellow classmates were very active and participated in discussions and team activities and I felt lost as I could not follow or comprehend what was being said and I struggled to make any contributions. I did not give up though.
I had the opportunity and great privilege to have studied under the guidance of the late Prof. Roger Wootton. He was very helpful and gave me insights and advice on how to prepare and engage in research. He shared lots of links and books that I could read up in advance, websites I could get data from, and direction for how to complete my coursework. I was also able to connect with other students who were more than willing to share their understanding of the subjects. It took a bit of hard work but soon I saw myself more active in the classes and in group activities. With support from my family, I graduated in 2013 with merit, surprising even myself.
What happened after you graduated?
After I graduated, my bosses supported me and encouraged my personal growth. This was a huge benefit for me and a sort ‘Industrial Training’; I was now able to see in practice all I had learnt at City. I was involved with non-flying roles such as an Auditing, Fleet Planning and Safety. I conducted several audits within the company and was part of the team that worked to achieve a successful IOSA certification. I investigated incidents and occurrences and worked with the Quality Manager and other team members to improve and maintain a high standard of safety within the company. Those were years of great progression in my life.
When did you decide to become a pilot?
My father is a pilot and even though a part of me considered it, I felt it was too expensive, we could not afford it, and it was not a suitable profession for a woman. I had just written my exams to study medicine at university. My father came home and spoke highly about a female pilot he had just flown with. At that moment I stopped burying that part of me that considered being a pilot and started to talk about it as much as I previously talked about being a doctor. My parents supported me completely and that was it. I think I was about 15 years old.
What has been the most rewarding experience in becoming a pilot?
Being a pilot entails discipline and responsibility. You are not just responsible to yourself or the company you work for but also to your entire team and the passengers you fly. For me it is not only about getting the job done, but also seeing the satisfaction on a passenger’s face having arrived at their destination safely, and their expression when they find out one or both pilots are female – priceless!
Flying exposes you to people and places. It makes you see the world from a different and more beautiful perspective. I cannot pinpoint a particular experience that was most rewarding as there are so many. This job brings joy and inspiration, not just to myself but to other people too and that is probably most rewarding of all.
Have you faced any challenges as a black female pilot? Or as a pilot generally?
Being a pilot is a predominantly male occupation and so as a female, it was not an ‘open-arms’ welcome from everyone. In my earlier years, some passengers had their reservations and refused to be flown by a female. My cabin crew friends personally told me they have had to convince some passengers before they decided to board the plane. Others were super impressed and wanted a picture with the ‘female’ pilot.
In the work environment, you pretty much have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. It is not enough to be okay or good enough. A male and a female with the same level of proficiency up for a promotion, the male is always chosen first. As a female, you really have to be far better to make sure you are not ignored and even that is no guarantee. When you ask questions, depending on the culture, you receive more negative attention because you are expected to stay silent. Overall, it is mostly positive nowadays; I have had supporters in my corner, people coming to my defence, but I wouldn’t say it was a walk in the park.
As a black female, I would say, look around you, I know that the percentage of female pilots around the world is already low, with the highest in India and parts of Africa but how many black female pilots do we have in Europe? How many of them are captains?
How has the pandemic impacted your industry and your role specifically?
This pandemic has turned out to be the worst blow to have hit all sectors and areas of the world and most especially the travel and airline industry. I was in the middle of a job change when Covid-19 happened. I had successfully completed an assessment for a new job in January and was supposed to start in the second quarter of the year but due to the pandemic, it is on hold. So many friends and colleagues have been furloughed and are working or searching for jobs in non-aviation sectors now, just to make ends meet. I am having to source ways to maintain my proficiency and it is quite amazing to see the support pilots are giving each other in these times.
It took me a long time to find a way, and not without help from a complete stranger. In the meantime, I have also engaged in online studies and research to improve my non-aviation knowledge and skills and even though the times are horribly challenging, a few good and personal developments have emerged from it.
What does Black History Month mean to you? Do you have any heroes?
Growing up in Nigeria, Black History Month was not something I was aware of. Of course, we have our heroes and role models that makes me proud of being a Nigerian but moving to Europe I began to pay more attention, especially after my kids, on separate occasions, told me they didn’t want to be black anymore. When we look at Black history, in Africa, America and the rest of the world, they were known first for being victims of slavery and oppression but, in strength, emerging out of that to achieve illimitable and prestigious successes and roles.
The media and society mostly associate black people with violence, drugs and criminal activities. When a black person succeeds, they quantify his or her blackness making them not black enough. I actively tell my children about the likes of Daniel Hale Williams and Shirley Chislom. People like President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfery, Chimamanda Adichie, Serena Williams, International economic expert Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, world bank VP Oby Ezekwesili, fashion icon Deola Sagoe, 787 Captain Irene Koki Mutungi, Airforce Major Mandisa Mfeka, astronaut Mae Jemison, media entrepreneur Mo Abudu, and many more. I know I have mentioned a lot more females, but I’m mostly inspired by people of my gender, as that is a levelled playing field.
We need to change the perspective of the world, starting from home, about the image of ‘black’. Teaching our children that being black doesn’t make you a second-class citizen, being black doesn’t mean people clench their bags when you pass by, being black is not all drugs and crime. Being black is strength and power and riches and achieving the biggest implausible dreams you can dream of.
My biggest hero in all of this is my dad, Captain Odushola. Not just for being my role model but also for teaching me to take it to the next generation.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Believe in your own dreams and persevere. Being the best version of yourself or being wherever you want to be will take some commitment and hard work to achieve and it usually won’t come without some obstacles. But have a little faith, be ready to push through and persevere for as many times as it is necessary, and you will overcome. Someone once said to me there was no path to her dreams anymore as she was too old. My answer; create your own path to your dreams. If you are not able to achieve your dream, with all the skills and knowledge you have acquired, you might find more joy in helping others achieve theirs.