Sophie Blanchard shares the name of a French aviation pioneer and has now become one herself — as the first female captain, or pilot in command, for Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways.
“I am very happy. It still is a pretty macho environment, but my colleagues here encouraged me a lot, and the flight attendants are very proud,” said the 33-year-old mother of two, a French citizen.
Blanchard joined Etihad as its first female pilot three years ago and last week took off from Abu Dhabi to London on her first flight as captain, sitting in the left-hand seat of an Airbus A330-200.
Her 18th century namesake was the first professional female balloon pilot, who even attracted the attention of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
The modern-day Blanchard first flew an aircraft when she was 19, then joined her stepfather’s Belgium-based freight company as its only female pilot.
“We used to work under very extreme conditions. I was flying a very old DC-8, a four-engine plane that was built in 1962,” Blanchard said.
“Very often we just ended up with only three engines left, landing in airports where there was no help, by night, in spite of power cuts and sometimes with a storm. Now, I am actually resting a little,” she laughed.
Blanchard later joined an Icelandic cargo company that was leasing planes to Etihad Airways. When United Arab Emirates law was changed to enable women to sponsor their husbands for residence permits, she applied for a position at Etihad and was recruited in May 2007.
“It is a very male-dominated profession,” said Captain Richard Hill, the airline’s chief operations officer.
“In my career, I have flown with 10 or 15 women,” he said. “To survive or get to where they are they have to be very good at their jobs and they are exceptionally good pilots.”
Among Blanchard’s battles were changes to her uniform. She now wears better-fitting trousers and does not have to sport a male necktie.
“But I am not sitting in a cockpit to be a woman,” she said. “I am here to be a pilot. And our schedule has not been changed to accommodate us.”
“It is a challenge to make yourself respected as a woman. But the biggest challenge for me has been to have a family,” Blanchard said.
Many Gulf airlines, including Etihad, lack a programme by which women can go on maternity leave and undergo the training necessary to get them back up to speed upon their return. Hill did not rule out such a programme in the future.
Blanchard’s two children were born before she joined Etihad. She raises them with the help of an understanding husband and domestic workers, she said.
The number of female pilots with airlines in the region is on the rise. Since Blanchard’s arrival, Etihad has recruited 10 female co-pilots, Hill said.
Low-cost airline Air Arabia, based in Sharjah northeast of Dubai, has two female captains and three co-pilots, according to a spokesman, while Dubai’s Emirates Airlines has 16 co-pilots but no captains, a spokeswoman said.
Bahrain’s Gulf Air has four co-pilots, a company official said. And Qatar Airways has more than 15 female co-pilots and three female captains, according to one of the captains, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It is amazing how well we are treated here. And when Qatari women see me in the cockpit, they suddenly have this big smile on their faces. They are really proud,” Blanchard said.
In Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive cars, Saudi Arabian Airlines recruited its first female pilot in 2005, according to local media.
Hill thinks the number of female pilots will continue to rise. “Ladies will come forward in increasing number to become pilots,” he said, adding: “We can see that with our recruitment for our cadet pilot programme.”