Aisha Al Mansoori
At 26 years old, Aisha Al Mansoori became the UAE’s first female A380 pilot. She sits down to discuss women in aviation, her hometown of Khorfakkan, and how the common goal of air travel brings over 150 nationalities together at Etihad Airways.
Your sister is the UAE’s only female F16 fighter pilot; your brother is a helicopter pilot. How did you all end up in aviation?
It’s funny because we come from a very small town, Khorfakkan, on the coast of Sharjah, where there’s no airport. But if you ask anyone who works in aviation, they all know the feeling. You fall in love with it. I went to an air show with my sister when I was 18 years old for the first time, and it felt like home to me. I felt like I belonged and knew immediately that I wanted to be around airplanes for the rest of my life.
So what happened between that first air show and your deciding to become a pilot?
It all happened so fast! At the air show there was an Etihad stand where someone told me, “We just opened this new program for Emiratis to become pilots. If you’re interested, I’ll give you a brochure and maybe you can apply?” So I went home and applied right away online, and six months later I had an interview. I was still in high school. As soon as I graduated, I had my interview and got started. I think I made the best decision of my life at 18 years old. [Laughter.]
What’s it like being a female pilot in a profession that’s so male dominated? Were you treated differently?
My family was very supportive of my decision from the beginning. My father used to drive me to all of my interviews in Abu Dhabi, which is a long way from Khorfakkan. I think since my sister started flying before me, they had already had the conversation about whether it was a good choice. Actually, they were very happy that I wanted to fly commercial and not be a fighter pilot like her. [Laughter.]
At the flying school, when I was there, there were 450 students. I was one of two women. There were no female instructors at the time at all. In the beginning it was intimidating, but I realized that people treat you as per your qualifications, not your gender. As long as you’re qualified and you know what you’re doing, everyone is happy to work with you here regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.
Have things changed much? Are there more female pilots today?
Definitely, there are many more female pilots today. When I first started, for example, if I was sitting in the cockpit and an engineer came in, I could see in his face that he was surprised to see me in the first officer’s seat, but now it’s normal; they’ve all gotten used to it. I also think most pilots think gender diversity is a good thing.
Are you a role model to younger women in your community?
Actually, yes I am! I never thought of myself as a role model until young girls began approaching me on social media or in person. They’ll write messages like, “Looking forward to being in the cockpit with you one day!” Or they say, I want to do what you do, how did you do it, how do I apply for the training? I was very happy to see that so many girls are interested in aviation. You know when a boy tells you he wants to be a pilot, that’s normal, but when a girl tells you that she wants to be a pilot, well, I think that’s still something special.
Tell me about your first flight.
My first commercial jet flight was without passengers. We do these exercises called touch and goes, circles. If you asked me now, I would say an aircraft moves slowly in flight. As the pilot, you’re always ahead of it, you can easily anticipate what will happen, but during my first flight I felt that it was all happening so fast! But it was all about confidence in the end. It was about remembering that I’ve been trained to the highest possible standard.
And what about the first time you had people on board?
My first flight with passengers was to Athens. After we landed, the instructor I flew with said to me, “Let’s go outside and greet the passengers.” This is an old tradition that doesn’t happen much these days. So we stood outside saying goodbye to all of the passengers, and he turned to me and said, “You see all of these people? You were responsible for their lives.” And that’s when it really hit me. During the flight, I was too busy focusing and trying to do my best. But when he reminded me of the responsibility I would have from then on, it felt empowering, to be trusted to do this kind of a job. It still makes me very happy to think about … I really love what I do. [Laughter.]
I went to an air show with my sister when I was 18 years old for the first time, and it felt like home to me. I felt like I belonged and knew immediately that I wanted to be around airplanes for the rest of my life.
You’re 28 years old! So young, and you’ve accomplished so much. What do you still hope to achieve? What else is on the list?
Well, I’m hoping to fly the A350, which is the newest plane that will be flying with Etihad this year, and of course I’m looking forward to my command upgrade. To be a captain. That’s my next target.
How do you get to become a captain?
We have a proficiency check every six months; that’s a necessity to keep your license current. As long as you show a good record and those checks are done every six months, it all comes down to the hours. To become a captain you need 5,500 flight hours.
And how many do you have?
Over 3,000. So more than halfway there!
Etihad employs people from more than 150 countries. How is it working in such a multicultural environment?
It’s amazing to see the dynamics between people from so many different cultures, countries, and backgrounds that work together at Etihad. I’m talking all the way from the ground staff to the pilots to the cabin crew and everybody else involved in the process of getting the job of getting an aircraft flying done efficiently. It just shows you that beyond all of those differences when we all work together toward a common goal, we can achieve it. Sometimes when I think about all of the people working at Etihad, I think, how can we have war in the world? If you can have all of these different nationalities working on one aircraft in harmony, why can’t it be that way everywhere else?
What do you like to do in your spare time?
If I’m not flying, I want to be in the ocean. I think I get that love from growing up in a fishing village, growing up with the beach by my side all of my life. When I first moved to Al Ain, where I completed 18 months of my initial training, it was something I missed. You go there every day, but you don’t notice how much you really liked it until you don’t have it anymore.
Do you feel that you are a part of a pilots’ community? Are you all friends, or is it more of an independent career?
Yes, I have many friends who are pilots, mostly from other GCC countries, because we train together. That’s how we meet, either in training centers in the region or in the airport. I was reading a study about how people in confined spaces tend to open up to each other more; that’s why you’ll find people talk a lot to their hairdresser or taxi driver even though they don’t know them. The cockpit is an environment like this. Even if you only fly with someone once a year, it doesn’t matter—you’ll know their life story. You get to know people quickly. If I fly with someone once and then I see him again in two years, he’ll ask me how are things going with my studies or my family; we remember all of the specific things we spoke about. It’s really nice how the bonding works.
What is something that you still get excited about after all these years in the sky?
For me the best days are when I come to check in for my flight and I see a female name. It’s so exciting because it hardly ever happens. In all of my years at Etihad, I think it’s happened four times that I flew with a female pilot. Because the thing is that there are always two pilots in the cockpit, one first officer and one captain, and the majority of female pilots are first officers like me. But that is changing!