‘Women pilots are best for modern airlines’

Airlines are looking for the right personality in their trainee pilots, and women are more likely to have it than men.

Don’t take it from me. This is from Europe’s largest pilot training organisation, the Oxford Aviation Academy.

OAA’s group managing director for ab-initio training, Anthony Petteford, says: “Many of the skills needed now are things that girls are good at.” He explains that operating in the latest generation flightdecks changes the the way a crew works together compared with relationships in classic “clockwork” cockpits. In the new ones the traditional “female” skills have become more important.

“In an Airbus cockpit, there is a much shallower authority gradient,” says Petteford, referring to the relationship between the captain and the copilot. Of course the Airbus sidestick  completely removes the need for physical strength from the equation, but Petteford is really referring to the way information is presented and managed, which could equally apply to a Boeing 737NG.

The change has come about, he says, because although both pilots have always been presented with the same data by their instruments, now that flight and navigational information is provided more graphically, they have the same pictures to work with. In the old round-dial days, both pilots had to form a picture in their heads of what the three-dimensional flight situation was, which created the risk that there would be two different pictures with no way of comparing them.

In that situation, the more experienced pilot - usually the captain – theoretically had a better chance of having the more accurate (or more complete) situational awareness but – even more important to the crew relationship - he (it usually was a him) was always given the benefit of the doubt when uncertainty arose. Hence the naturally steeper authority gradient. Crew resource management (CRM) was originally created to overcome this potential inequity of  situational awareness by improving inter-pilot communication and crosschecking.

So can women handle modern flghtdecks better than men? Or are they just more equal on a modern flightdeck than they used to be on the classics? Assuming the basic aptitudes are there, Petteford insists,  ”the key issue is personality”. The key skills include team working and concentration, both natural to most young women and not as often to young men. Petteford didn’t actually mention the characteristic which has, for some years been claimed by women as something men simply can’t do but females can: multi-tasking.

20 Responses to ‘Women pilots are best for modern airlines’

  1. Robert 18 December, 2008 at 4:59 pm #

    I am terribly sorry, but when it comes to the flightdeck, there is NO room for feelings, and some jobs, piloting included, require the straight-forwardness that only men posses. I am a senior pilot and check-airman with a major international airline, and in the over 25000 hours that I have flown, I have never met a female pilot that really has the “right stuff”. They don’t have the situational awareness that men have, and they don’t posses the flight technique to make them good aviators. The fact that they always act like they have something to prove only works to their disadvantage. I am all for equality, but the flightdeck belongs to men. Call me old-fashioned, but experience has taught me this.

  2. Donald Duck 18 December, 2008 at 8:28 pm #

    Oh man I can see it now. Flight deck torches work, Oxygen supply available, print paper and make up box stowed, copy of New Look with flight manuals and box of tissues topped up.

  3. Anon 19 December, 2008 at 8:22 pm #

    I guess the 25,000 hours experience you have hasn’t taught you enough – Out of curiosity, what percentage of the pilots you have flown with have been female? I’m not about to attack you, but I would expect someone of your background would know better than to be so narrow-minded. What exactly is the “right stuff”? The techniques and skills that my fellow female pilots and I have been taught that has given us all Commercial Licences and IRs? We must be doing something right. I don’t believe that we have any advantage over men in terms of multi-tasking and communication – It varies no matter the sex. Perhaps some woman are more emotional than men but I could argue that some men are more aggressive. Which is safer? The reason we always “have something to prove” is because of the old fashioned sexist attitudes that the minority of people like yourself possess. I have many male friends, some with less, but also some with a lot more experience than yourself, and never would they dream of making such a judgement. I would never pre-judge someones ability based on their sex.

  4. David Nicholas 22 December, 2008 at 2:45 pm #

    Oh dear…it was inevitable that this would head straight off down the road it has taken, just like the male/female driver stereotypes.
    However, women have proved – across all professions and skilled occupations – that with the possible exception of physical strength – they have what it takes. I think David Learmount’s blog on this topic is interesting because it begs the question “now why should that be? which is, I would suggest, rather more useful than the “nonsense, old chap” reaction that Robert (and doubtless many others) sincerely feel. One little theory, expounded to me by my flying instructor (who later moved into airline flying) may just be relevant to this debate. His theory (this was in 1974 long before women were to be found flying airliners or military fast jets) was that a (by default, male) pilot flies the seat he is sitting in, and the remainder of the aircraft, passengers and crew were safe so long as he looked after himself. In my experience (and let’s not use women drivers as a comparison) women don’t think like this, and therefore don’t fly like this. Perhaps anon (above) might like to comment?
    (For Robert and others – yes, I know its a simplistic point, dating from pre-CRM days and from a time when the captain was king, but I’m trying to suggest an area where a key psychological difference between male and female pilots might be found).

  5. Carl 23 December, 2008 at 10:53 am #

    I wouldn´t like to see an airplane in some emergency situation and both pilots suffering a pms “crisis”….

  6. jbzoom 31 December, 2008 at 10:14 am #

    Oh dear. Learmount is really stirring it up this festive season.
    There is good scientific evidence for both men’s better situational awareness and women’s better team skills. (“Women can’t read maps and men can’t ask for directions”)
    An aeroplane needs both, so maybe there should be one of each up front. But that might make them too keen to make it to the stop-over on time…
    The honest response is the same as to the “blue-collar pilot” issue. An aeroplane needs an aircrew that knows how and why the thing works and can react properly and predictably in an emergency. There is absolutely no reason why properly trained men and women should not be suitable for the role.

  7. mick 2 January, 2009 at 6:27 am #

    One thing I have noticed over the years is that many women pilots suffer under the old feminist hack misapprehension that they “have to be twice as good (as a male) to be considered half as good”. So many woman pilots I have met hold this opinion of themselves & their abilities… but at the end of the day, they (those that hold that opinion and make it known) are only ever half as good whichever way you cut it. Not stating that as a blanket observation of all woman pilots -I’ve flown with more than a few and many of them are firm friends and amongst the finest pilots of either gender you could hope to meet.

    In training, for every 10 female candidates in the process, usually only 1 or 2 ever made the qualification they were seeking or “made it”. Most of those failing expressed the opinion as mentioned. Most dropped out after some form of training incident.

    Just an observation.

  8. Klaus 27 January, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    Airline demands go so much deeper than the current formulas being presented. If an airline has to fork over close to a quarter of a million dollars for a qualified pilot then they also need some assurance that the investment has longevity. Another word for that is job satisfaction.

    Years ago I took a number of psychological tests to show me where I was best suited. Some of these tests were quite shallow. You could sub-consciously direct the test to go a particular way. One test I had was unique. It took me three days to complete. I had no idea where the test was going and often shook my head wondering if it was worth it. At the time I was already a qualified commercial pilot that had actually accumulated hours working as such. At the end of the day the analysis came back that I would be a great air traffic controller. Ironically I was toying with this notion. If I manipulated the testing, I couldn’t see how I did it. At one point the test showed me a series of two works of art and I had to pick one over the other. There were times I didn’t like either but some how I managed a preference. If that had any bearing on how to lead the tester to the conclusion he came to I don’t know what it was. Years later my wife confided in me that a friend of hers was entertaining her father. He happened to be a supervisor for an air traffic control unit. She had invited us as a couple to dinner. He confided to her that he wished I would pursue air traffic control and that I was a natural.

    It took me several years but I attained a junior position in a control tower. When the opportunity came along I applied for ATC training, went through some short half hour tests and came short. I scored well but overall, there were many applicants and I wasn’t selected. A female controller friend confided in me that the country’s policy was heavily devoted to recruiting women (she was herself a recruiter, speaking to women’s groups) and that she felt sorry for me and knew my chances were slim.

    This is not to say that the women that were hired were inferior. They were all bright candidates, perfectly capable of doing the job. It was just that they left a lot of other bright candidates, some more capable in order to meet a corporate quota.

    If recruiting future pilots is based on the glamour moments of the career, you may one day wake up and see your quarter million dollar investment walking out the door for any number of reasons. When I first took up flying, there was an awe and wonder to low level flight and the technical challenges of the frequent maneuvers I had to learn. When I worked as a commercial pilot I had monotonous routines, lousy living conditions, harassment from senior pilots and low pay.

    Are companies glamorizing flight crew jobs in recruitment? Do candidates really comprehend their lifestyle? I loved the challenge of a landing and the beauty of low level flight. Could I deal with the ten hour shifts in a computerized cabin miles above a featureless earth? Paris and Rome may look great in a brochure but what about time changes, hotel living and being away from the family. What about the challenges of the many mergers and shifting from a senior position to a junior position overnight. Most people may put career first but at age 35 is your investment going to scream out and say I need a family life now or this job is just too boring for me?

    Consider this. You invest in a young person (20 years old) and by 35 to 40 they have had enough. Maybe they leave for another lucrative job as a line pilot, perhaps its time out to get pregnant or they leave for a lesser paying job, closer to home with more manageable trips and hours. Would it not be just as profitable for a company to select more mature candidates (35) that may have already experienced family life and are willing to move to more challenges? This person can actively fly until they are 55 and then still provide years of valuable service within the company in roles such as training. At the same time there is an appreciative maturity about them since they have tried other things and are happy to be doing what they are doing whereas the youngster didn’t appreciate the investment put into them. Now that doesn’t mean the 35 year old cost any less to train than the 20 year old. It simply means this person has more commitment to staying with the job.

    The future of recruitment is going to have start with an industry looking forward to anticipated work conditions and lifestyles, then offering the proper battery of psychological tests to match the potential candidates. As it seems now, the public has a Chuck Yeager image of a pilot when Bill Gates would be more qualified.

    Then there’s that nasty quota system. Is there any way to hire competent flight crew no matter if they’re male, female, black or white? If airlines truly want the “Right Stuff” then hire someone off the street with no flying experience. This gives no one the educational advantage. They may find that the perfect candidate that has all the psychological advantages of being a top notch airline pilot is a thirty year old black garbage collector currently working in New Jersey (with no more than a grade 12 education). Traditionally the airlines hire some kid who manages to finance $50,000 of their career. They may have no aptitude for the job but through the cookie cutter process have found themselves in an airline career. Are airlines saving any money by picking up a kid who financed 50K of their own career as opposed to the kid that can become a remarkable pilot but couldn’t afford the trip? Add to that, how much of the 50K investment is relative to what the current airline needs?

    I think the ability to find the right people is there and it’s right under our noses. It’s the government interference and industry attitudes that needs to change. We don’t need pilot candidates going after an illusion. This thing has to become realistic and to the point where people know what they’re getting into.

  9. anon 2 17 February, 2009 at 10:44 pm #

    ‘PMS issues’, good grief…this is the second comment regarding female pilots I’ve read this evening to include this outdated attitude. I applied to a major airline in 1988 and during my interview was asked ‘do you get temperamental one week out of every four?’…I got the job but have never forgotten the shock of being asked this question. Now I am saddened to realise that over 20 years later men will still look at me and wonder more about my menstrual cycle than my flying ability. Get over the stereotypes folks, we all do what we can with what we have, and if it’s the ‘right stuff’, we are luckier for it…

  10. Engineer 15 July, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    I am a Degree qualified Chemical Engineer and I fly Privately for fun. I have worked in the Oil and Gas / Petro chem industry for 15 years and I have worked my way up to a very senior position within a global company. And yes I am female. Sadly, I would like to point out that there are still a few old timers out there not only in aviation but in almost every male dominated profession who feel threatened by women or feel that their intellegence is undermined by women in their field and hence feel the need to make generalist comments on a womans inferiority. I have read alot about this psychological phenomonen and yes, some men play a different game to most woman. I have found through my experience that you cannot judge a persons intellegence or capabilities based on sex. Each individual has their own strengths and talents and being male or female does not make a difference although it may make a difference to preference, often strongly influenced by their cultural upbringing, societies norms etc. However, some of the most switched on proffesionals I know are women who are sharp as a tack and can run rings around many of their male collegues. I have also had the pleasure of working with some very switched on male collegues. My point is, a person who can make such a generalised statement based on sex suggests that they make judgements superficialy and it is generally because they are threatened in someway, are speaking through cultural conditioning or just may not have a sharp awareness of reality. Personally I would not trust someone who thinks in such an archaeic manner with my safety in the air. It is this type of outmoded and atiquated thinking that holds back the human race. I have been through many phychological apraisals and Situational awareness, mechanical aptitude, mathematical aptitude, working under pressure are some of my greatest strengths. I am also the Site Emergency Co-ordinator at a large Petrochemical plant carrying hundareds of thousands of tonnes of high temperature, high pressure highly flammable, carcinogenic, toxic material through a complex process plant running 24/7 (~400 people) and YES I AM FEMALE with a 5 yr honours degree in Engineering. Reading a map is childs play, something I do alot better than most men I know including my husband. Fortunatley though, most men do not think this way, it is now just a minority, usually the older generation and hopefully they will soon all be retired! Ignore narrow minded people, see each person as an individual before judging their capabilities.

  11. Jim Valentine 8 December, 2009 at 9:01 am #

    Remember the gray-haired male pilot who glided his disabled airliner in for a safe landing on the Hudson river? I’m not a pilot but had I been a passenger I would have hit my knees to thank God that this steely genius was at the controls rather than a “nervous Nelly” What do you AIRLINE CAPTAINS think? (No private plane or cargo plane stories, please – we’re talking saving 151 human lives here.)Someday a woman pilot will surely accomplish such a feat. she just hasn’t been born yet.

  12. Roger Armchair Aviator 8 March, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    A now dead female pilot(dozens died with her), when flying into icing conditions in the Northeast, tells her captain:
    “I really wouldn’t mind going through a a winter in the Northeast before I have to upgrade to captain. … I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any. I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’d've freaked out. I’d've have like seen this much ice and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we were going to crash.”

    Oh the benefits of equal employment programs(quotas) are indeed wonderful.

    I say if you see a female in a pilots uniform walk onto the flightdeck be scared…very scared. I won’t be…I’ll be getting an alternate flight.

  13. Anon 30 June, 2010 at 9:29 am #

    The last two comments are prime examples of comments from people stuck in the past. I am a female co-pilot and I have experienced a number of emergencies. In one we lost out entire electrical system over france in the dark and in icing. My captain and I succesfully landed the aircraft after 2 hours of flying completely blind and alone. I was complemented on my skills that day. I remained calm and came up with the pivotal suggestion that in the end led us to our succesful conclusion. I “proved myself” that day,in his words. I have experienced gear failure and a number of other problems. Never have I panicked or had “an emotional moment” or “PMS moment”. Yet I have seen many guys faced with similar issues that break down and cant think clearly. How many aircraft crashes or incidents involve male pilots? How can we even imply that women are less safe than men? There are differences between the sexes…granted but we both have flaws yet our strengths come from not letting our flaws dominate in testing situations. Some people cant do this….and most of these people are weeded out from being pilots by selection processes. Men and women work equally hard to get to the top, none of them need silly barriers to be thrown in the way that make the job harder.

  14. Ryan Duffel 1 July, 2010 at 5:03 am #

    hm, understand:)

  15. A 9 June, 2011 at 6:45 am #

    The article written was just trying to make a point that it is very possible that women posses teamwork, communication, and multi-tasking skills at a increased level compared to men when they are both in their younger years. With training … Men can become skilled in these arenas. Women can be trained to learn and utilize situational awareness.

    But there are some very absurd opinions on this comment thread.

    I have been a woman aviator for ten years! I love to fly more then anything! Flying is very challenging because each flight is different, with different choices to make and experiences to be had. When a pilot is trained to fly, a pilot is trained for emergency situations. A MONKEY can be trained to fly! A pilot is trained to fly when something breaks or goes wrong!!!! All pilots are taught the same things and taught from the same books.

    Some are better stick and rudder pilots! But what makes a man better? C’mon! You are good or you are good! There are more men that are better because there are more men!!
    Way to go mathematician.
    An emergency AND PMS! What ever will we do? Good thing we are natural multi-taskers! Isn’t great! We can cook your dinner and bleed all at the same time!! Thats talent! When an emergency occurs! Instincts kick in. You either die or live. Doesn’t matter woman or man.

    Men are simply jealous! Women have it all! We can have sex whenever we want! Create families! Make babies! Fly airplanes! Heal people! Practice law! We can work OR stay at home. We can gold dig or work our way to the top! Unfortunately half the way we are having to beat you guys off with a stick! We are beautiful sexy creatures! We don’t have to fuck to get to the top anymore! Our qualifications are starting to out beat yours fellas! Too bad due to out rights we have lost nearly all real gentlemen in the world! We have lost marriage. Old dudes … Don’t be sad! Go take some Viagra and retire already!

    I wonder if Roger Armchair Aviator ever really flies? Do you fly commercially armchair aviator? Do you ACTUALLY get OFF the airplane if there is a female pilot? What do you say? Or do you sit at home and wish you could travel? How do you afford to get off flights? Wow!! I bet you are too fat to fly, and you just sit home and fly Flight Simulator!

  16. CC 25 June, 2011 at 1:54 am #


  17. Flygirl 26 November, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    After logging 2600 hours over 26 years, and having flown Part 135 for a some of those years, I have determined that the plane cares not, nor does it know, the sex of the one initiating the controls. It only responds to controls. Male or female, one needs to understand how a plane flies to make the correct input for desired outcome. I know both men and women “plane drivers” who do not comprehend the forces acting on a craft in flight, nor are they respectful of rules and the demanding environment of a cockpit.

    Clearly some women and men (both!) have quicker skills suited to flying such as mental math, etc. I fully agree that the cockpit is no place for emotions. I would quickly dismiss any person (male or female) who could not control their emotions. The cockpit is for matter-of-fact decision making with brief conversations that are necessary. By the way, I am female.

  18. Dave Smith 14 December, 2011 at 12:18 am #

    I am a retired pilot with over 26,000 hours. I have flown with good and bad male and female pilots, gay and straight pilots, and pilots who have been through sex change operations. In my experience a pilot’s ability has nothing to do with their sex or sexual orientation, it is character, training and experience. When I am a passenger these days and see that one or both of the pilots is female, it makes no difference to my enjoyment of the flight.

  19. Tom Welch 11 February, 2012 at 4:56 am #

    For what it is worth, as a male passenger on commercial aircraft for about a 500,000 miles (I’ve lost count) and very low time pilot (100 hours), I’m always happy to see a woman flying the plane I’m on. I’ve probably bought into the stereotype that women have to be better to get the job (which might or might not be true; I have no way of knowing), but I like the evidence in the cockpit that people have gotten there on merit and the airline isn’t locked into the old boy network.

  20. sam 5 September, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    I like the position taken on this issue by Mr Klaus.I am into airline pilot recruitment and wonder if Mr Klaus or someone can share access to the type or types of psychological and aptitude test that could help more accurately zero in on the right candidates as opposed to getting stuck on some muddy groungs.
    We are already aware of EPST but Mr Klaus`sarticle has turned me to an Oliver Twist.
    Any help please?Mr. Klaus?
    Many thanks,