Sunday, 02 September 2012 02:30
By D Francis
Antigua St. John’s - When I met up with 24-year-old Fiona Austin McDonald to do this interview she was dressed in casual attire - and the stares we (well, she) got while we were walking to our location!
It’s no wonder that, according to her, even though members of the public see her as plain as daylight dressed in her uniform looking to take up duty, they still come up to her and ask, “Are you a pilot?”
“It’s a question I get so often nearly everywhere I go that I’m so used to it by now, although sometimes I grow a little tired of answering the obvious. Just the other day, I went to a particular restaurant where I’ve been going for so long and one of the workers asked me, ‘Are you a pilot?’ I was like, what?”
McDonald, who flies with LIAT, said when she went to her father Wade Austin McDonald, who is a Training Captain with LIAT and told him of her career decision and that she wanted to go to flight school, all he said was ‘OK’.
“Daddy said OK... just like that and I noticed that he did not say anything else about it and I went back to him after about two months and said ‘Daddy remember I told you I want to go to flight school?’ And he turned and said to me, ‘Yes, but I didn’t realise you were serious’. And when he realised I was, it was full speed ahead in preparation for that.”
I asked Ms. McDonald if she didn’t think her father was shocked or was between two minds, as is the response from some parents when their children choose certain types of careers.
The vibrant young woman quickly said, “Oh no, not Daddy! He always encouraged us to do what we wanted to do...do what we are passionate about and reach for the stars. And another thing too, the ‘love’ for flying runs in the family. Apart from my father who’s been doing that for many years, there is my brother; he is a pilot and my stepmom is a flight attendant. And let me say, it’s not because of all of that - this is just something I really wanted to do.”
McDonald said her interest to take up flying struck her via two experiences.
“I was a flight attendant with Caribbean Star at the time and one evening when we were coming into Antigua, the pilot had the aircraft at a certain angle where I could see the runway brightly lit and how great it looked and I said right there and then, ‘You know what, I want to be up in front there taking charge, not back here’.
“Another experience was when I met this young female pilot, a Jamaican. I saw her on the ramp and she was with her male counterparts and the respect she got was just remarkable and that impressed me a great deal.”
McDonald has some concerns, however, about how the public perceives the roles and functions of female pilots versus her male counterparts.
Although in an era where the gender gap in some careers seems to be closing in, there is still much further to go.
“Just the other day it was all females in control of the flights and remarks were made like ‘wait a all women a fly today, a whey de man and dem?’ Another comment I get a lot is ‘you look like a teenager, you sure you can handle yourself, you look young ….young.’ Almost every day I get that and it just goes to show how some people label certain jobs as being a ‘man’s or woman’s job’. And it is perceived that women are a little softer than men, but from what I see both male and female pilots do equally great jobs in any circumstances there is no differentiation you just have to perform with all the zeal and confidence that you have.”
The young pilot said there are a lot of decisions to be made when it comes to flying and pilots have to be in tiptop shape both physically and mentally.
She said that’s why LIAT ensures its pilots get routine medical checks and simulator training every six months, and attend ground school.
Actually, McDonald’s turn for ground school training in Canada comes up shortly.
I asked her what’s her most memorable and challenging experiences since she’s been flying for the past three years.
She said, “It’s this time when I was called out to work and had to return an Antigua/Dominica flight back to Antigua on one engine. It was my first one-engine landing and because of the superb training we got with LIAT, I was very comfortable with it. Actually, my dad was more shaken up than I was. Daddy has never really experienced the single engine with LIAT, but I think, he’s had some minor incidents with companies he flew with before in Guyana, but all in all, I was okay.
“In terms of my most challenging moment, it was when there was a lightning/thunder storm and my female captain was so at ease and I saw the lightning striking dangerously causing damage on the ramp in this terrible weather. I was like, being a young First Officer, I was thinking…are we still going and yes we did. My captain was so cool, calm and collective, she didn’t flinch and we navigated around the storm and came through safely.”
McDonald said she can see why there is a perception regarding pilots, more so the males whereby some people say they have an ego.
“But now I’m right ‘in the know’, I wouldn’t really say it’s an ego. You see, you have to have a certain level of confidence when you are a pilot; you have to have a certain level of confidence when making decisions regarding people’s lives. It’s either up or down, yes or no and you have to be sure of what you are doing; there is no maybe.”
McDonald, who pursued her training in the USA, said although she is happy with her achievements and position with LIAT; she would like to move to the higher rung of the ladder yet still.
“Yes, I see myself being promoted to captain someday,. I know this comes with hard work and lots of experience, but I am up to the task. And the good thing is, I love what I do. I get up at 4 in the morning knowing that I am going to do what I love to do.”
Asked her how she balances her busy work life with leisure she said: “When I am off, I spend time with my family, go to the beach, sometimes take in a movie, nothing more. I am not really a big limer, so you wouldn’t find me hanging out late, then having trouble to go the next day. How funny though, now I am of age and I can go where I want, I am not doing that, but when I was younger and wanted to go out and my parents said no, that use to hurt a lot.
“Now, I look forward to work, and recognise the importance of having a solid career to build on. My routine is like this sometimes: it’s up at 4 in the morning, get ready with my son who is eight months and drop him off at my mom’s, check in at 5 to get ready to fly at 6, and so it goes. Sometimes we fly all day, we do a sector flight each and it’s a really great experience so far.
“My boyfriend has also been very supportive in all of this as well, I have to give credit to him because he’s an awesome daddy to our son and helps out a lot.”
McDonald said she had her eyes set on becoming a model or a career in Computer Science but she found being a pilot was more appealing.
She encouraged parents who see their children leaning towards becoming pilots not to discourage them.
“Let them go for it. I am glad my parents supported me when I decided on this. It’s a career with so much potential and experience that you can build on later on in life. Allow your children to feel out their career paths, don’t decide for them.
“And for those who think flying may mean risks, risks come in all forms so think positive, especially you females; don’t say it’s a man’s job. As long as it’s what you want to do, just do it.”