My name is Katie Withers. I’m a Senior First Officer flying the A320 and A321 out of Birmingham airport, where I’ve been based for the last five years. I joined Monarch six years ago, initially based in Manchester, but moved to Birmingham to be closer to family. Before Monarch, I spent eight months flying for EasyJet out of Bristol and Belfast Aldergrove.
What attracted you to the job?
As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to fly. I think the fact my Dad is also interested in aviation played a part; he had flying lessons when I was young, and used to take me to see air shows and visit air museums. I was hooked – I’d read or watch anything to do with aircraft.
My interest continued to grow, and I joined the Air Training Corps at thirteen, and then the East Midlands’ Universities Air Squadron whilst studying at Nottingham. I considered a career in the RAF, but decided I’d probably prefer the lifestyle of commercial flying, especially being female. However, I lost my focus a little at this point as I wasn’t sure of the best route to becoming an airline pilot. I suppose I told myself that flying was just a pipe dream, and that I’d probably end up doing something else.
How did you get into it?
I’d studied Law (on a bit of a whim – I wish I’d done an engineering degree but changed my mind at the last minute), and then fell into accountancy, joining a graduate training programme with Ernst & Young and working in audit. I hated this from day one, but my sensible side told me to stick with it as a good, solid career. I started flying lessons at a local airfield, Wellesbourne, at weekends. However, this only made matters worse when I realised how miserable I was in accountancy, and that flying as a hobby just wasn’t enough. I remember one particular instructor, Captain John Richards, who was a retired airline pilot. His inspiration, and the support and encouragement of my parents gave me the courage I needed to finally bite the bullet, and pursue the dream.
I applied to CTC Aviation, a well-established training school that offered to take people from zero hours all the way through to sitting in the right-hand seat of a commercial jet. Luckily, I passed selection and was offered a course to head out to New Zealand (where they conducted the basic training) in December 2007. I duly handed in my notice at Ernst & Young, took out an eye-watering professional training loan, flew out to New Zealand, and I’ve never looked back since.
What are the best bits of the job – and the worst?
I love my job, and I think it’s a real privilege to be able to say that – I’m very lucky. Even now a few years on, I sometimes have to pinch myself when I’m driving into work. I see some fantastic sights, from flying over the snow-capped Alps, to shooting stars at night, or watching lightening flash within a storm cell nearby. It really is a unique perspective of the world.
Katie’s typical office view – credit: Michael Weeks
With hindsight, I’m glad I spent two years in accountancy because I can say from experience that I don’t enjoy working in an office environment. There’s a greater sense of freedom when flying. We meet up as a crew of typically two pilots and four or five cabin crew, and then it’s down to us to safely get the aircraft and passengers to destination and back. Days out are often good fun, and there’s a lot of banter amongst the crew. This is probably down to the fact that Monarch is a relatively small and friendly airline, so people get to know each other better as we fly together more regularly.
The technical skills of flying the aircraft are just one aspect of the job. There are countless decisions to be made throughout the day, and as pilots we must oversee the whole operation, keeping safety, legality and commercial issues in mind. We coordinate with various groups of people from ground handlers to air traffic control, and there are often problems and challenges to overcome in order to keep things running smoothly. Anyone who thinks flying is just button-pressing in an office with a nice view is much mistaken!
Managing rest to stave off fatigue isn’t easy, and this is one of the big down sides to the job. We work unsociable hours, rarely have weekends off, and occasionally may have to work over Christmas or bank holidays. It’s not the sort of job that fits in with a typical family life, and I know colleagues with children can struggle to get childcare arranged at late notice when they’ve been called into work off standby. Saying that, many jobs are moving away from a traditional 9 to 5, Monday to Friday pattern so it’s a problem people will increasingly face. On the flip side, it’s nice to have days off mid-week, and standby days often pass without you being called in. In total, we have more days off in a year than an average worker.
We spend a lot of time being tested and scrutinised – for obvious reasons given the responsibility of the job. Every six months pilots spend two days in a simulator where we must handle various technical failures and critical situations under test conditions. Most would agree that it’s not a pleasant experience, but it’s a good way to get the confidence to know we could handle such emergencies in real life.
How often do you fly and to where?
From Birmingham, we have quite a varied network of routes across Europe. Every day is different, some days are a lot more challenging than others depending on where we’re going and what the weather’s doing. I enjoy flying into places like Nice. It has an interesting approach which is fun to fly, and we get some beautiful views of the French Riviera.
Generally, the flying programme is much busier in the summer, especially during the peak periods when children are on school holidays. We’re limited on the number of hours we can legally fly in a given time period, but nevertheless, rosters can be exhausting at times. It varies, but in the summer, runs of five or six days of flights are common, with maybe two or occasionally three days off between runs. This doesn’t sound too bad, but bear in mind that it’s shift work, so you may be getting up at 3am one week, and then switching to afternoon flights meaning you might not go to bed until 3am the next week. Also the length of a day’s work can vary depending on where you’re going, but probably averages at nine or ten hours from when you report.
What’s it like working in a male-dominated industry?
Females are definitely a minority in the industry, though there are increasingly more of us. I do feel a bit of a novelty at times, especially when I meet people and they find out what I do. The response from a stand-up comedian a few years ago who asked me what I did for a living sums it up and its not printable!
People are usually well-meaning, and genuinely interested, though sometimes I find it a little awkward so now will often try to divert the question.
First and foremost, at work I see myself as a pilot, gender doesn’t come into it. I can honestly say that my experience to date has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been told by some male pilots that a day out with a female pilot is different to flying with another male pilot. It’s not a negative, but just an observation, probably because the topics of conversation are perhaps a bit different (although no, I don’t talk about make-up and the latest issue of Cosmopolitan). They also say they notice more people glance at us walking through the airport than when they’re walking with another male pilot.
I do feel that I put pressure on myself to perform well, perhaps because subconsciously I think I need to prove myself more than my male counterparts.
In a modern airline environment, the skill set required is no longer “typically male”. After all, physical strength to handle the controls is less of a factor. Otherwise, there is an awful lot of multi-tasking, and softer skills of people management, communication and organisation that are arguably more traditionally female strengths. Obviously, there is a place for authoritative, decisive leadership (perceived as male strengths) but generally, a more inclusive and encouraging leadership style is used. Airlines want pilots to make considered, balanced decisions, and not take unnecessary risks. There is no reason why women cannot match this required skills profile, and perform well in the role of a pilot.
Do you ever get any negative reaction from passengers?
I am aware that the odd passenger will make a sarcastic comment when they know there’s a female pilot on board. Most comments are teasing rather than derogatory, and if I’m there to hear it I’ll try and respond with humour. There’s no point being offended. Anyway, the vast majority of passengers seem totally accepting or not bothered, and I do get some nice comments when people are getting off the aircraft and realise they’ve been flown by a female. A few ladies in particular have said, “good on you”, or words to that effect.
What’s your advice to other women considering being a pilot as a career?
I would encourage anyone who has a passion for aviation to pursue it as a career. Male or female. It’s not an easy career to get into. There are financial barriers to entry as well as the need to have an aptitude for flying. There’s a huge amount to learn and exams and skills tests to pass. Once qualified we continuously have to learn new rules and procedures. So you must be motivated to put in the necessary work to succeed. However it is a rewarding and challenging job, for a woman as much as a man. I can understand shift patterns may put some women off (and men of course), but this can be said for many other jobs. Throughout history, women have successfully taken up careers in other industries long perceived to be the preserve of men; medicine, law, finance etc. There is no reason why they can’t do the same in aviation.
Edit: since the article was first written, Katie was promoted to Captain and you will find her sitting on the left hand side of the cockpit. Congratulations, Katie!