Business | Aviation

Female pilot training breaks Emirati tradition

Etihad cadets complete first step to the cockpit

  • By Ahmed A. Namatalla, Staff Reporter, Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 October 20, 2009
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Ravindranath/Gulf News
  • Aisha Hassan Salim Ahmad Al Mansouri (left) and Salma Mohammad Basheer Al Beloushi with a scale model of an Etihad aircraft at the Etihad Airways headquarters in Abu Dhabi.
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Abu Dhabi: Salma Al Beloushi's mother could not bear the sight of her 22-year-old daughter's face being lit up by flash bulbs as she posed for pictures with a model Etihad jet.

She walked out of the reception area at Etihad's head offices in tears, pursued by her daughter, one of the first two female Emiratis to complete the first of two stages of pilot training conducted by the airline.

"It's hard to see all my family here and my mother in tears and not get emotional," said Al Beloushi as she returned to a photo shoot by media photographers.

Aisha Al Mansouri, 20 who joined the programme straight out of high school, joined Al Beloushi yesterday to receive certificates of completion of a rigorous 18-month training programme.

In just eight more months, Al Mansouri and Al Beloushi will become qualified A320 first officers, or co-pilots.

Breaking traditions

For the two women, putting on their uniforms, complete with golden wing pins and caps, meant going against generations of tradition that has kept women out of fields such as aviation.

"It's something new for Emirati women," said Al Beloushi. "My mother has been very supportive and so has the rest of my family. Sometimes I had to tolerate teasing by the boys. They would joke about how I am going to make a great coffee and juice server.

"But once I put my uniform on, it changed everything."

Al Beloushi, who had been studying nursing, said she decided to apply for the pilot training programme after seeing Etihad's advertisement in a local paper.

She said it represented a challenge and opportunity to make her family proud.

For Al Mansouri, pilot training came as a logical choice. It represented an opportunity for a guaranteed job in less than three years, she said, and a chance to join the ranks of pilots in her family.

Al Mansouri's sister, Mariam, is already a veteran fighter pilot with the UAE Armed Forces and her brother, Ali, is a helicopter pilot for Abu Dhabi Police.

"It used to be hard to believe that a UAE national can be at the helm of an aeroplane, be it male or female," said Al Mansouri's father, Hassan. "Now it is becoming a reality with my own daughter. It's a beautiful feeling."

The training programme offered by Etihad to UAE nationals and foreign students, allows prospective pilots to start from scratch and become qualified first officers for the airline in about 26 months.

Training, which could cost around $50,000 (Dh184,000) or more in the United States, is given free of charge provided graduates sign a pledge that they will work for Etihad for at least five years.

Matthew Dowell, head of Etihad's Cadet Pilots Programme, said the 12 Emiratis who graduated yesterday, including Al Beloushi and Al Mansouri, received 750 hours of class time and more than 200 hours of flight time in small single and twin-engine planes.

The next and final phase of training will see the students step into A320s first as observers from the jump seat, then as co-pilots in training under the supervision of designated captain trainers such as Dowell.

Etihad typically uses the narrow-bodied A320s for flights of less than four hours.

"It's a huge step for them," said Dowell.

"But it's a step that we take very slowly. We give them a lot of ground training and we don't send them until they're ready."

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