Un Beso Fuerte
Who’s flying the plane?
My very first operational flying assignment in the Air Force is to a small squadron in Central America; Panama to be exact. It’s a tight-knit unit of all men and so I’m apprehensive about moving there as the first female pilot to fly the C-27, a twin engine turboprop aircraft.
It turns out that’s an unfounded apprehension as the boys club welcomes me with open arms (wings?). Our crews of three fly one of the 10 C-27 aircraft stationed there on missions throughout Central and South America.
Today, I’m the co-pilot for an orientation flight of 22 Panamanian Civic Leaders (all men).
Our crew stands in a line outside the plane, greeting each gentleman as he boards. Our male loadmaster gets a powerful handshake from each civic leader, as does our male aircraft commander. I, however, simply get a delicate kiss on each cheek – their presumed flight attendant, or in that day, “stewardess.”
We follow them on board, the two pilots taking a left turn into the cockpit and the loadmaster taking a right turn into the cargo and passenger area.
We all get on our headsets and start running checklists. The other pilot and I get the engines spinning while the loadmaster briefs our passengers on standard procedures and safety instructions.
Through my headset, I hear the loadmaster call to us, “Uhmmmmm, these guys are really freaked out back here. They’re not listening to a word of my brief. They’re just staring up front at the cockpit.”
It seems a woman in the cockpit is a new sight for these Panamanian men, and not a sight that makes them comfortable.
We take off uneventfully and get up to our cruise altitude with the autopilot engaged. The aircraft commander, well-versed in handling Latin machismo, transfers auto-pilot-watching duties to me and leaves the cockpit.
Over the headset, the loadmaster provides me a play by play as our aircraft commander takes his sweet time to slowly greet each and every Panamanian civic leader on board, none of whom take their concerned eyes off the cockpit, knowing I am the only one up there.
Hopefully it’s not a surprise that we make it safely home after a couple hours in the air. As the civic leaders deplane, the loadmaster and the other pilot get zero attention. Instead, I get all the attention as each Panamanian man gives me un beso fuerte and an awkwardly long hug immediately after stepping off the aircraft.
They may have boarded the plane thinking women couldn’t (or shouldn't) fly. But they left knowing that at least they had survived a flight with a woman at the controls. I was happy to facilitate that “first” for them and to show them that even a woman could competently fly a plane.
Of course, all I had to do to prove my professional competence was not crash the plane. The bar isn’t always high.
So when we run into misperceptions or inaccuracies about us, take the time to see and seize the opportunity to provide a new reality, even if it’s by just not crashing.