“Why do you want to be a pilot?” Many people ask me that question followed by whether my plane has a bathroom. No, it does not. Normally I would answer, “you know, it’s cool to fly.” And shrug. But writing this piece made me think about the real reasons why I cannot give up flying.
I am from Beijing, a city that has 21 million people. Everybody is in a hurry to get somewhere, and there are hardly any interpersonal relationships. Strangers never smile at strangers, and I don’t know my neighbors. The city looks heated but cold.
I always say this to people about flying: ”Think about it: If you are stuck in a 3 by 4 square-foot box for six hours, you need to be a nice person.” This is how I feel when I am at the Institute of Aviation. I don’t feel distant to anyone: the experienced check pilots, the 65-year-old student pilot, the “top-off, please” fuel guy, the Flightstar staff, or the air traffic controllers whom I have never met. There is one thing that connects us, aviation. But it is never dull because every one of us shines in his or her own way.
I will emphasize one of the pronouns I just used: his or HER. Everybody knows that aviation is a tough field for women. The female representation is tiny, and I just found out that out of the 1.4 billion people in my country, there are only 142 female airline pilots.
But at the Institute of Aviation, I am proud of our female representation. We have a female chief pilot whom we all look up to. We have girls trying to be pilots at the age of 16. This is a very special feeling for me, seeing the strong women empowerment at the institute. My family, which holds the Asian conservative value most dear, believes that I should have a life that a girl “should have,” that is, get a stable salary job and be a great mother. I am completely okay with this idea, but I am going to connect that job with flying airplanes. Even with all the pressure from my family, I never thought I would give up flying. Thanks to all the examples at the Institute of Aviation, I am more determined than ever.
More Freedom to Ask
Thinking in a second language is hard; now imagine flying using a second language. I never wanted to admit that this is an obstacle because I want my instructors to treat me the same as everybody else. But sometimes, it does take an extra question. My education until the day I entered college was “do as I am told.” If my teacher told me that a hexagon is a beehive, then it could never be anything else. This might be an exaggeration, but we were afraid to ask questions.
But when it comes to training to be a safe pilot, one of the most important reminders we receive here is “never be afraid to ask your controllers.” Now, according to Bill (my instrument rating instructor), I am his “I have a question” and “I completely understand” girl.
Aviation has reshaped my entire life. I transformed from the girl who almost settled to be an accountant for the rest of her life to a proud female pilot. The University of Illinois led me to the love of my life, and Parkland College saved it.
So you want to know why I want to fly airplanes? Well… you will have to experience it yourself.
[Fran Tao, a student from China, is taking flight training at the Parkland College Institute of Aviation at the University of Illinois.]