Moonrises and the Sim

The Ups and Downs of Being a Pilot

When people ask me what I do for a living I almost always get the same response “Pilot? An airline pilot?” Then I politely smile and say, “Yes, a real pilot.” That is promptly followed by, “I’ve never met a woman pilot!“

Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a pilot. I guess I was lucky that my family never reminded me about being a woman and always told me that with a lot of work and a little faith I could be anything, even an airline pilot. I have worked very hard to get where I am now, and I would like to think that those around me have worked just as hard. I guess I always questioned the faith part.

Being a pilot comes with its ups and downs. I have seen the most amazing sunrises, sunsets, shooting stars, and moonrises that you can imagine. People ask me all the time if I’ve ever seen a UFO. I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean we are alone. I will never get over the feeling of taking off and flying and the thrill of landing. However, it is a very lonely profession and it is difficult to convey or share these feelings with loved ones. Christmas and Thanksgiving become movable dates. Reunions, graduations, birthdays, weddings, little league baseball practices — I’m the virtual one. I have also missed a few firsts: the first time my son said “mamá”, the first day of pre-school (especially heartbreaking for me), or the first swimming class.

You need a special kind of person next to you to be a pilot. One who knows how to solve problems without you and that doesn’t mind going to couples’ dinners with no couple. I am very lucky to have my wife by my side. I know her role is not easy.

I would also like to address a couple of questions that I continually get. I don’t fly the same routes over and over. I fly the same type of plane. It’s like having a license to only drive a VW and not a BMW, so I fly the routes that the company schedules the plane to do. I can fly as many B757s as my employer owns but I can’t fly their A320.

I do have a say in where I go. We bid. In the aviation world, seniority is everything. I ask a computer program what I want based on trips and days off and, based on seniority, it gives solutions. We bid month to month so I can go new places every month. I also don’t fly with the same people every time. So every trip is new!

We go to training once every 9 months. People think it’s neat to be thrown in the simulator to practice emergency situations, but, let me tell you, it’s the most stressful part of my job. My position is on the line, and rightfully so, but it is still very nerve wracking. If you ask any pilot if they enjoy the sim almost everyone will tell you: not so much.

When I get the: “You’re not the pilot, pilot?” question I honestly don’t know how to answer. I am the pilot pilot. I should explain that there is a chain of command. The captain and the first officer. I am a first officer for now but will be a captain as soon as my seniority and my life preferences sync. The captain is the final authority and he/she makes the tough choices in case one of those arises and generally is in charge. But we alternate flying throughout the trip. For example, if the trip goes from LAX to SFO and back, the captain will fly the way there and I’ll fly back. Whoever is not flying will work the radios. As a general rule, the one who flies doesn’t talk to air traffic control and the other way around.

Getting to work for one of the best companies in the world has not been an easy road. This is my seventh airline. I lived in Hong Kong for 5 years when one of the companies I used to work for went out of business and I couldn’t find a job. 9/11 will always be on our minds for the atrocities committed and also by how it changed aviation. My career also took a very hard hit, a small price to pay in comparison to all the lives that were taken.

Now that I am over 40, I have to get a medical every 6 months. So in conjunction with my sim eval I have to see an approved aviation doctor for a medical at least twice a year.

I know the exact day that I will retire, I’ve known it even before I started flying. The day of my 65th birthday. (I’m not telling). The FAA takes away our medical certificate that day, so it’s goodbye.

Even with all the sacrifices, hard work, and occasional good luck sprout, being an airline pilot has been my dream and it has come true. Seriously, I’ve got the best seat in the house. I could not see myself doing anything else. I look up to the sky every time I hear a plane above, and I am truly grateful of all the people that came before — who, in one way or another, have made my journey less strenuous.

I still remember my dad’s words about hard work and having a little faith that this Mexican-American, gay woman would somehow get her dream job.

When it comes to faith, I can only think of the fact that when you reach 180 m/hr in a metal tin that weighs over two hundred thousand pounds powered by two big fans, and you pull… you’ll fly. It never gets old and I love it.