Part 5 of the story of Captain Wendy Yawching
On my first flight as a Captain, as I walked through the airport and onto the Dash-8 aircraft, I remember feeling like a complete fraud. Despite the 4-brand new shining bars on my shoulders, I wondered if anyone else could see that I was just a rookie, didn’t know how to be a Captain. Then I sat down in the left seat, un-accompanied by a check captain for the first time; and it was like coming home.
Showtime! I never looked back. That was in 1999.
Being a Captain was a whole new experience in ways that I had never expected.
Recognizing that as BWIA’s first female Captain I was now a role model for youngsters, I initially agreed to the media publicity that the airline requested, only to realize very quickly that I was not comfortable with all the attention (because of crime, and my personal preference). So thereafter I opted to keep a low profile, except for school appearances and other low-key but meaningful projects.
When I was a First Officer, I looked to the left seat for guidance. Now I was the person in that left seat, and the First Officers were turning to me; that took a while to get used to. But whenever things got tough in the years ahead, I still looked to my left. Out the window. Because God was sitting in that left seat.
I learnt that a first officer only sees a slice of the pie (if you consider all the things that go into making a successful flight like a pie). The Captain is expected to see the entire pie, all 360 degrees of it. So, I had to strive to see more of the pie; I spent the rest of my career trying, and along the way realized that the Captain can’t possibly see the entire 360 without using the skills that surround him (her!). The people resource is crucial.
I spent 3 educational and enjoyable years as Captain on the Dash-8, then moved onto the new B737-800 as a First Officer for 2 years. That time in the copilot seat of the 737 were time well spent: it’s always good to get to know an airplane before being in command of it. When my time came to transition to left seat in 2004, it felt like I had always belonged there.
How did people react to this new phenomenon, a woman in charge of an airplane?
In the early years, passengers reacted with shock, nervousness and doubt. During my Dash-8 days, one man panicked and started to hyperventilate after he heard my voice on the PA, and we had to return to the gate and let him off. He took another flight. Another old lady accosted me in Piarco airport. “Excuse me, are you a little boy or a little girl?” I replied “Beg your pardon?” To which she said “Well, I see the uniform so you must be a little boy. But you have on lipstick and heels!” Priceless.
The flight attendants were proud, and treated me accordingly. I was, after all, originally one of their own (1973-1976). Often, I would hear the PA announcement: Captain WENDY Yawching is in command of our flight today, and SHE has given us a flying time of…
Sometimes a boarding passenger would ask “Is that a woman pilot I see in the cockpit?” and the F/A would reply: “Yes sir, and she is one of the BEST!” Thank you all for the support, always.
Over time, people’s acceptance of women in unusual positions grew, and “Oh-Oh” changed to “Wow”, with people sending congratulatory notes to the cockpit, or insisting that they shake my hands on leaving the airplane. One delighted dreadlocked Jamaican yelled out (on seeing my mass of curly hair) “The lady Captain is a Raaas! We good, yes!” Women got all excited and proud, because my presence in the cockpit confirmed their own dreams were possible.
Our first all-female jet flight was a historic and wonderful occasion, for passengers and crew alike. As more female first officers came to the B737, it happened quite often but was always special. The few occasions when I was the only woman on the crew were just as special; it caused quite a stir when this little lady captain walked through the airport with 5 large males at my side.
People often see the pilot’s uniform and assume that the person wearing it is lucky and privileged. I surely felt lucky, and indeed privileged that I got the chance to live my dream. But it was not easy getting there, nor was it an easy life. No outsider understands the demands of a life in the skies: the many challenges of the job, the wear and tear on your body, the difficulty of having a normal social and personal life… to name just a few. You cannot judge the journey by looking at the glittery stripes on the snazzy uniform. It’s not glamorous on the inside; you gotta love it, or I suggest you choose another career.
But l truly loved it. Even after so many years, flying an airplane still thrilled me, especially the speed and power of the jets. I loved thundering down a runway into the sunrise, and flying at 37000ft over the sparkling lights of a sleeping city. I valued the opportunities (no, the demands) that this job brought to keep learning, growing, trying to excel. I enjoyed helping to make my first officers into future good captains. I loved working as a team with my crew. I went home filled with pride and satisfaction when we all had a perfect flight.
Being a Captain felt wonderful to me, not for the power but for the ability to make a difference. I compare being the PIC (Pilot in command) of a flight to being the conductor of an orchestra. Many people involved, every person with their vital part to play, and you are the one whose part is to pull it all together, draw the best of out each person, manage the timing, tweak this and that, keep an eye on the whole picture; and when it all comes together just right, the result is the beautiful symphony of a great flight.
Despite many challenges over the years, when anyone asks about my flying career, the word “magical” features somewhere in the explanation. Now how many people get to say that?
The story ends with the next installment! You can find the other parts below: