Guardian Lifestyles Editor
Published: Jun 08, 2012
Frances Smith, Gwendolyn Ritchie and Gayle Saunders have made aviation history in The Bahamas. The threesome is the first group of females to be promoted to captain status at the national flag carrier, Bahamasair, in its 39 years of existence, and have proven that the sky is indeed the limit.
They can look back at the young girls they once were, who were fascinated by airplanes and say: “You go girl, job well done.” And they are now examples to the other two females at the airline, first officers Sherrell Forbes and Juliana Phillips-Mahelis, that the goal of sitting in the left seat is attainable.
“As a young girl growing up in Deadman’s Cay, Long Island, I would ride my bike to the airport just to watch the airplanes take off and land, and during school I wanted to become a flight attendant,” said Captain Smith. Her headmaster at N.G.M. Major School told her she would be bored with that job title and that she should just learn to fly. And she did, although it took her awhile. One of 14 children, she had to pay for flight training lessons when the funds were available. It took her seven years to accomplish her wings. After 17 years at Bahamasair, Smith, 49, is the lead person in the cockpit.
Captain Ritchie, 44, told a similar story, except her journey began on Ragged Island.
“Every month we had a flying doctor come in with the commissioner and the regular government people, and I remember looking forward to that every month. I got so into it that I could eventually tell just by the way the plane flew over the island who was flying the plane.”
It also took Ritchie a 17-year stint at the carrier to achieve captain status.
Captain Saunders, 49, who also has her fourth stripe, said she was “hyper” as a child and wanted a job that would allow her to keep moving. Born in New Providence, she said when she moved to Grand Bahama she lived close to the airport and was able to see the planes take off and land, and thinks that was how her attraction to aviation developed.
Captain Smith, along with First Officer Sherrell Forbes and cabin attendant Keva Darville, were the first to fly an all-female flight. They flew 20 passengers on a 50-seat Dash-8 plane on a 50-minute flight to Long Island.
Making the flight even more special to Captain Smith was the fact that she flew into her hometown.
“It was a wonderful experience and truly a dream come true,” she said of her promotion and of her history-making flight. She said she has always believed that in order for dreams to come true that people must first dream.
After being so familiar with how things look from the right seat, Captain Ritchie said everything seems different and new in the left seat, but after so many years, she said it was a long time coming.
And for Captain Ritchie, who commanded the first international all-female flight crew (they flew into Fort Lauderdale with a 35-person load on a 50-seat flight), she said she was her usual calm self. Her focus, she said, was not on what she was doing, but rather on what would happen next, as pilots always want to be one step ahead of everything so that they are not taken by surprise.
“You always have to be mindful in the real world that things go wrong, so you always have to be alert for any abnormal situations,” she said.
Captain Ritchie said she was excited about that flight, but she could not let it get to the point where she forgot her responsibilities.
For Captain Saunders, her first all-female flight (with First Officer Phillips-Mahelis) to Treasure Cay, Abaco; Marsh Harbour, Abaco; and then on to Miami was just another ordinary day on the job.
“It doesn’t make a difference because all of us know our chores that we have to do,” she said. “[And] I’ve been flying so long now it’s just like an ordinary day.”
And while all of the captains have had their first all-female flights since their promotions, they have also encountered the prejudice that comes with knowing that women are commandeering a plane. And it does not bother them.
“We had a gentleman actually say that in Abaco [on my first flight],” said Captain Smith. “When the flight attendant made the announcement that it was an all-female crew that day, the gentleman said ‘wait, all female’? She (flight attendant) said, ‘yes you’re in safe hands, trust me’. At this stage in my life, it doesn’t bother me because they’ll get over it, as the female population grows in this field,” she said.
With two female first officers to look up to them, making up the field of women in the cockpit at Bahamasair, Captain Smith said she would tell them and any other female interested in aviation that the journey will not be easy, but if it is their dream, pursue it because in the long run, they will be rewarded.
Recalling the history-making first flight, First Officer Forbes, 30, said she could not stop smiling and that seeing the looks on the passengers’ faces as they walked through the terminal when they realized it was an all-female flight crew was “amazing”.
She also said for her it was “awesome” to look to the left seat and see a female seated there.
Forbes has aspirations of one day becoming a captain, and with only nine years under her belt at the company, she said she has mentally prepared herself for the long haul.
“Seeing them make it lets me know that I can get there. It’s been done so it’s not so far off,” she said.
Phillips-Mahelis, 31, who has been a first officer for eight years, can also see the light at the end of the tunnel. She described the promotions of the women to captain as exciting, and said that all-female crews present a different dynamic in the cockpit.
“Women in aviation tend to be self-confident and know their minds... and you have to be, I think, to get into this male-dominated world in the first place,” she said. “You have to be that type of personality.”
Bahamas Airline Pilots Association President Emil Saunders said the promotion of three women to captain showed the advancement of the field of aviation in the country.
“This makes me very proud. I think it’s a positive thing for females in The Bahamas, especially as African-American female pilots are very rare. In the United States alone, African-American male pilots make up less than one percent of the pilot population, so can you imagine African-American females — or female captains on the whole. They make up a very miniscule portion when you consider the number of pilots out there, and we have three at once, so this is a major accomplishment,” he said.
Saunders said he will be excited when Forbes and Phillips-Mahelis are promoted.
If Patrice Clarke, (the daughter of Peggy Ann and Nathaniel Clarke) who was the first female professional pilot in The Bahamas, had stayed at Bahamasair, she would probably have been the first female to attain the captain’s stripes. Clarke-Washington instead made history in the United States. She was one of only 11 African-American female commercial pilots in the United States airline industry, and was promoted to captain with United Parcel Service in 1994. She became the first African-American female to become captain for a major airline.
Clarke-Washington’s first was especially significant considering that there are fewer than a dozen black female pilots on major airlines, according to the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. And of UPS’ own 1,650 pilots, only 59 are black and only 86 are women. Clarke-Washington was the only one who was black and female.
And it’s not just Clarke-Washington who would have been the pacesetter, because prior to Bahamasair’s awesome five (Smith, Ritchie, Saunders, Forbes and Phillips-Mahelis), Helen Dupuch had also taken to the skies with the national flag carrier.
Subsequent to Clarke’s departure, Smith, Ritchie and Saunders were in the next grouping of females at Bahamasair. Because of the hiring of six new pilots, none of whom were female, the opportunity arose for the promotion exercise.
Of course, women have been flying planes for six decades, inspired by role models like Amelia Earhart in the 1930s and by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.