Yvonne Pope Sintes, Britain’s first female jet airline captain and author of Trailblazer in Flight*, only ever wanted to fly. But in the 1950s, very few women were allowed into the male-dominated world of aviation. Whilst many women were consigned to the role of house-wife, Yvonne chose a different path. Her dream was to join the ranks of the Royal Air Force, criss-crossing international skies. Despite an awareness of the pitfalls that might await her, she embarked on her mission. During an interview for my Women in Leadership research, Yvonne helped me appreciate how far opportunities for women have advanced since the 1960s and what we can achieve when we set our sights sky high!
What were the biggest challenges facing you as a female pilot?
I would say as a pilot because I had been a flying instructor teaching men. We were just pilots. Funnily enough, when I was flying with Morton’s, some of the captains weren’t too keen on the thought of having a woman. However, when they found that my voice on the RT got them good clearances they were quite pleased to have me along. When I applied to Morton Air Services for the job of a pilot I was offered more money to go back to Air Traffic Control because one of their pilots had threatened to resign if I joined. I think he actually wanted to move to a bigger airline and was using me as an excuse to leave. When I applied to British European Airways in 1967 I received a letter stating it wasn’t the “…present BEA policy to employ women co-pilots”. That was the policy of BEA and BOAC at the time before they became British Airways. These days BA are trying to work things out for women with children and organising rosters to suit couples who are both pilots. It was only later on when I joined Dan Air that they slowly started training women as well as men. I was the first female pilot with Dan Air and then other women joined later. Fortunately, I was accepted as I was seen as just another pilot because I had been an instructor and an air traffic controller. There were a few men initially who were dead anti women pilots and then they came around too.
How did you win them around?
By showing them I could do it as well as a man and just getting on with the job.
Were there any other challenges you faced on your journey to become a commercial airline pilot?
I just tried to take advantage of every opportunity I could see. Like when I wanted to join the Royal Air Force and they wouldn’t train women pilots. So I thought if I become a stewardess I will get the pilots to teach me how to fly. When I joined BOAC they had their own flying club so I was able to learn how to fly there whilst working as a stewardess on the South American route. One of the captains had been an instructor during the war and he taught me straight and level flying across the Atlantic. When we had fed the passengers and there was nothing to do I took the pilots coffee and they said “Would you like to sit down?” Then the captain continued teaching me climbing and descending. He became my mentor and was the one who suggested I become an instructor. Each time I found that it was the really experienced men who encouraged me. It was only those who were a bit uncertain of themselves who were against a woman doing a job they thought women shouldn’t be doing.
In Trailblazer in Flight you said you found different ways of building up your flying hours after you had the children, including living in a caravan next to the air field and also support from your family.
Yes. I had to have four different nanny/housekeepers. Finally, my turn came to be posted from Gatwick to Stornoway for three months to look after the outstation. As the first woman controller to be sent there I didn’t really dare refuse. Unfortunately the very nice woman who had been looking after my boys developed a health problem and had given me notice. My family were living in Hazlemere and suggested trying to get the boys into the local weekly boarding schools and they would look after them at the week-ends. I would, of course, try to see them at week-ends if we coincided and during the holidays.
It must have been an exciting time for the children
Yes. They accepted their mother as a pilot. It was so sweet on one occasion when I came back from a night flight from Guernsey. We were a bit late in and I had to go and pick up my son from school. Another lady arrived at the same time as me and said “I’m so pleased to meet you because my son only wants an autograph book with your autograph in it for his birthday not a new bicycle.” So I had my uses!
How did you overcome the challenges you faced on your journey to become an air traffic controller and airline pilot?
Just by doing the job as well as possible. On one occasion, one of the men was really dead anti having a woman. He wouldn’t even have a woman assistant. When he was sent to Southampton as a training officer, where I was based, he found he had got the first woman. He did his utmost to persuade me to go and join the flying examining unit or get out. But I wouldn’t, of course.
How did you deal with the situation?
I just got on and did the job. Then to my amazement later on when I had become a pilot with Morton’s I met him when I was walking up the stairs to see the controllers at Bournemouth airport. He stopped me and said “I’m sorry. I misjudged you.” I think he had forgotten how women worked during the war. It was the same with the women pilots. They flew everything from the smallest trainer up to the biggest bomber through to Spitfires and Mosquitoes and so forth. Then after the war there were very few jobs going so the men took most of them. There were only, perhaps, half a dozen of the women who managed to continue flying one way or another. They did survey flying and one woman worked for Channel Airways flying to France etc. I met one woman who had ferried 500 Spitfires on her own during the war and another who was the first to fly 4 engine bombers and, you know, they just forgot all about them.
What kinds of people supported you during your career?
Funnily enough, the Civil Aviation examiners were very good. When I was a flying instructor at Exeter I had limited time off to do the very difficult instrument rating training. They would fit me in when they could and encouraged me. Equally, after I had qualified as a commercial pilot, I got to know some of the examiners quite well. When they did radar target flying from the school at Bournemouth they needed another pilot and asked me to help them out with the flying. Then I was placed at Stansted when it was the centre of the examining unit and I was invited to do the target flying for the school. So the fact that I was so keen and could do the job really qualified me.
Was there anyone else who supported you?
My family who put up with my lifestyle. They weren’t at all keen that I should be doing this kind of work after my husband died. But I just badly wanted to carry on flying. I was trained for it and I didn’t want to do anything else.
What changes, if any, did you notice to attitudes to women air traffic controllers and pilots during your career?
Women were more and more accepted because people began to realise that women did a really good job. In fact if you were applying for a job as a woman you almost had to be more qualified than a man. Therefore, being more qualified, they had more faith in her capabilities.
So do you think women had to be more qualified than men to do the same job?
Yes. I was told so by one of the examiners. He said women were better qualified, on the whole, and would need to be so in order to get the same positions as the male pilots. Funnily enough, I heard recently that a young cadet who I had trained to fly at Exeter joined BOAC, which later became British Airways. He became a training captain and finally chief pilot. Because I had taught him to fly he was pro-women and was one of the people who instigated getting women pilots into British Airways.
Having read your book you seemed to have a vision of what you wanted to do.
All I ever wanted to do was fly! I never ever thought of becoming an airline pilot. I just wanted to fly. Learning to be an instructor was great. I enjoyed teaching people to fly. Then it was because my husband died I had to think of earning some more money and trying to get into the commercial world to do so. Then one thing led to another.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities for women in aviation today?
It is very difficult for me to say because I’ve been out of it for a long time. However, I have seen what women have become in aviation. One woman has become the Master of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots and Navigators. Another woman is Operations Director at Swanwick. So there doesn’t seem to be any gender problem at all. It just depends on your capabilities. I think now that women are working alongside men people realise that women can do the job just as well. Male and female pilots are both equal in the cockpit. It is a special environment as you both have to be very well qualified and pass all the tests every six months so you have respect for one another. You are both doing a job that requires a terrific amount of concentration and I think this makes a big difference.
What reactions did you get from passengers when you first started flying?
When I first started I think the men were just somewhat amazed. It was the women who thought a woman shouldn’t really be doing that sort of thing. Would you believe only last year I met a young woman who was very intellectual. I’m not sure what job she did but she didn’t even know that we had women pilots these days. So there is still that sort of attitude. My son was thrilled to bits when he flew years ago with Virgin and discovered the captain was a woman flying a 747.
What qualities and attributes do you think women bring to the role of a pilot?
I think it must be the ability to cope with unusual situations. Women, on the whole, have all sorts of different problems to cope with in the home when they are on their own and their husbands are at work. They have got to cope and are more used to getting on with it. Very few women panic. So I think the capability of being able to cope with any problem is one attribute. The other is determination and also delicacy of touch.
How did “delicacy of touch” show itself?
When I was a captain, some of the men, particularly the younger ones, liked to show off and do fighter turns. I would say to them “The passengers have paid to get from A to B not knowing they are airborne. They don’t want to fly in an airliner like a fighter!” On the whole most pilots were dedicated. Women, particularly more so than men, were absolutely determined to make a really good job of it.
What qualities and attributes do you think men bring to the role of a pilot?
As the chief pilot told me “It doesn’t really matter much about gender as long as you do the job well.” On the whole my male colleagues were very good and I had been working with men ever since I started as an instructor and then as air traffic controller. There was no problem as far as I was concerned. They may have had one, but I didn’t.
Do you have any thoughts you would like to share about your journey to become a pilot?
Only to take every opportunity you can see and make the most of it. I was just lucky that the RAF Volunteer Reserve took women if they were qualified with a private pilot’s licence. They wouldn’t teach women to fly to begin with but then when I got my private licence I was able to do 200 hours on their Chipmunks. This gave me the required number of hours for the commercial licence and also to become an instructor. Then one thing led to another and I just took advantage of each opportunity as it came and made the most of it.
Do you have any other thoughts about women in leadership?
Don’t accept emotional blackmail. People trying to persuade you not to go for a job you want because of the family. If you are really interested in something, no matter what it is, go for it! Take every opportunity that comes along and, with luck, it should work out.