As the UAE’s first female pilot of an A380, Aisha Al-Mansouri knows a thing or two about breaking glass ceilings.
She was just one of two female cadets when Etihad Airways first opened its training program in 2007 — and seven years later made history as the first Emirati woman to take to the cockpit of the world’s largest passenger airliner.
As International Women’s Day is marked across the globe, Al-Mansouri, a first officer for the UAE’s national airline, said the day should be a marker for young girls across the region of how far women in the Middle East have come.
“The opportunities are growing and growing, especially in the region. The sky is the limit, really.”
While once aviation was a traditionally male-dominated profession in the Middle East, Al-Mansouri believes there are more opportunities for women, just as there are in any career.
“I think governments (in the region) have come to believe that women are vital for the development of society — in all sectors, in all different roles.”
Al-Mansouri’s career in aviation began by visiting an air show in Al Ain when she was 17. “They had an Etihad stand there and were talking about opening the cadet program and (I was) told if I was interested I should apply — and I did.”
Before joining the cadet program, Al-Mansouri had considered many traditional roles such as a doctor or teacher. The Emirati admitted she never thought about being a pilot, despite watching her brother Ali earn his flying credentials and join Abu Dhabi Police, and her sister, Maj. Mariam Al-Mansouri, become the UAE’s first female fighter pilot.
When Al-Mansouri began the inaugural cycle of Etihad’s cadet program in 2007, she was one of just two women among 450 trainee pilots. “It was bit overwhelming, I had come from an all-girls school and then I had moved to this flight school to train alongside hundreds of men, but I think the way the management ran the program meant I felt at ease quickly.”
After graduating, Al-Mansouri worked as a second officer on the A320, before graduating to the A330 as a first officer. It was then she made her bid to fly on the A380. “My name was among a long list of candidates, so when my name was selected, I was so excited.”
Her inaugural flight on the Airbus was from Abu Dhabi to London in February 2014. “When we were doing our training (for the A380) we had never actually seen the aircraft; we had only been in the flights’ simulator. The cockpit size really doesn’t change when it comes to the real thing, but when I walked into the aircraft for the first time, I was like ‘Wow, this is big.” And the number of props and tubes and buttons you have to check — and the size of the plane — it was like flying a building.”
Al-Mansouri has since racked up countless flights to long-haul destinations. “I still love it, every single time,” she said.
So what is next for the high-flying Emirati? As senior first officer she is second-in-command to the captain, a role she hopes to achieve within the next four years. And she would one day like to use her master’s degree, which she obtained last year in airline operation management. “It opened my eyes to the importance of strategic planning,” she said.