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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Woman is boss

Wendy Yawching and Monique Nobrega created history as BWIA's first all-female flying crew

  • Wendy Yawching (left) and Monique Nobrega in the cockpit. Photograph by Trasi Jang/ Courtesy BWIA West Indies

“It was the pick of the draw!” says Monique Nobrega.

Last November 9, she and Captain Wendy Yawching piloted a BWee Express Dash-8 from Trinidad to St Lucia, the first BWIA flight ever to be flown by an all-female crew. “We were both aware that we were making history as far as BWIA is concerned,” says Wendy, “especially since all of the ground staff at the stations were tickled pink when they realised that two females were flying the plane!”

It had to happen. There are 21 captains on BWIA’s Dash-8 fleet, of whom Wendy is the only woman. And there are 22 first officers, of whom Monique is the only woman. Sooner or later, they were bound to end up in the cockpit together.

Altogether, there are five women among BWIA’s 210 pilots. In addition to Wendy Yawching and Monique Nobrega, who fly the Dash-8s of Bwee Express, Grace Anthony Rose is a flight engineer on the wide-bodied L-1011, and Deborah Clelland and Anne Marie Lewis are first officers on the same aircraft.

The “pecking order” in a traditional cockpit (such as the L-1011) takes you from flight engineer to first officer (right seat) to captain (left seat). In the newer generation of aircraft — including the rising stars of the BWIA fleet, the Boeing 737-Next Generation, of which there are six — the trend is for two-pilot operation: BWIA’s MD-83, Boeing 737-NG and Dash-8 aircraft have only two positions, first officer and captain.

Options to move are based on seniority. After ten years as First Officer on the MD-83, Wendy opted to move to the new BWee Express fleet when the airline acquired its Dash-8 300Q aircraft in early 1999. It was the most direct route to the command position. Wendy had started flying in Canada, where she juggled a computer career with a love for flying, and eventually returned to the Caribbean to work with LIAT,  before settling at BWIA.

Her decision to captain the Dash-8 meant leaving the “sophistication and finesse of jets”. On the Dash-8, she says: “It’s more labour-intensive; there are more things that the pilot has to do. It’s really a different type of flying, propellers have a different feel in the air. But the most difficult thing for me was unlearning 11 years of jet flying. I felt as if I was peeling parts of myself off. It’s a lot more hands-on flying, more landings, and the command position is an exciting change.”

That was almost two years ago, when most of the other pilots were queuing up to graduate to BWIA’s new Boeing 737-NGs. At that time, Monique had been a BWIA flight attendant for eight years. Born into the “flying family” of Michael Nobrega, a BWIA pilot and later fleet captain for both Trinidad and Tobago Air Services and Air Caribbean, she had started training for a pilot’s licence some years earlier, building her flying hours with a courier service while still operating in BWIA’s cabin. Like Wendy, she had always wanted to fly, and she too seized the opportunity offered by the BWee Express fleet, going on line in November 1999.

Having a female captain to work with was special, Monique says. “Wendy was constantly teaching me things. Our conversation was very relaxed, but I learned a lot from her.” Wendy had been flying for more than 14 years with a man in the seat next to her: her first flight with Monique was a landmark. At the professional level, it was “business as usual”; but at the personal level, it was unique. “Perceptions and attitudes are changing,” Wendy points out, “and we see more females training in aviation. I hope we’ll see more joining BWIA. I could never understand why so few Caribbean women have done this. I think it’s great, and I encourage more women to pursue it, especially if they have the flying bug, as I do!”

Both women have full, even exhausting, lives. Wendy runs an eco-tourism company in Trinidad called Wildways, and takes adventure vacations in other parts of the world, such as bungee-jumping or hiking to the Mount Everest base camp in the Himalayas. Monique owns a women’s boutique in Port of Spain, and produces a section for the Carnival band, Poison.

All things being equal, women have just as much right to be in the cockpit as in the cabin or the executive offices. But, says Monique’s father, women who make it as BWIA pilots are exceptional people. “They have come through a process in which the training is hard; and the pressure on a woman who does not wish to fail is more than double.” Enough said. (PG)