Do you ever wonder what your legacy will be? Liz Jennings Clark won’t have that problem. In 1983, she became the first female Pilot for the Caribbean Airline, LIAT. In 1989, she moved to the Netherlands and was the Co-Pilot/First Officer on the first all-female flight. In June 1992, at the age of 29, she became one of the youngest female airline Captains in Europe. She’s also the 2nd female Captain for Transavia Airlines. Talk about girl Power! What a great honor it is to have this living legend and pioneer answer my questions…
Lovee: Hello Liz, thank you for taking the time to share your story with me and my readers. I am fascinated with you and your story for many reasons. One being, as a little girl growing up in my homeland Saint Lucia, I always imagined meeting a female pilot one day, since I had never heard of, or knew of any. In fact, I didn’t think it was possible! When I learned about you and that you grew up in Saint Lucia, I was elated! You have definitely fulfilled a childhood wish, and now I am interested in learning more to help inspire others like me. Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
Liz: I moved to St Lucia in 1970 when I was 7 from England with my parents. My father was English and my Mother was Irish. I went to school from primary to A level in Saint Lucia. I met a Surinamese Pilot in Trinidad at flying school and a few years after marrying, we moved to the Netherlands. Right now I am 54, still flying and still in the Netherlands. Although we divorced some years ago, we remained friends. I now come to St Lucia at least once a year.
Lovee: What was it like growing up in Saint Lucia, and do you still consider it home?
Liz: Looking back I think I had a great childhood in many ways, though of course there are always some bumps along the way. Living in a small community, everybody knows you – which has both pros and cons. But we lived in a simpler time and enjoyed simple pleasures, playing in the bush or on the beach, not coming in until it got dark etc. I certainly still consider it home and hope to spend more time here in the coming years.
Lovee: Those were the days indeed! As a child, did you always have dreams/aspirations of becoming a pilot?
Liz: Well, I know I got the idea in my head quite young. Possibly partly because for the first 3 or 4 years we lived on Vigie Hill so we heard and saw all the flights coming and going. This was in the days when LIAT had BAC 1-11 jets, which made a huge amount of noise. I still have a page from a British newspaper – my Dad used to get them several days late, but anyway it is “Day 1 at Mach 2” a full page advert for the first commercial flight of the Concorde: on Jan 21, 1976 – my 13th birthday! I kept this page as a sign that it would all work out! So I know I really wanted to fly from before that time.
Lovee: WOW! Who was your greatest influence in pursuing a career as a Pilot?
Liz: To be honest, I was pretty self-motivated. I guess I was a bit stubborn and just knew what I wanted. At that time female role models or mentors were few and far between – Amelia Earhart or Beryl Markham – but they were decades earlier. I had written to the RAF (I was born in the UK) but in the late 70s they did not accept women for flight training. They even sent back a shocking letter where they explained I could become a Navigator or Load Controller with Male and Female salaries for the jobs (!). As you can imagine women earned less – in 1977 – not the Dark Ages!
Lovee: Undoubtedly, although we have certainly evolved, we still have a long way to go. How much of a role did your parents have in you attaining your dreams/goal?
Liz: Actually my Mum thought I was quite mad, but once I got my licenses she was proud and couldn’t remember ever saying a word against it. My Dad was not as critical in the beginning, but I had the feeling he didn’t think it would ever happen. He was certainly very proud later when I became Captain and he even came along in the cockpit with me when that was still allowed.
Lovee: Where did you attain your formal education/training as a Pilot?
Liz: In Trinidad-The Caribbean Aviation Training Institute. I was fortunate enough to win a full scholarship. We worked to ICAO/UK CAA standards and our theory exams were corrected in the UK. The school was funded by the Technical Assistance Program of the UNDP. Unfortunately, it was too successful – put out a lot of pilots and Engineers every year and after a few years the West Indian market was saturated, add an economic downturn and soon later the school folded. When I finished, I had a Commercial License with Multi-engine and Instrument Ratings. I did the Airline Transport Pilot theory a year or two later in London.
Lovee: How amazing it would be if we still had such a school in the Caribbean. What were some of the obstacles/challenges you faced along the way?
Liz: Well, as many girls or women experience, I had some self-doubt. It took me a good while to realize that not every tiny mistake is a catastrophe, and that the guys were making at least as many. The material itself is quite challenging – especially at the higher levels. Our passing grade for theory is 80%. Plus, when I moved to the Netherlands, I had been told I wouldn’t have to repeat theory exams which turned out not to be true.
Lovee: Talk about a setback, but you overcame! How long did it take you to become a Captain?
Liz: I was 29 – so 9 years after my first commercial flight with LIAT. I flew with LIAT for about 4 years, moved to Holland then had about 2 years learning Dutch and re-doing all my theory in their system – got a job with Transavia in 1989 and was a Captain on a 737 just under 3 years later. I was lucky as Transavia was growing very quickly so with the help of the hours I’d flown in LIAT, I got onto a fast track and became Transavia’s 2nd female Pilot.
Lovee: You are incredible! I admire your persistance and determination! Undoubtedly, we have evolved in the field of aviation in terms of opportunities for women, but what are some of the challenges that women are still forced to face?
Liz: It varies from country to country. I’m currently the Chairwoman of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots and we notice that the USA is not particularly supportive of working women who want to have a family – little maternity leave or breastfeeding arrangements. In the Netherlands, many fathers work part time in order to help raise their children so it is not an issue if a woman wants to work fewer hours. In some countries, it is still quite unusual for women to work in STEM careers and certainly flying is way behind the curve with probably about 6% in airlines worldwide. I think the main challenge is still in many cases the cost of initial training and getting a network to support you as you make the first steps.
Lovee: That’s very disappointing to hear, reason why we still have a long way to go. How would you like to see the field of aviation evolve, especially in the Caribbean?
Liz: There are some worrying developments in recent years with airlines treating pilots as independent contractors, putting pressure on terms and conditions. It would be great to see a move away from this construction but that is difficult without international agreements. It would be wonderful to see a more vibrant aviation sector in the Caribbean, with multiple competing airlines but there are some specific constraints that make running an airline down here even more difficult than elsewhere. No easy solution I’m afraid.
Lovee: I was hoping you would have one, especially where the Caribbean is concerned. Competition is definitely needed. The prices for flights within the Caribbean are incredulous! What advice would you give to any young woman who wishes to become a Pilot?
Liz: In recent years – it is usually a parent who asks me on behalf of the interested child – girl or boy: I tend to say don’t encourage them, but if they stick to it and show they are serious then maybe they have “the calling”. Aviation has changed a lot over the last few decades. It was always expensive and you always had to take exams every year for the rest of your life (medical/theory/simulator) but added to that now we have to jump through many security hoops, fill out more paperwork and generally follow many more guidelines than 20 or 30 years back. Some are very worthy improvements but others are just red tape! Despite that nothing beats a beautiful sunrise seen from 38.000 feet!
Lovee: I Like that! Ditto! As you know, I’ve developed a fear of flying over the years. What advise can you give me and others to help calm those fears?
Liz: This topic fascinates me, I used to teach courses to help people get over such fears but unfortunately my airline doesn’t give them anymore. There are a number of online resources, pilots who explain all the things like sounds, maneuvers and turbulence. They answer questions and clear up some of the “magic”. At the same time, many people use relaxation techniques to help the physical symptoms. It’s actually something I plan to develop as a project when I retire – feel free to send me your questions Lovee!
Lovee: Thank you! I most certainly will! OK, so I must ask this final question. What does it feel like flying a plane and having the responsibilities of so many lives in your hands?
Liz: Flying the plane is great! The power as you roll for takeoff, battling a crosswind during the approach and putting the aircraft exactly where you want it during a landing. These are the things we still love even after 30+ years. As to the people behind me – if I get home safe they will all come with me – so I just do my best to get me and my crew home safe, then if there are 10 passengers in the back or 200 it really doesn’t matter.
Lovee: Well said! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing your remarkable story with us. You are an inspiration to me and many women. I am sure your story will inspire others to continue to believe in themselves and know that anything is possible. God bless!
Liz: You are welcome Lovee! I just hope that girls follow their hearts and instincts wherever they may lead them. It may be a cliché but if you chose a job you love you will never work a day in your life!
Lovee: Cliche or not, it’s the truth! (Applause)