Born to Fly
Captain Sharifah Czarena Suriany Syed Hashim, Royal Brunei Airlines’ and Southeast Asia’s first female captain, may not have always dreamed of being a pilot, but no one can argue that it’s a mantel that she wears well.
The team at Community for Brunei has always been a fan of the hard work and dedication behind this enigmatic pilot, and we were so honoured to invite the captain over for a conversation about challenging barriers for women to get into the aviation industry, RB’s plans to up the global ante of female pilots by 2025, the importance of self-confidence and working hard for your dreams, and the ‘left-hand seat’.
Did you always want to be a pilot?
Yes and no. From a very young age that was my childhood ambition but I lost touch with that dream as I was growing up, so I went into different avenues before actually finally signing up to be a cadet pilot. And once I did, it felt like a dream come true. But no, I can’t say that I’ve always wanted to be a pilot.
Can you give us a brief insight into the kind of training you had to go through?
The training was very intensive, and it involved the theoretical side of things and 14 exams to sit for, and very technical subjects like general navigation, meteorology, engines, hydraulics. With a passing mark of what I believe was 75%, there was no question that we had to do well. We only focused on learning how to fly once that was done. You start off with a single propeller, then to two propellers, before you take your final exams. Then you get your flying license.
Do you remember your first flight?
The first flight I ever did was with an instructor in a little airplane called the Katana DV20, and it was the strangest feeling! You’re used to going on holidays in these big planes, and being in a tiny airplane was a very new experience for me. We weren’t even going up to heights of 40,000 feet, we were flying fairly low so to have a literal bird’s eye view was very strange, and I actually felt airsick when I landed! I even thought I was in the wrong career because it was like, oh my God I am suffering from motion sickness! I persevered through and Alhamdulillah the second flight was fine.
My first flight on my own was amazing because I had no instructor and I was on my own. It lasted all of 10 minutes, but I was super happy when I landed and I remember calling home and thinking oh my God, do you know what? I now know what I was born to do. I was born to fly.
In your opinion are there any barriers, mentally or physically, for women to get into a career in aviation?
This is a very challenging career, and I think mentally there is a huge barrier if you doubt yourself. This is a male-dominated industry, and even though I myself don’t really think about the fact that I’m only one of seven female pilots out of a 120 male pilots, it’s daunting. You need to be mentally strong to overcome any self-doubt that comes your way. You need to really believe that you can do it as long as you put in the hard work.
As for physically, there is a lot of intensive training involved in becoming a pilot, and little planes that you start with, before moving up in size, engine size and older planes – which you can liken to driving and maneuver an older and heavier model car without power steering. You need a good amount of strength to actually maneuver an airplane.
Have you ever raced resistance or discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated field?
To be perfectly honest, everyone, male or female, have been very, very supportive. But have I encountered discrimination? Yes. Have I had those negative comments? Yes. And believe it or not, most of them were not from males. Sadly, that does happen. That’s just the way life is.
Can you name a memorable time in your flying career?
The one I always remember is when I became captain. It took me about three months of training, and here’s some quick information: in the airplane, the right hand seat is where the first officer or co-pilot sits, the left hand seat is where the captain sits. I spent about eight years in the right hand seat, dreaming about sitting on the left hand seat, so when I was selected for the command training, I actually told my family and friends that I needed to put my life on hold because the training was important and I didn’t want to fail.
My examiner then is actually our current CEO, Captain Khalidkhan Hj Asmakhan, and while everything went well on the flight but I wasn’t sure whether or not I passed! So we landed in Brunei, parked and waited to see if I passed. Captain Khalid was sitting in the observer seat, between the left and the right seat. He turned around, put out his hand, and told me, “Welcome to the left hand seat.”
How do you overcome the negativity?
You have to be positive. At the end of the day, I pay my own bills. So brush it off. I’ll take it on the chin, but I’ll brush it off.
In Brunei, as women we’ve been blessed with equal privileges and freedom. What more would you like to see happening in the advancement of women today, in our country?
Alhamdullilah, we are so blessed in Brunei that we have equal opportunity. I was given the chance at an International Women’s Day event yesterday held by the US Embassy, to discuss with another panellist how we don’t actually feel gender inequality in Brunei. That said, there is an under representation of females in roles like pilots and engineers for this country, and Royal Brunei has pledged to an initiative by the International Air Transport Association called 25, 2025, to increase female representation by 25% by the year 2025. It’ll be challenging, especially as now is not a great time for flying, but we’re committed!
Any advice to women aspiring to become pilots or in another capacity in the aviation industry?
Any advice to women aspiring to become pilots or in another capacity in the aviation industry. If you can dream it, you can do it. But you have to believe you can do it, you have to believe in yourself. You have to work hard; you have to push yourself because no one is going to do it for you. Take things one step at a time because it’s going to be hard but hard doesn’t mean impossible. Don’t give up. If you have to work hard for something, the feeling when you achieve it is the greatest feeling of all