By Ebele Orakpo
Mary Abye Ombugadu is a commercial pilot, one of the few Nigerian female pilots, and the very first female pilot from Nasarawa State, North-Central Nigeria.
In this chat with Vanguard, Mary who works for a corporate airline, providing scheduled and charter services across Nigeria, speaks on her life as a pilot, working in a male-dominated field, among other issues.
After my primary education at Eliztor Private School, Barkin Ladi, Plateau State, I went on to St. Louis College, Jos, also in Plateau State for my secondary school education. Thereafter, I enrolled into the Standard Pilot course, SP-25 at the prestigious and foremost Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, Kaduna State. I also went for further training in the Finnish Aviation Academy, Finland; Flight Safety in the USA; South Africa and CAE in the UK.
What made you decide to become a pilot?
I like to say flying chose or found me. Growing up and watching my father have a remarkable career as an engineer, all I wanted to be was an engineer.
I had wanted to apply for an engineering course when my mother picked up my form from the Aviation College but because there was no engineering course selection exercise scheduled at the time, I was advised to try the Standard Pilot Course exam and I did. I was selected, I went for the week-long medicals and evaluation exercise, got the admission and here we are today.
What was it like training and working in a male-dominated environment?
Training was very exciting, I was going into something I hadn’t dreamed of but the opportunity availed itself and I caught the flying dream right after resuming as a flying student. I made up my mind to give it my all and excel.
There was no bias whatsoever. We all wore the same uniform, black pants, white shirts, black ties, and the school provided the same schoolbags. We were given equal opportunity and I didn’t feel less simply because I am female as much as there were more males than females. Coming into the industry fresh from school,
I didn’t know what to expect but all the men I have come across so far are encouraging, supportive and I am grateful. I see everyone at work first as a colleague whom I need to work with to achieve a common goal, irrespective of gender. There may be conflict of interest at some point and that comes with living and sharing the world with other humans.
What have been the high points and low points of your career so far?
High points for me have always been passing my check rides, the adrenaline rush I get when the check airman debriefs me and says I passed, is heart-warming, not like I ever imagine otherwise though.
Another one is when the esteemed passengers say Thank you to show their satisfaction because I believe in giving them more value than they paid for. Low point I remember was after I graduated, and was told at a job interview that I didn’t have the minimum experience required for their kind of operation, and I wondered “how do I get any experience if you do not employ me?” That did not deter me, I kept applying to airlines and general aviation flyers until I got my first job.
What’s a typical day at work like?
I work with a corporate airline at the moment. You show up ready and fit, report at the operations control center where your flight dispatcher gives you all relevant information pertaining your flight, from weather to serviceability of your aircraft, to any route changes, and gives you a briefing pack containing all the paperwork.
The captain briefs the entire team also. You then proceed to your aircraft, do your external and internal checks; set up the aircraft and ensure the cabin is comfortable and ready. Checks are done by professional cabin crew.
You call for boarding of your esteemed passengers, fly the aircraft safely and efficiently from point A to point B, and repeat again until you have completed your assigned flights for the day.
I promise you, no two flights are the same even if you fly between Abuja and Lagos six times a day, that makes each trip unique and exciting.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career?
It is unfavourable weather condition. That was my biggest challenge in flying school because when you are ready for a check ride and is grounded for a couple of days due to bad weather, it almost always meant you would do a review flight with your flying instructor before eventually going because it is believed that the waiting may have gotten you rusty so this extends your training period. However, I overcame that by using the waiting period to study my course handbooks.
Have you ever felt like quitting and why?
Since the first day I started line flying in school, I told myself there is no going back. Some of the flight training exercises were tougher than others but we had a chance to repeat before moving onto the next.
I have never felt like quitting. Thankfully, my instructor, Instructor Shettima Abba Jato, was very kind and patient.
What has kept you going?
I have come to love and enjoy flying, it is not just a job but a way of life for me. I intend flying until retirement. I suppose my ever-growing passion for what I do has kept me going.
How long have you been flying?
I have been in the commercial aviation industry for six years now and counting.
What is your philosophy of life?
I believe one can be anything he wants and achieve all his dreams. You just have to decide what you want early in life, go for it and you can have it. I also believe it is never too late to start over again if you fall out of love with what you are doing currently.
This world is full of opportunities. You own your vision, so don’t get upset when people don’t see things your way. Explain to them patiently and help them to understand so they can invest in you. Again, you cannot change where you have been (the past), but you can change where you are going (the future).
Advice to young ladies
To all the young ladies out there, yes, you can. We live in a world of opportunities and infinite supply. The only limit to what you can achieve is you.
There are different career opportunities in the aviation industry for pilots, from airline to general aviation. After your initial flight training, you decide early what you want out of it and go on to have a rewarding and fulfilling career.