When Safia Hosein travels, she likes to take the most scenic route. And usually, she is the one in charge of the control levers. Hard work, resilience and true grit have earned her a spot as one of a small number of successful female helicopter pilots in the world. As the airline industry still totters from the crippling blow dealt by COVID-19, for the savvy helicopter captain, it will take more than a pandemic to clip her wings.
From the tops of wafting rice fields of Biche to the sand dunes of Middle Eastern deserts and the skylines of luxurious cities, as a helicopter pilot, Hosein has seen the world from a unique perspective for over 20 years.
Working out of the Middle East in a male-dominated arena for most of her career, she has endured tough situations that have made her become more “assertive”. In her experience, she has faced more opposition from Westerners than Middle Eastern natives, with some taking issue with her gender…and sometimes even her race.
“I think being criticised and evaluated is part of the learning process, but there is a difference between criticism and bullying. Earlier in my career, because I was new to the industry, I tended to just put up with things because I felt lucky to even have a job. As I got older and more qualified, I learned to stop people if they crossed the line into intimidation,” she admitted to Sunday Guardian from Montenegro on May 25.
“It took me too long to decide that I wasn’t going to put up with biased behaviour, unfair behaviour and I urge anyone who is being treated unfairly to stand up for themselves.”
The avid traveller who has visited over 50 countries in her downtime, said sheer determination has made her successful in her field and in her life in general.
“I tend to visualise in my head what I set out to achieve before I even set out to achieve it. The first time I went on a really high altitude trek, it was on Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa, and I’d never ever done something like that before. But I told myself before I set out: I’m getting to the top, even if I have to crawl and that’s kind of what I do in life.
“I’ve had a lot of negative experiences. I’ve gone home, cried and said I’m done with this, but I tend to brush it all off and start again the next day,” Hosein said.
Even over the past year where COVID has delayed her work schedule and separated her from her family in T&T whom she would visit at least once a year, Hosein has kept a calm resolve that things will improve sooner than later.
One destination on Hosein’s priority list once T&T borders re-open is the hammock on her parents’ verandah in Biche–one of her favourite places in the world. She holds fond memories of growing up alongside her younger brother, Umar–also a helicopter pilot–in the remote village in north east Trinidad, attending the Biche Presbyterian and Rio Claro Junior and Senior Secondary schools.
Her father, Ahmad, was active in the community as a Regional Corporation councillor who focussed on self-help projects to help improve the quality of life of the people around him, Hosein recalled. Her mother, Cinty, was a nurse.
“My mum and dad met in the UK. My dad worked in Whitehall and mum was a registered nurse, and that’s where they met and got married.”
Her father had dreamed of joining the Royal Air Force, but was discouraged by his mother as she feared he would be flying in combat missions. Hosein’s earliest passion for flying was triggered by her father’s own longing to be an Air Force pilot.
“I grew up hearing about that. He was always very vocal about it,” Hosein said.
“When I was six years old, my mum took me to the UK for the first time and I was actually able to see the Concorde at the airport and when I came back the first thing I said to my dad was I saw the Concorde and I got to visit the cockpit of the aircraft I was on, so we were all very excited about that.”
Except for the time she fell out of a window and mercifully landed on a mattress when she was quite young, flying was something Hosein did not think about until many years later. As a teen, she became fascinated with helicopters which would pass over her home in crackdowns against illegal marijuana fields. At 16, she decided she wanted to fly one of them and embarked on obtaining her student pilot licence while doing her A-Levels.
It was not until she was 18 that Hosein was allowed to fly. Her heart pounding, she took off from the Piarco airport, planned her route and did a race track pattern while talking to Air Traffic Control and then manoeuvred to land.
“I was in a two-seater wasp of an airplane–a Cessna 152 and I was just thinking this is very small, but I was very excited. I just kept telling myself: don’t screw this up.”
She started flying with Briko Air Services, Trinidad, where she qualified for her private pilot licence.
“One of the comments I got when I told people what I was going to do was that a pilot was just a glorified taxi driver. And I hate that people use that as an insult because if you’re making an honest day’s living as a taxi driver, where’s the insult?”
Her commercial licence would follow at age 19 in Canada. This afforded the young pilot the potential to fly for airline carriers, but helicopters promised adventure and that enticed her. She gained her helicopter licence in the US.
“The helicopter is really versatile and in my career I’ve landed on superyachts, offshore vessels, mountaintops, in people’s backyards, on the beach and that’s what I wanted my career to be. I didn’t want it to be airport to airport flying airplanes. I wanted to sit five feet above the ground and hover or move side to side, up and down. I wanted to have a job where every day was different.”
Sadly, her father passed two months after she made captain.
Three years in Doha, Qatar, after working in T&T provided much of the variety for which Hosein had yearned. The Islamic country was one of few hiring helicopter pilots and the only one in the Middle East that responded to her application out of three to whom she had sought employment. There, she soon met her Irish husband, Dave McInerney, a fellow helicopter pilot who had served in the Irish army. For the three years she worked in Qatar, she was the only female captain.
For the next eight years, she would make the UAE her base. She was the first and only female maintenance test pilot, instructor, check airman and VIP pilot in her unit and would fly members of royal families and foreign dignitaries. Because of her job, she has met Prince Charles, actor Robert De Niro, and singer Alice Cooper. Her most surreal experience came in 2019 as the first and only woman to have piloted a helicopter alongside a head of a Middle Eastern country, she said.
“He had no problems flying with a female in the cockpit. We sat side by side on many occasions in the cockpit as he is also a qualified pilot. He has a very dynamic personality, so it was easy to talk to him,” she said.
Hosein’s job also demands tremendous sacrifice. Her pilot friends who have had babies have had to take longer leave and pilots can be called to duty at any time. She said this was one reason she was happy her husband and “biggest supporter” also worked in her field.
Hosein said she had started penning a book about her life and adventures. Even after 20 years, she still finds herself in amusing situations. In one such incident, she had landed in a particular country and gone to use a washroom. On the way back, the security guard addressed the other male pilot, asking: Is she really necessary for the flight? The answer was: yes, she’s the captain.
At other times, Hosein said she had landed in crowded areas and stepped out of the helicopter, flight uniform and all, only to have people ask whether she was the pilot.
“Eventually I just started saying: No, I’m a bodyguard and that seemed more believable to them,” she laughed.
Q&A with Safia Hosein
How do you feel when you fly?
To this day, I still love looking outside of an airplane window. I love nature and it takes all your problems away. It’s very calming. There’s a sense of freedom.
Is there any place you’ve worked that stands out?
I actually miss the rainy season in Trinidad. I remember flying in and out of the clouds and just dodging huge cells of storms. I’ve flown in many environments; tropical, desert, maritime, mountainous. The one thing they have in common is that I love the view. I love looking down at the earth when I’m flying regardless of where I am.
Any experience that was on the scary side…anything that tested you as a pilot?
A catastrophic failure of the airframe occurred and part of the helicopter broke off, causing the airframe to burst into flames. It was later discovered that the design and manufacture of it was faulty. Fifteen passengers, plus two crew were on board and we were about to taxi to the runway. We were trapped inside, but rescued. Everyone survived. The same thing happened three times in total in different countries. Sadly one of those helicopters was flying at the time and no one survived on that flight. If we had taken off, my aircraft would have been airborne 60 seconds later and we would have died.
Any feelings you want to share about being a Trini?
I’m a really proud Trinidadian. The thing about working in the Middle East is that there are a lot of workers from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. Because I’m of East Indian descent, I always get asked are you Indian etc, and because cricket is such a huge part of their culture, I would use Brian Lara and say that I’m from that country. I miss T&T dearly. Trinidadian food is my favourite. My husband’s favourite food is channa and aloo. I can’t wait to come back. This will calm down. I want everyone to stay safe and to look forward to the future.
How do you feel having achieved this status as one of a few female pilots in the world?
I’m definitely not one to pat myself on the back. I wish there were more of us and I wish the industry wasn’t so cruel sometimes to women who want to be pilots. In my experience it has been tough. I hope that changes. There are many males who support women all the time, but it’s taking too long for us to stop being in the minority.