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Capt. Catherine Castillo First Filipina Airbus instructor

With mom Lita Atienza in the cockpit, Cebu City

With cabin crew in Legaspi City

Drinks with Airbus instructor trainees in Toulouse, France


First Filipina Jet Aircraft Pilot

By Capt. Catherine Castillo
First Posted 11:11:00 11/13/2008

Filed Under: Transport, Air Transport, Human Interest, Travel & Commuting

I was cruising through the river in Amsterdam in a small tourist boat, taking pictures of my mother and me with historical and other interesting sights in our background. ?This is the life,? I murmured to myself.

I have always loved traveling and being in nine beautiful cities in Europe (Toulouse, Paris, Madrid, Andorra, Carcassonne, Amsterdam, Prague and Vienna) in just under a month was more than I could have asked for. I have never been to so many awe-inspiring places in such a short period of time. Not to mention that it was not anything I could actually afford. I could only surmise that it might finally be a reward in the midst of this stressful journey that is my aviation career.

Over a decade ago, I thought I was going to enter a banking career like my father practiced in his fruitful years. After all, I did develop an unusual liking (or loving) for math. In fact, I graduated Cum Laude (BS Business Administration) from the University of the Philippines. When I finished my course, I was still in disbelief, guessing that all my achievements in my youth were, apart from Providential, just an incredible stroke of good luck.

In my younger years I landed in the Philippine Youth Basketball Team and the Philippine Junior Bowlers? Team. Years after I earned a slot in the Philippine Taekwondo Team. Still I was incredulous of my own potential. Like I said, all seemed to be part of some good fortune.

As though my luck would not end, the story of my flying career began. After graduating from college, a friend of mine, who dreamt of being pilot since childhood, invited me to apply for a scholarship in the Philippine Airlines Aviation School. I was in a state when I could not decide which companies to apply for so in stride, I took some preliminary exams with her. For some minor reason, my friend could not continue through the battery of tests.

As for ?happy-go-lucky? me, I took things lightly and just went on through the process. Then suddenly, to my surprise, I passed all the requirements and hurdled whatever criteria the company had set?I still cannot specify at this point because I was never really that interested! Months after, being with my classmates in the Ab Initio course (meaning, we were trained from scratch), I learned that we were 19 individuals selected from thousands who submitted applications and took the same exams.

Unlike my colleagues, I had no friends or relatives in the aviation industry and being a pilot was never a childhood dream. That was why I was clueless about the goings-on. Then again, I had to realize before making a commitment that this ?job? was going to be one of few alternatives out there that would allow me to practice everything I had hoped to achieve in my past endeavors ? dexterity through music (I play classical piano), agility through sports, and some level of intellect in my academic education. And oh, constant traveling was a dream and somehow I thought this pursuit would best fit my needs. In the early years, however, I saw that it was not the leisurely travel that I was going to earn?

Now I believe that this is all actually Providential. I?ve come a long way in this career, not just from where I started but even where I expected to be in a profession that I initially believed to be a man?s world. Back then there were only four female pilots in the whole Philippine commercial aviation scenario. I was the youngest and least experienced. And it stayed that way for more than a decade.

Moving to a new company opened doors ? and bigger windows. In Cebu Pacific, I had my first taste of the left seat ? the Captain?s position. Management thought it would be an attractive marketing strategy to expose my achievement as the first female jet captain through media. I declined, mentioning my respect for more pioneer and senior female colleagues who had become prop jet captains years earlier. But they insisted on the point that no female pilot had been Captain to a jet aircraft and being the first, I still was considered a pioneer. I actually did not have a choice.

The press hoopla flourished.

Now as I look back, I know I may have agreed correctly, seeing 11 more female pilots entering the company from then on. Two have become captains in the recent months. This is probably the most evident proof that I am in this career for a reason. If my purpose is to inspire others to follow in my footsteps, then that is the ultimate reward.

Touring Europe in between assignments

My tour here in Europe was planned to fill in my days off from my training at the Airbus Training Center in Toulouse. I also brought my mother along as a gift for her recent retirement. Two and a half years ago, I was sent to Miami for my initial course in the Airbus 320, also as a Captain. About a year after, I was assigned to be a flight instructor, teaching new co-pilots on the aircraft type, as well as new Captains, in actual passenger flights. With these tasks, I had to learn to fly the Airbus from both the left and right seats. I realize just now that I am also the first and only female pilot holding such responsibility.

In Toulouse, France, I crept my way through a very trying course under French and British Airbus Instructors. I will admit that this has been the most difficult training experience in my career. Understandably, as this is a certification course for ?factory-trained? Airbus instructors, and the manufacturers did not want any stone left unturned. I will not say that I breezed through it but the only option that I owned was to do my best. I did meet their requirements and was able to receive the documents certifying that I am fully qualified, based on Airbus (not just in-house, or own company) standards, to be a complete instructor.

Now at the back of my mind, I smile - again, almost in disbelief. There must be some really great luck in all of this. I may not be anything great, but my purpose may be. I have only practiced my most simple guiding principle in life: to always do my best. Look where it has brought me ? to a fringe benefit of traveling. To me, a reward and a dream come true.

Munting Nayon, www.mnnetherlands.com

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