Meet Audrey Swatson: a young female pilot changing the aviation narrative

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Photo: Audrey Maame Esi Swatson

On any given day, when you hear the pilot speaking to passengers on a flight, a man’s voice is what is heard. In Africa, the probabilities are higher than in Europe, America and Australia. Hardly would you hear the voice of a woman speaking as the pilot.

But in Ghana, Audrey Maame Esi Swatson is currently the youngest commercial female pilot at 23 and she is quietly changing the narrative. She was born and raised in Ghana by her noble parents Isaac Kwesi Swatson, of blessed memory and Lucy Swatson. At 19, Audrey earned her wings in April 2016 after she pursued her passion for aviation.

Currently, she is a first officer with Passion Air, an airline company, flying the Dash8 Q-400 aircraft – a twin-turboprop regional transport passenger aircraft.

Reminiscing her childhood, Ms Swatson, an old student of Tender Loving Care and the University of Ghana Basic School shared that she lived a normal childhood life while enjoying cartoons, African movies, drama stage plays including some extra-curricular activities such as being an active sportsperson.

She grew up with three other siblings together with her strict but loving parents as she describes — who ensured they lived a comfortable, well-mannered life. “My parents demanded the best of efforts in everything you decide to do. Be it academics, sports, chores, playing or church. And my only worry was a ball stuck underneath daddy’s car in the compound when we played soccer,” she shared.

After attending the Ghana Christian International High School in Dodowa for her secondary education, where she offered Elective Science, Ms Swatson proceeded to the Mach1 Aviation Academy in South Africa for her flight training.

Piloting

As someone determined to be different, Audrey Swatson shared her dreams of becoming a pilot with her number one cheerleader — her dad — who then started saving towards her future dream when she turned nine.

Her journey to become a pilot had not always been a smooth one. There were times, like most people, she felt like giving up. However, “my dad said if I change my mind not to fly, then he would keep the money to himself. So, together with my mum, they researched on how to enroll in flight schools. I was just so excited to learn to fly and to be with other people who were passionate when I started training,” she narrated.

Sharing her experience as a female pilot, Audrey Swatson describes it as being very normal. She said there is no different training given to pilots based on their gender. “There are no advantages or disadvantages being a female pilot — the training, long hours of studies and late night chair flying is same. Although for me, as a woman, I usually have to work twice as much at the studies because the understanding sometimes does not come to me naturally to be at the standard required with the guys.”

“In the end, you would be judged on your credentials as a pilot. All the airlines are only looking for a person who knows his/her job well irrespective of your gender. Up in the sky, the wind won’t blow easy knowing you are female. Forces of nature, laws of aerodynamics do not work like that,” she added.

She recounts a number of pitfalls during her flight training as exams were getting quite tough for her in the beginning. Ms Swatson revealed that although she passed her exams, there were others she had to retake five times before she could make it.

Another challenge, she recalled, was the challenge of landing the Cessna-172 aeroplane in the beginning. “It is the part of the training that most student pilots tear down their hopes of ever becoming a pilot. During that time for my training, I would think to myself that, ha! Maybe it is true that girls cannot do this thing. It is like they are right.

After today’s lesson, I will phone daddy to tell him I give up with tears filled in my eyes and looking to my side window on the left. I will just see my reflection blurred and with a blink of the eyes, tears roll down my cheeks. Tough time, but every time, I went back up there to fly and try again until I got it right and went solo.”

Ms Swatson says she still faces challenges from time to time but finds new ways to surmount them. “In flying, I realize just when you get your hand over a challenge then something new comes up; every time. But my passion for flying overshadows it. It is always a great pleasure to fly because I leave all my problems on the ground until I am back again,” she said amidst laughter.

Throwing more light on her experiences and challenges, Ms Swatson narrates that she got overwhelmed when she first started flying the Dash8-Q400 series aircraft with Passion Air.

“I was really overwhelmed with how much I had to know about the aircraft in such a short time. This aircraft, compared to the Seneca-3 multi-engine training aircraft at Mach1 Aviation Academy was by far very fast and with very powerful engines 5071 Shaft Horsepower each. I was always behind the aircraft in understanding. When we landed in Tamale or Kumasi, my brains were still yet to take-off from Accra. Training on the Dash8 Q400 was really a tough one for me, I must say.”

Education

The young pilot said apart from Jesus Christ and her parents, education has played a very important role in her journey of becoming a pilot. She explains that education is not just going to school for 12 years but rather, about helping to build character.

“I owe everything I am and everything I hope to be to school. Without the education I have received during my lifetime, the friends I have met and have networked with, the great teachers that have been there for me since day one, I would not be able to move on to a more positive place in my life. I would not be able to have a chance to even become a pilot, to be given a chance to inspire other children that whatever they dream of, they can actually be. Education has fulfilled me and I am a more positive person because of it.”

Although it may be natural to think that Ms Swatson’s biggest fear will be losing control of the yoke while aboard, she cited the fear of losing any of her parents as one of her biggest fears in life. However, she narrates that she already lost her father. She likened the feeling of losing her father to being “amputated and losing an engine.”

“My giant pine, daddy, passed on March 2020 and it is the saddest day of my life. I miss coming home into his arms to tell him about my flights. Sometimes, I am also afraid of not being able to fly.”

Touching on her highs of flying, she said every flight is a wow moment to her. She puts it better: “God always has something up there, every time. The view is the best part of the flight because I have the plane in my hands. Every day is different.”

In future, Ghana’s youngest pilot aspired to be a Captain. She also looks forward to establishing an annual flight training scholarship for four Ghanaian girls with my Excel Aviation Company. She again aspires to run a flight training school in Ghana which she said her father already helped her to put a documented plan together for.

On advice to other youngsters, Audrey Swatson has this to say: “You are never too young to make your dreams come true. Hold yourself to high standards, collaborate and support others. Set specific goals, take one day at a time yet having a long-term vision and plan. Benchmark your performance against the best of the best and strive for excellence without arrogance. Build and grow your networks and lean into a mentor who can offer an unbiased perspective.

When you do succeed, be humble, teach others and share your passion for aviation. It will be contagious! Live life more fully. Don does not worry about the past or anxious about the future. The only thing you can control is the moment. So be happier, more optimistic, less depressed, and more satisfied.”

The next time you are flying with Passion Air to any part of the country, do expect the voice of a woman or better still, do not be surprised when the voice is not baritone but a little light.

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