Erica Chbeir spent her childhood playing plane simulators with her younger brother and looking up to her pilot uncle, but she had never imagined that she would become a pilot when she grew up. She ended up pursuing a degree in dentistry from the Lebanese University, a field she deeply enjoyed. However, during her fifth and final senior year of dentistry school, her father sent her a post that Middle East Airlines (MEA) were recruiting pilots to join their team. Erica immediately jumped on the opportunity and applied to begin her training.
Her family was a little surprised that she sought to pursue a career as a pilot as they thought it was just an interest she had for fun, but when they knew she was serious they were very supportive and encouraged her to sign up for the pilot training; others were not so positive. Erica had to start the eight-month assessment while also juggling her final year of dentistry, and there was no leniency from either side. She was often told that this career is not suitable for a woman, especially if she wanted to have a family and be present for her children as society expects. She also had another obstacle in her way, MEA had not hired a woman pilot since Captain Rola Hoteit twenty-five years prior, because of this, many people around her were hesitant and told her that it was near impossible and that the odds were stacked against her. However, Erica paid them no mind and focused on completing her training successfully, never doubting that she could achieve her goal.
The assessment was very rigorous, which included exams and selections that covered three sets of over eight hours of math, physics, English, and IQ tests, interviews given by Lebanese and Spanish instructors, theoretical, virtual, and hands-on flight training exercises, followed by an interview with current MEA pilots, and a very intense physical examination. The last phase of training began four days after Erica finished her dentistry degree. This phase was done in Spain four days after her graduation and included a year and two months of very condensed, intensive flight training. When all of this was done, she also had to complete eight months of virtual and physical training based on the type of plane the airline company used. She still has to take a test every six months to ensure her skills have not deteriorated in any way.
Being a woman pilot is not always smooth sailing, Erica recalls how, on her very first flight, a passenger refused to take off after she found out a woman was captaining the plane. “I was already quite stressed as it was my first time flying a large plane but I had to shake it off. It has happened twice, but I have learned not to care.” Sometimes some passengers are vocal about their shock that a woman could land a place smoothly. However, Erica believes these challenges have had a positive impact on her, they have driven her to want to prove them wrong and driven her to become a better pilot, “I want to show them that women are capable. Anyone can do anything if they want to and they work at it, regardless of gender.” Her positive mindset and a strong support system of friends, family, and coworkers are what make her who she is today, and have given her the strength to persist.
Erica’s success might have opened the door for further female applicants to succeed and become pilots; there are now six or more female pilots at MEA. “I am the most experienced of all the young women pilots at MEA. Because of that, sometimes others come to me if they need anything, and I am always ready and willing to help. It’s a tight-knit community.”
Erica believes that there should be a push to include more women in upper management positions, especially since women are just as capable. She also urges companies to be equal in their treatment of men and women during the hiring process, “a female applicant should not be considered a liability or a burden just because she might get pregnant.” This extends further to aviation, female pilots cannot fly while pregnant, and while some airlines provide these women with jobs on the ground during pregnancy, this is not the case worldwide which puts these pilots at risk of unemployment during an already difficult period. Only around 6% of pilots worldwide are women, so it is important to encourage more women to join the field and to support those already in it.
She advises young women and girls not to succumb to the negativity they face, especially when people try to push gender roles onto them, “they have to believe in themselves; they can achieve their goals if they set their mind to it and ignore people who try to set them back. Confidence is key.”
Erica has also completed a diploma in Esthetic Dentistry from Université Saint Joseph. She continues to be a pilot in Middle East Airlines and she practices dentistry at her clinic on the side whenever she has the time.
This story was written by Ghada El Kawas