With 573,000 followers on Instagram, Maria Petterson – better known as @Pilotmaria – is one of the most famous female pilots on social media. There’s one simple reason that she took to the ‘gram’ and that was to inspire others. Becoming a pilot wasn’t Maria’s childhood dream. Or was it? At seven years old, Maria had an encounter with someone she didn’t even meet, yet this memory played a pivotal role in setting her course in adulthood. Here’s Maria’s story.
When did you know you wanted to become a pilot?
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that it hit me. I had been working as a waitress, saving money to fund back packing trips around the world, and then repeating the cycle. I knew this wasn’t sustainable forever, yet I wanted to continue travelling.
One night, after a long, exhausting shift at the restaurant, my epiphany moment came, fuelled by a memory from 17 years earlier. At seven years old, I had never been on a plane. An airline near Gothenburg, Sweden, close to where I grew up was offering free 15 minute flights. We made a family day out of it and it was incredible. My lasting memory was hearing the captain speak after we landed. I was expecting a man’s voice, but instead, a female voice was heard through the PA. I didn’t even know women could be pilots!
All those years later, and I decided to follow in the footsteps of someone who made a lasting impression and I didn’t even know what she looked like!
My dad’s passion for aviation rubbed off on me too – he once had a Private Pilot License. So that was it – now I needed to take action.
What was your route into flying?
I didn’t know anyone who flew commercially and had no idea where to begin. I started Googling ‘how to become a pilot’ and found that there were different routes you could take, including military or civil options. At that time the Swedish Airforce’s maximum intake age was 23, so at 24 that ship had sailed (this age restriction has now been removed), so I took the private route which was very expensive – I ended up paying around £60,000 in total for my training (it’s even more expensive now).
I choose to take a modular route which you could describe as the ‘pay as you go’ approach, paying for each lesson rather than paying everything up front which you normally have to do on an Integrated course.
What was it like to go solo for the first time?
I flew my first solo flight on a beautiful Summer’s evening in Sweden. It was around nine in the evening but with the late sunsets it felt like midday. I had just finished a flying lesson in the DA40 when the instructor asked me to taxi in and drop him off and have a go on my own! Off I went. The aircraft felt empty without the instructor sitting next to me and I was nervous – he seemed to trust my flying skills more than I did! Completing those first solo flights was a huge confidence boost.
What was the most challenging part of becoming a pilot?
The most challenging part of becoming a pilot was getting a job after I had finished my training. I remember thinking when I did my exams that ‘as long as I pass this I can do anything’ but nothing compared with the frustration of being fully qualified but not even getting an interview after my training.
After endless applications and a huge dose of will power to keep pushing for my dream, I finally got a job as first officer flying the 737 for a large European airline – where I still fly today.
With the current climate, I am very aware that there will be many newly qualified pilots out there who are extremely concerned. The situation is evolving so fast, and it’s a very concerning time for everyone in aviation. All I can say at this point is to hang on in there. The aviation community is brimming with wonderful people – the kind who look out for each other.
What’s it like flying the Boeing 737?
I love the Boeing 737! Every time I turn up to work, I feel privileged to fly it.
What are your flying goals for the future?
I would love to become a captain one day – that’s definitely a goal! In my current company, getting onto a command course often means moving base airport, and right now I am happy to stay put. For the time being I’ve chosen lifestyle over the status of four strips on my shoulders but when the time is right I’ll do it.
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to be a pilot?
Don’t give up! It’s intense and involves a lot of studying, but if you study hard and stay focused, you can get your Commercial Pilot License (CPL) in two years or less. Two years of intense work is nothing to be able to do your dream job! And the view from your ‘office’ makes all the effort and long nights of studying more than worth it.
What do you think makes a good pilot?
A good pilot has to be good at making decisions, and staying calm in a stressful environment.
Do you have specific advice to women wanting to pursue a career in aviation?
Don’t think that you’ll have a more difficult time because you’re a woman. In the flight deck we’re pilots – not male and female pilots, just pilots. There’s nothing in being a pilot that makes it more difficult because you’re a woman – men and women are equally as good at flying planes.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The view.. I love the view. The sunsets and sunrises we get to witness are unbeatable!
Quick turnaround questions
Take-off or landing?
Landing (coming back home ;)).
Dream airport as a pilot?
St Maarten would be pretty cool to land at.
Favourite place for a holiday?
Anywhere with good company.
Favourite aircraft of all-time?
What would you be if you weren’t a pilot?
A food critic.
The best thing about flying is… the view.
Favourite inflight meal?
Anything fresh. Fresh food makes you stay awake and hydrated. With that said, the best thing I’ve ever had as a passenger on an aircraft was Virgin Atlantics chocolate lava cake! I still dream about this cake!
Maria, you have definitely changed the face of what boys and girls, and the public in general think a pilot looks like! Thank you for sharing your world with over half a million people to shine a light on your time in the sky! If you would like to hear more from Maria, follow her on Instagram @Pilotmaria, and on her blog and YouTube channel. Maria’s Youtube videos are ideal for aspiring pilots. Check out her TEDx talk too.