Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground Seychelles Women Who Excel

Meet Captain Nicole Chang Leng, Air Seychelles’ first-ever female pilot

Women Who Excel

For women like Nicole Chang-Leng, first female Boeing 767 pilot for Air Seychelles, the sky is indeed the limit in reaching their personal and professional goals. These determined women have much to teach the rest of us about embracing our dreams, turning them into solid, real-world goals and literally doing whatever it takes to achieve those aims. Women like these work long hours, study diligently and relentlessly hone their skills. They invariably perform to the best of their ability and-perhaps most importantly-they persevere until their dedication and hard work pays off.

Like most of us, successful women such as Nicole Chang-Leng often find it necessary to make numerous sacrifices on the path to their goals. Yet, they are different from many other women in that they don’t view the time and effort they expend preparing for their careers as a duty or a drudgery thrust upon them by necessity. Rather, they see it as a privilege, an exciting time to learn and grow, and an exhilarating opportunity to expand their personal and professional horizons, as they work on making their dreams come true. And that is one of the most important ingredients to their success.

Role Model for Women

Nicole Chang-Leng is a friendly but confident young woman who is pleased with her accomplishments yet doesn’t crave the spotlight. In fact, Nicole’s disarming smile and open, unassuming manner, which make her so endearing, are the very traits that make it so difficult to visualize her as captain of a high-powered Boeing 767 jetliner and commander of its 10-member crew. Yet, there she is.

Though she admits that her job is a challenging one, Nicole is thrilled with her career choice. She, in fact, brings a style and perspective to her duties, which is rarely, if ever, seen among her male colleagues. She explains, “…I try to take care of everyone, especially my other crew members. I may even ‘mother them’ a little bit and I think that is one of my main strengths. I try my best to make sure that everyone is happy and that they are comfortable – and I believe in most cases it is much appreciated.”

To illustrate her style of command, Captain Chang-Leng shares the following story, recalled recently to her by one of her co-pilots: “While still flying the inter-island routes on the Twin Otter aircraft and in a very, very bad storm one day, we had a pregnant lady in the cabin travelling alone. She seemed very ill at ease and I asked the First Officer to go to the back and sit with her and hold her hand and make sure she was OK…We did not carry any other crew members on the Twin Otters so he was the only person available. This is, maybe, unconventional but from a woman’s perspective-and many other women will probably understand this-I think we bring with us a maternal instinct to whatever it is that we do…we enjoy taking care of others.” And this more compassionate element adds a new dimension to the traditional pilot’s role.

A Passion for Aviation

For this accomplished pilot, who has dedicated herself to the aviation industry for most of the past 14 years, becoming Seychelles’ first female pilot and the first Seychellois woman to pilot a B767 jet at Air Seychelles were the natural result of her hard work and tenacious determination to succeed-as well as her love for flying.

On being asked who influenced her to become a pilot, Nicole replies with something akin to wonder, “It’s amazing, because I didn’t have anyone influencing me to join aviation at all. I went to boarding school in the UK, and even my teachers there all had me going to University College London to study Medicine. So, no one helped at all. It was just something I wanted to do…and I knew I could do it. So, eventually, I did. My mum didn’t believe that I could do something like this and I think she really only fully realized that I had achieved something quite special when I got my command of the Boeing 767 after 10 years of flying! It was only then that I think she finally breathed a sigh of relief!”

About the way she and her siblings were raised, she adds, “We are three girls-three sisters. My parents taught us that we have to do well at school and…stand on our own two feet.”

“…Once I joined domestic, it was (the Air Seychelles) pilots who actually influenced me a lot and who said, ‘Yes, you can do it. You will do it. We’ll help you study. Here are the books that you need to study from.’ So it was (they) who actually really, really pushed me on…I think if I had to say I have any brothers, it would be my male colleagues because they have looked after me.”

National Honour

As much of an honour as it has been to receive her captain’s bars awarded during a ceremony held at Air Seychelles on 21 August, 2007-this capable young aviatrix enjoys the satisfaction of knowing that she has fully earned that honour her stripes.

As she puts it, “I have worked hard. I’m still going to work hard, because…I’m still very passionate about aviation. I still look forward to going to work and I cannot believe how lucky I am to feel this way about my job. I wish everyone could have that satisfaction in their work.”

“Command training is one of the most intense learning experiences and psychologically draining time in a pilot’s life. It’s not just about one’s flying skills but a combination of everything from decision making to crew management and communication skills, leadership styles, management of extremely stressful situations, etc… It’s very tough mentally so once I started that aspect of my training, I became determinedly focused. I didn’t really have any hiccups along the way; it was quite a smooth flow for me although I did have very, very bad weather in the Seychelles throughout. There was a lot of heavy rain and strong south-easterly monsoon winds but I managed to get through all that. So, I didn’t have any trouble. Eventually, when I did pass all the phases of training and numerous tests, my colleagues were all very happy for me.”

As Seychelles’ President James Michel stated in a message of congratulations when Nicole first received her command, “Through your hard work, perseverance and tenacity, you have proven that the sky is the limit!”

“We are immensely proud of your achievement, which is a milestone for our country.”

Unconventional Career Path

Nicole’s aviation career with Air Seychelles began in 1997 as a Twin Otter co-pilot on the airline’s domestic routes. In 1998, she advanced to the position of pilot of the airline’s Islander aircraft, followed by Twin Otter pilot the following year and B767 First Officer on the Boeing 767 for International Flight Operations in 2001. After taking time off to become a mum to Harry, Nicole once again resumed her career climb, earning her airline transport license in 2006 and completing the Boeing 767 command training in early 2007.

She says of her decision to go back to long-haul flying after the birth of her son, “It was still a great love of mine, so it was automatic that I went back to work.” Still, as she describes it, “It was hard. It still is hard to leave him. He’s eight-and-a-half years old now. I was still breastfeeding when I left him. And I would come home and breastfeed again, and I used to carry my little breast pump with me so that I could still breastfeed my son when I came back home. My special little bag (which I used to store my breast pump in) made my male colleagues very curious and they started to ask all sorts of questions! It was quite funny to see their reactions when I told them what it was!”

“I think when your career, or your work, is something that you’ve looked forward to, and you’ve worked so hard for your entire life, just having a child doesn’t mean you have to give it all up and become just a mum. It’s your own identity, isn’t it? It’s what makes you, you.

“And I know it’s hard for my son, but I remember when I got my command: He was only five, but he was so proud. So, you know, it’s what makes them love you as well, (what makes) them respect you. He still talks about that day with such fondness and pride!”

A Flight to Remember

The momentous day that pilot Nicole proudly accepted her four-bar captain’s designation was only eclipsed by the thrill of her maiden commercial flight two days later, on 23 August 2007. During that flight, Nicole commanded an all-female crew on the Seychelles-Mauritius-Seychelles international route with 239 passengers and three infants on board. Her First Officer on the day was her best friend Lishad which made it all the more special. The captain later said that her all-female crew were as well-trained as men to handle any situation that might arise including security.

The B767 touched down at Seychelles International Airport right on schedule, to hearty applause both inside the cabin and out. An honorary water-cannon salute presented by the airport’s fire brigade welcomed the flight as it taxied toward the airport terminal and a special reception, held in the airport’s Salon Vallee de Mai CIP Lounge, honoured both captain and crew. Captain Chang-Leng has described the entire experience as the climax of her then ten-year career with Air Seychelles.

After the successful flight, Nicole told Seychelles Nation, “The flight went quite well,” adding “I felt responsible and I wanted to make it a good flight. Teamwork on the ground and on board helped a lot.” Under her command, that teamwork had succeeded in making the international trip one which she described as “a flight gone just as planned.”

Girl Power – Captain Nicole is 7th from the left on this picture of the Air Seychelles all-women crew