Defying Gravity: Lessons from the Flightline
Lean In ASIA Launch (3 Dec 2016): Pearl Phaovisaid, Director of the Global Studies and Social Entrepreneurship program at Thammasat University, Thailand, shared her lessons learned while serving as a helicopter pilot for the US Army in Iraq.
Allow me to take you on a journey of discovery, about trying, flying, and some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
I want to take you back 30 years ago, to a small kindergarten classroom about 1000km north of here. Little girls and boys are playing with toys scattered throughout the room. Without warning, something compels these children to drop what they are doing and run toward the open window. Out there, against the clear blue backdrop, was something so awesome, so inexplicable moving slowly across the sky. The wonder and impossibility of it all kept these kindergarteners packed tightly along the windowsill. I was one of those kindergarteners and that was my first exposure to flight.
LESSON #1: It always seems impossible until it’s done.
People often ask me why I joined the military and how I became a pilot. The answer goes back to my high school days. I was restless, idealistic, and I wanted to push the limits of my capability. I didn’t think the normal college experience would do that for me so I considered applying to the military academy.
And yet, my goal seemed an impossible feat. I wasn’t athletic and couldn’t run very fast or far. No one in at least 3 generations of my family seemed particularly interested in exercise. The gap between where I was and where I needed to be seemed impossibly wide. Determined not to fail, I set out on a physical training regimen. In fact, I ran so often that I developed overuse injuries in my knees. Over time, with consistent effort, I could go a little farther and a bit faster. And that, along with a whole lot of perseverance, allowed me to meet the physical demands of the military academy and the US Army.
There’s a story about running that is worth mentioning. People used to believe that it was physically impossible and possibly dangerous for humans to run a 4-minute mile. In fact, the fastest mile time was set in the 1940s at 4 minutes and 01 second. That this record stood for so long confirmed what many people already believed – that it was indeed impossible for the human body to run any faster.
In 1954 when Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Can you guess what happened after that? 6 weeks later, someone else ran a sub-4-minute mile. A year later, 3 more people broke the barrier. Within 5 years, 21 people had run the mile in under 4 minutes.
This experience taught me that things often seem impossible until they are done. The same is true for running as it is for flying. Human flight became possible after hundreds of years of trial and error. which led to an understanding of the airfoil and the ability to engineer it to achieve sustained flight.
If you want to achieve big goals, you have to first believe that it can be done. And when you believe, you are more willing to try and fail and try again. It’s this belief and sustained effort that has gotten me through many challenges in life.
LESSON #2: Working hard is half the battle.
In the early days of my flight training, after an exhausting flight exam that required students to demonstrate proficiency in various maneuvers and emergency procedures, my instructor pilot and I set the training helicopter down in the parking area. He turned to ask me which aircraft in the Army’s inventory I planned to eventually fly. I told him that I would choose the upgraded version of the helicopter in which we were sitting due to its mission profile and its smaller size, which reminded me of a sleek sports car and which I reasoned would be a good fit for my smaller frame.
He thought about my response and said, “you might want to reconsider because I can see you are really uncomfortable in that seat. It’s like you’re fighting the controls. And when you go to war, you want an aircraft that fits you comfortably because you might have to fly for 8 hours a day and you’ll be really tired.”
He was right about two things. First was that I eventually went to war and some missions required me to fly for 8 hours straight. Second was that I felt uncomfortable, as if everything was slightly too big for me. If I sat back against the seat, my legs had to stretch to reach the pedals. If I sat too far forward, the dashboard seemed to limit my field of vision.
I’m sure I could have eventually gotten used to it, but then I thought maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. I asked him which aircraft he would recommend and he said that I would be better off choosing a less antiquated airframe with adjustable seats. I took his advice which ultimately led me to forego the sporty helicopter for what looked more like a minivan. Yes, I choose the larger, more modern UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, with adjustable seats and controls, and have never regretted my decision since.
The rigid seat design taught me that even though we have the potential to achieve and succeed, sometimes structural inequality — be they laws, regulations, cultures, or norms — hinder us from fully realizing that potential. These are the barriers that keep girls out of school, that keep women athletes off the field, that keep women managers out of the boardroom, and that keep women politicians out of office.
My achievements were possible not just because I believed and kept trying, and not just because of the adjustable seats – although those factors certainly helped — but because a pioneering generation of women came before me, broke down barriers, and demonstrated through their personal example the possibilities for women in aviation.
Just this past year, the Royal Thai Air Force opened its doors to women pilots for the first time in its 103 years of existence. This small change represents a positive development for many aspiring women pilots in Thailand. Yet, significant structural barriers remain because, in the military context, women are only allowed to fly transport missions and, in the civilian context, many opportunities in commercial aviation are only open to men.
It’s not enough to just tell women to lean in and work harder. The reality is much more complex than that. We must also recognize, as my observant instructor pilot did that day, the artificial barriers that prevent people from realizing their full potential, from pursuing their passion and purpose. I want to ask you to be observant, to recognize the structural inequalities around you, your community, and your country. Achieving equity requires a concerted effort at all levels and in all industries. Only then can we dismantle the systems and structures that hold back half of the world.
LESSON #3: Accept challenges with strong open arms.
10 years ago, I found myself 1000ft in the air looking through the small helicopter windows next to my seat. Flying over remote villages throughout Northern Iraq, I could see young children look up and wave with the same sense of wonder and joy in their eyes as I had in that kindergarten classroom. It was as if I had come full circle.
And though my 15 months in combat concluded without accident or incident, it would be untrue to say that it wasn’t difficult. Living and working in a combat zone has its share of pressure, danger, and austerity.
But through that experience, I witnessed the resilience and optimism of the human spirit. I witnessed how shared struggle brings people together. I returned with deeper friendships and more gratitude for the things I had previously taken for granted. So, while I would not want to relive the combat deployment again, I am grateful to have served and grateful for the adversity that has shaped me in profound ways.
I’d like to share one final story to wrap up my talk.
About a year ago, two women made history by completing Ranger School, one of the most physically and mentally demanding courses in the US Army. Graduates of this 62-day course earn the coveted Ranger tab, a symbol of leadership and combat proficiency. Only 3% of all male soldiers in the Army have successfully completed this course and the pass rate is typically less than 50%.
Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver were among a group of 20 women who attended the first gender-integrated Ranger School class. They challenged the status quo and, by successfully doing so, have paved the way for future generations of women to attempt Ranger School. The reason that history was so recently made was because the barriers to entry were so recently removed. Many doubted that these women could complete the course and critics continue to claim that the women were given special treatment, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s worth noting that not only did these women complete the course, but they completed the course with uncommon strength and professionalism.
But let us not forget that for all this to even be possible, many things had to come together. The Army leadership, at all levels, had to deliberately take down barriers and put in place the necessary structures to ensure women were given a fair chance to succeed or fail – just like their male counterparts.
These extraordinary women, once given the chance, did not hesitate to tackle the challenges with strength and determination.
Sometimes we view adversity as something to be avoided. Yet, adversity is no different from the forces of gravity, and without gravity, we could not fly. Gravity is what keeps you in your seat and what keeps me planted firmly on this stage. Without gravity, we would just float around aimlessly. Trees would not grow. Water would not fall. And we might never see the wonders of flight in the ways we see now.
The same can be said of the challenges that we hope to address and tackle through events like this.
Remember, it always seems impossible until it’s done, working hard is half the battle, and accept challenges with strong, open arms.
Best of luck along your journey. Defy gravity.
Thank you very much.