Join us during Women's History Month as we celebrate female leaders, pilots, mechanics, scientists and astronauts who flew faster, higher & farther to break gender barriers in aviation and ensure equality in the skies. FAA pilot Samirah Abdelfattah shares her story about how women in aviation have influenced her journey, and she gives advice to other young women interested in the aviation industry.
When did you become interested in aviation?
I first became interested in aviation listening to my late father talk about the aviation community and the way he described the incredible bond and shared passion for flying that exists among aviators. My father gifted me my first flight, which is often called a “discovery flight,” nearly 20 years ago. I became instantly enamored with flight the moment the airplane rotated and lifted me off of the runway at Deer Valley Airport, north of Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona. There truly is nothing like flight—It is incredible and inexplicable!
As a student enrolled in the professional flight program curriculum, I took air traffic control, a required course, at Arizona State University. This was my introduction to the world of air traffic control. My professor was both an aviation attorney and an air traffic controller. I found the course fascinating and toured Phoenix Tower several times. I carried an interest for air traffic control throughout my years in flight training, flight instructing, and later as a professional pilot.
Abdelfattah working at the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower at Santa Monica Airport, Calif. (Photo: FAA)
What is your most memorable moment as a controller?
Oh, it would be impossible to choose just one! I have had so many memorable and wonderful moments as an air traffic controller. I find ATC “plane fun,” pun intended. There is certainly a rhythm and an art form to working air traffic, particularly at an on-demand VFR [visual flight rules] tower, and in that rhythm, each controller is able to perfect one’s own moving masterpiece. I enjoy that ATC is essentially an ongoing craft where one controller relieves another controller from any given position and so on. The airplanes continue arriving, departing, and moving throughout the national airspace system yet are orchestrated through the style of each respective air traffic controller’s flair of this “living, moving art.”
What facilities did you work in as a controller?
My first post as an air traffic controller was at Grand Canyon National Park Tower in 2010. My second facility was Santa Monica Tower, where I worked until 2017. Next, I became a traffic management coordinator at an air route traffic control center in New Mexico, where I worked for two years. Each of these three FAA facilities brought vastly different experiences and elements to my personal and professional life.
Abdelfattah in the FAA Flight Operations team hangar at DCA, in front of N3, a Cessna 560XL Citation Excel (Photo: FAA)
What iginited your transition into becoming a pilot?
I had been a 14 CFR, Part 135 captain for several years in the private sector prior to joining the FAA as an air traffic controller. The knowledge that I gained from both career fields equally complement one another and make a better version of each professional role that I hold.
I love all things aviation! This is my field. I love being an air traffic controller, a traffic management coordinator, and a pilot. I feel exhilaration in that I have been able to do all three in my career. I wish there was a way for me to continue doing all of it without having to give up one for the other. There, in itself is a life lesson for me: learning to let go of experiences loved to fully embrace additional desired experiences.
As a new pilot in the Flight Program Operations service unit, what has been your favorite part of the job so far?
My favorite part of being a pilot for Flight Program Operations at Hangar 6 thus far is most definitely the flying itself, and the various types of missions. I have a personal interest in being a humanitarian pilot and participating in disaster relief, whether it involves an aircraft or natural disaster. Our team fulfills a vast spectrum of flight missions and the diversity of flying is embraced. I must make mention that it is a splendid flight experience to fly in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. I have moments where I find myself in awe that I am actually getting to live this: flying for the FAA, flying for the United States of America. It is incredible! It is so real.
In honor of Women’s History Month, which specific aviation pioneers have inspired your journey?
This month is Women’s History Month. What a great season!
The aviation pioneers and all of the great individuals that have educated me along my own aviation journey are my aviation heroes. They inspire me to challenge my own inspiration and to maintain positive, forward momentum for the aspirations of my own life and for our industry. My successes in aviation are a direct reflection of the aviation professionals and educators that forged a path and provided a platform for my vigor to learn, grow, and ultimately, for my soul to be nourished and energized within the realm of aviation.
There are two specific aviation pioneers that I find myself drawn toward when reading aviation history.
First, I want to talk about Bessie Coleman. What I find remarkable is that, in her desire to earn her pilot certificate, she did not give up when her path to attaining this achievement became difficult. She discovered that none of the American schools would train her due to her race. Bessie Coleman taught herself French and flew to France in order to flight train and attain her aspiration of becoming a pilot. I value that, despite the immeasurable hurdles she faced, her determination charted the course for a success story made for and published in history. In 1921, she became the first African-American to earn a pilot certificate.
Another aviation pioneer that I find myself drawn to is Amelia Earhart. She seemed to have romanticized flying for the world, especially for women, at a time when it was shocking that a woman would consider flying herself across town, let alone, across the Atlantic.
While I’m about people who inspire me, I would like to add a present day pioneer and inspiration. Her name is Wally Funk. She was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and the first FAA inspector. Oh, and she is a Mercury astronaut! She is driven by an infectious passion to be in space. Her energy is invigorating. It is impossible to leave an encounter with Wally without feeling her zest for life. I have dreamed about taking a preflight lesson from her, with her Wally stick, since I met her. I’d be honored to take flight instruction with her, too!
What advice do you have for young women who are interested in aviation?
There are many young women and men that may not be aware that aviation is available to them. My advice to any potential future aviator is that you can overcome your own difficult circumstances and achieve the aspirations for which you find yourself daydreaming. As a child who grew up with heavy hardship along with odds stacked against me breaking barriers, I am an example that with dedication, determination and making sacrifices, it is possible to achieve anything you desire within aviation. Find someone who believes in you and follow the light of the positive individuals you encounter. There will be challenges. There will be conflict. There will be negativity. Accept the challenges. Take the lesson from the conflict. Stay positive. Move forward. Keep moving forward.
There's more to aviation than just “being a pilot” - hear from these FAA employees about their exciting careers in aerospace. Share this video today with students who will become the aviation pioneers of tomorrow.