From aviation ‘fan girl’ to flying ‘the Queen’
Second Officer Cherie Cheng recently joined the Cathay Boeing 747 fleet and talks about how meeting a female role model changed her career trajectory from accountancy to flying.
What spurred you to quit accounting and take up flying?
I’ve travelled a lot and always loved flying, as clichéd as that sounds. However, it never crossed my mind to become a pilot while I was at college because it’s just not a thing in Hong Kong. But in my final year, I realised that I didn’t want to punch numbers for a living. On holiday in Switzerland, I took a scenic flight in a Cessna 172, which really sparked my interest. Then I met a female pilot who was flying the 777 for Cathay. We had a chat, and it was a fangirl moment for me. I asked her lots of questions about how to get started. That led me to join the Cathay Pacific Cadet Pilot Programme in 2019, which is a full-time 56-week course in Adelaide, Australia.
What was the cadet course like?
My course started with 17 people, and 13 people made it through to the end, including the four women on the course. It’s very intense but very fulfilling, with a huge amount of work – it’s very intense and the first time you do your solo landing is really exhilarating. After qualifying, I initially joined Cathay Pacific in late February 2020 on the Boeing 777. As a Second Officer, I am a cruise pilot, so I take over from the Captain or the First Officer while they take their rest at a less dynamic part of a long-haul flight.
How much flying have you been able to do at Cathay Pacific?
With the pandemic, not that much. I did around ten flights on the Boeing 777, but then I was among the group of pilots who were let go as Cathay managed the pandemic. Fortunately, I was invited back late last year and was given an opportunity to join the 747 fleet, which I’m really happy about. I have done all my sim sessions but with all the flight crew restrictions, I have only been on two flights so far, but I’m looking forward to really getting started.
How does it feel to fly the 747?
The 747 is a legend, the Queen of the skies; it’s the aircraft that you want to fly. It can be tough, though. In the simulator, when you have two engines fail on one side, the amount of physical work is quite intense; but it’s challenging for everyone. So far, I’ve loved the atmosphere. Because we don’t carry passengers, it can be more relaxing. We pay exactly the same attention to safety and procedures, but we don’t have a door to the flight deck, for example.
How do people react to you as a female pilot?
I haven’t had a bad experience. Within Cathay, everyone is receptive and respectful. In wider society, I get some shocked faces and disbelief. Some people say I must be the only female pilot at Cathay.
How does the industry attract more women to consider aviation?
There doesn’t seem to be anything in the education system for girls about how to become a pilot, particularly in Hong Kong. Cathay does carry out outreach in schools, but that has been impacted by COVID. I think we need more role models. If I haven’t had that conversation with that female pilot, I wouldn’t have known. It’s a lot harder to believe that you can do it if you’ve never seen it done before.
What would your advice be for would-be female pilots?
There are some places in Hong Kong to learn about aviation, and they can give background knowledge. Other than that, believe in yourself. Don’t just sit there and dream your dream. With social media and online forums, you can easily ask people questions – be proactive and reach out.
Bringing diversity to the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal
Tobey Tse, Assistant Operations Manager for Cathay Pacific Services Ltd (CPSL), on how greater female visibility and a better understanding of work in logistics will continue to improve gender balance, diversity and more inspired thinking outside of the box.
What do you do in your current role?
I am an Assistant Operations Manager at the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal. My work is mostly back office to support the operational side. I manage staff rosters, monitor the staff development programme, team-building, change management and process redesign in the terminal and the warehouses to keep the operation running smoothly. I’m also involved in project planning and management.
Why did you choose air cargo as a career?
I was attracted by the nature of the cargo industry. It’s dynamic and ever-changing, and we need to keep abreast of changes and patterns in the market to respond swiftly. It’s an exciting job, and I’m never bored.
Tell us a little bit about your career progression.
When I joined the logistics industry some 15 years ago, it was still a very male-dominated profession and men had an advantage with career advancement. At that point and in a previous workplace, my career opportunities felt limited. Later, I joined CPSL. It’s an international company and we enjoy greater gender equality. The company provides opportunities to all who want to advance, and assesses them by experience and ability, not gender. In my own case, I joined CPSL as a Supervisor. A few years later, I was promoted to Assistant Operations Manager.
Does it still feel like a male-dominated industry to you?
Traditionally, it has been. However, the overall logistics industry encompasses a huge variety of job roles from client servicing, administration and accounting. In my operations team, while my male colleagues outnumber female staff in some sections, we have a good gender balance in our customer services section in particular. I think there are a lot of opportunities for women now. Over the past six or seven years, I’ve seen more female warehouse operators and forklift drivers. But even beyond the warehouse, there are lots of job roles.
Did you have any mentors to help you in your career?
I’ve had some good mentors in my career. At CPSL, I met a very seasoned cargo expert on my first day who outlined the company’s development, direction and challenges I might encounter. I learned a lot about the business and I would not have achieved what I have without his input.
What does the air cargo industry need to do to attract more women?
We need to get the idea out more that air cargo is no longer so male-dominated. For example, on recruitment days, the industry could showcase more about career development and resources to support women, along with providing training on topics like leadership skills.
Currently, we don’t have enough successful female role models, but I know that logistics courses are attracting more female students. I would encourage them to find out more about the management career ladder, and an excellent starting point is as a management trainee. A while ago, my department hired seven summer interns, and I was pleased to see that three were female.
I think a business can only grow more successful with a team of diverse talent. My advice is to work hard and be confident. You can achieve what you want.