XX: WE WANT TO KNOW… WHO IS SAFIA HOSEIN? TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOU!
SAFIA HOSEIN: I’m a Trini helicopter pilot working in the Middle East. In the specialist unit I work in, I am the first and only female pilot.
I love adventure, travel and I’ve been dabbling in photography and writing for a while. My favourite clothes are pajamas, my mom’s cooking is the best, and I cannot resist crunchy kurma.
XX: WE CAN’T RESIST CRUNCHY KURMA EITHER *LAUGHS*… BUT TELL US, HOW DID YOU MEET YOUR HUSBAND, DAVE?
SH: My husband is from Ireland, and we both ended up working in Qatar years ago. He joined the company a few weeks after I did. When I first saw him, I loved his smile. It also helps that he likes curry and pepper sauce.
XX: HE SOUNDS LIKE HE’S MEANT TO BE A TRINI! LET’S BACKTRACK A BIT.. TELL US ABOUT YOUR TRINI ROOTS.
SH: My parents are Trini, but they met in the UK. When they got married, they decided to move to a very rural part of Trinidad. I went to a Presbyterian primary school, and then to a junior and senior secondary. Growing up, I was an avid reader and would literally read the cereal box if you put it in front of me. I think that’s where the idea of exploring the world may have seeded – I loved reading about different countries.
I left Trinidad when I was 26. My father had been diagnosed with cancer four years before, and he had just passed away. I was absolutely devastated, and I needed a change in my life.
XX: BUT THAT MUST HAVE BEEN HARD… LEAVING EVERYTHING YOU KNEW BEHIND.
SH: Leaving my mother at the airport was the toughest thing I have ever done, and it still breaks my heart every time I visit and I go away again. That’s the hardest part about being away. It was not easy, packing up and moving halfway across the world, to a completely different culture and job completely alone. I was so naïve that I did not even realize that it got cold in the desert. I hadn’t packed a single jacket.
I was on a 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off rotation, so I basically lived out of a suitcase for 3 years. Then, my husband and I were very fortunate to move to the United Arab Emirates, where we work together and now live permanently.
XX: SO, WHEN DID YOU BECOME A PILOT? AND WHY BECOME A PILOT IN THE FIRST PLACE?
SH: I earned my airplane student pilot’s license when I was 17. I had that before my driver’s license, which is why I’m probably a better pilot than a driver *laughs*. I did my private pilot’s airplane license in Trinidad, then I travelled to Canada, where I completed my Commercial airplane license.
Remember I told you I grew up in a rural part of Trinidad? Well, this part is known for a particular plant, so throughout my young life, I would see the US Army helicopters doing patrols in the area whenever they worked alongside the T&T Government. I also remember going to the airport on a school field trip one day and seeing a Blackhawk helicopter, and thinking ‘that’s cool!!!’.
After gaining my Commercial Airplane license, I went to Florida and did my Commercial Helicopter license and never looked back. I was lucky enough to get a job in Trinidad right out of flight school that hired locals, and my career then started.
XX: YOU AND DAVE ARE BOTH HELICOPTER PILOTS! WHERE HAVE YOUR JOBS TAKEN YOU?
SH: All over the world! I’m not allowed to be specific, but many countries that I would not normally visit, so it’s been fantastic for that. I’ve been the first female helicopter pilot in a number of countries that I work in.
It’s always amusing to deal with Customs officers who have never seen a female pilot before. Once, my husbamd and I were working away together, and a security official came up to him and asked if I (“the woman”) was really needed on flight line. His response was “yeah, she’s the Captain, if she doesn’t fly, no one can fly”. (Side note: he’s a Captain as well, he just likes picong!)
XX: WHAT’S THE MOST DIFFICULT PART ABOUT THE JOB?
SH: Personally, for me, it’s the unpredictability of the job – but that’s also the part I love the most. Every day is different, which is fantastic, but sometimes it can grate on you, especially when it intrudes on my personal life and plans.
But the most difficult part of being a female pilot is the bias that exists. It’s always disappointing when you realize that regardless of your reputation as a pilot and how hard you work to be spotless, there are some that will never accept you.
I’ve been told to my face “you don’t belong here” – by a Westerner, mind you – but I always say that is a reflection of who they are, not me.
You know the saying that women need to work twice as hard to be recognized half as much, it’s spot on, 100 percent true.
XX: WOW, AND WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER THE BEST PART?
SH: Seeing things from a bird’s eye view. I get to fly around the world’s tallest building, while people pay good money to take an elevator up. I love watching the sun set when I’m flying. It really is truly special.
Flying special clients like our late Prime Minister, the Honourable Patrick Manning, was a once-in-a-lifetime historical experience. Flying and meeting celebrities and VIPs worldwide. But, especially, I love when kids meet me and are so blown away that a girl can be a pilot, and that it gives them hope. That’s all you need: hope and a dream.
XX: HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A TRAVELLER, OR WAS THAT SOMETHING THAT CAME THROUGH YOUR JOB?
SH: I’ve always loved travelling. My mom took me to the UK when I was 6 years old, and I remember not being able to shut up about it. One of the reasons I moved to the Middle East was for the ease of travel – you can go anywhere from there. I am truly blessed to be able to combine that with my job.
XX: YOU AND DAVE RUN A SOCIAL MEDIA PAGE CALLED “PILOTS AND PASSPORTS”. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO CREATE IT?
SH: I used to have my own Instagram account, and although I did a lot of solo travel, I wanted to include my husband as well, seeing as we did the majority together. We tend to go off the beaten path on adventures, and would like to show that it is possible. I’d say the account is a combination of our life as pilots and our love of exploring.
XX: WHAT ARE SOME NOTABLE SIGHTS THAT YOU TWO HAVE EXPERIENCED TOGETHER?
SH: The most magnificent sight we have ever laid our eyes on is a volcano named Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We had to be escorted everywhere by armed guards as the country is very unstable and so walking up to almost twelve thousand feet with a Ranger and his weapon is definitely strange.
You look down into the crater, which boasts the world’s largest lava lake and it feels like being on Mars. The lava lake itself is the size of two football fields, but the crater where you are looking down into the field is at least 2 km wide. You also get to spend the night there as well, literally on the edge of the volcano. You can hear the gas explosions as you sleep and it is truly a sight and sound to behold. I loved geography in school so being able to peer inside the earth’s crust was such a marvelous experience.
In the Congo, meeting the endangered Silverback Gorillas was amazing and scary at the same time. Have a look at the movie Virunga on Netflix, it will make you cry.
In Rwanda, visiting the Genocide memorial really makes you wonder about humanity. How could neighbors do this to each other? The hardest part was seeing the names and pictures of the children that were butchered. Sometimes travel is not all about excitement and happiness but it does open your eyes to different parts of the world and hopefully be able to learn from each other’s mistakes.
Some other favorites have been hanging off the edge of Victoria Falls in Zambia in Devil’s pool, standing on a prehistoric boulder 1000 feet up in the air in Norway at Kjeragbolten, hiking for 11 hours straight in knee deep snow to Trolltunga (Trolls’ tongue) in Norway, summiting the highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro and one of my favorite memories is marveling at the northern lights in the Finnish Arctic Circle. The mountains of Kazakhstan blew us away and reminded us of Switzerland, and visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and seeing a statue of the Virgin Mary next to Arabic Muslim text was very striking. I also went skiing for the first time last year in Austria and hated it, so instead of skiing down the mountain I went paragliding instead. That was way cooler!!
XX: IS THERE ANYWHERE YOU HAVEN’T SEEN AS YET THAT STILL REMAINS ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
SH: I actually don’t have a bucket list. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to see are the Northern Lights, and I’ve seen them. I tend to come up with these mad ideas (while my husband rolls his eyes) and then just go for it.
I’ve been secretly planning a hike to K2 in Pakistan, which as a former soldier, Dave says “not just no, but hell no”. However, we did just happen to meet (much to my delight) the Pakistani Ambassador to the UAE recently, and he was showing us pictures of the area, and I think it’s now a yes. As for travelling, I want to go EVERYWHERE. I do hope to visit every single country.
XX: HOW DO YOU BALANCE SEEING AND APPRECIATING THE SIGHTS YOU VISIT, WHILE ENSURING YOU STILL GET THAT INSTA-WORTHY SHOT FROM EVERYWHERE YOU SEE?
SH: I actually really love photography. I look forward to downloading the photos and delving into what I’ve captured. I don’t do it for social media, in fact sometimes if a photo holds a special memory for just Dave and myself, I don’t share it at all.
He is much better at just putting all the devices down and enjoying the view than I am, so I feed off of that. When seeing the Aurora Borealis for the first time, I was so torn. These lights were painting gold, purple and green streaks across the sky and my mind jumped between “take a photo” and “no, just look at it”. I managed to do both.
XX: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ANYONE WHO MIGHT WANT TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS AND BECOME A PILOT?
SH: The first thing I would say is it looks easy, it really isn’t. I flew offshore for 9 years of my career and the passengers would face into the cockpit. I can’t tell you how many people would say, ‘flying a chopper is easy man’. It looks easy, because all they see are very minute movements being put in the controls. What they don’t see are the years of very expensive training, the tests, written and practical we do every six months, the medical exams we do every year and the constant studying to ensure you are well prepared for any emergency, because at the end of the day, you are responsible for the safety of your passengers and yourself.
Don’t be a pilot because the uniform looks cool and you want pictures of yourself in the cockpit. I would advise to do an aviation medical exam first to ensure you can be a pilot, then do an intro flight, to actually see if you want to do it. If you walk out of that helicopter or airplane smiling, you are good to go.
What you also need to know is that things go wrong in the aircraft. In 2011, due to a mechanical fault in the helicopter I was flying, I was almost killed. We were luckily on the ground when it happened but 60 seconds later (and I’m not exaggerating), we would have been airborne and dead. A few months later, the same fault happened to an aircraft that was in the air at the time and none survived. There was nothing the pilots could have done. I’m not trying to scare you, it’s just a reality check.
XX: WHAT TRAVEL ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO SEE THE WORLD?
SH: For anyone who wants to see the world, please, just do it. It can be expensive and not everyone can afford to travel as far and as wide as they want to, but if you make small sacrifices, you would be surprised at how much you can save. I tend to go to places in the off- season. It’s much cheaper and crowds are sparse.
Treat yourself to a trip every year if you can, even if it’s to Tobago. Go somewhere new, not just the places you are comfortable with. If your friends don’t want to travel, go by yourself. Believe me, you will always make new friends on the way. If you are going to travel solo, always be aware of your surroundings. Safety first. For female solo travellers, there are so many Facebook groups that are dedicated to just that. Go online and do some research. You will never regret taking that trip. I truly believe in the saying ‘collect memories, not things’.
XX: WHAT’S NEXT FOR SAFIA AND DAVE?
SH: Who knows? Our lives are a colourful brand of chaotic. We do want to do more volunteer work and I would love to visit more schools in rural areas to have chats with students. Giving back to the community and showing young ones that just because you don’t go to University doesn’t mean your life is over. I didn’t go to University. If you find something you are passionate about, you can have an amazing career. Not everyone is meant to be a Doctor, Lawyer or Pilot.
XX: WHERE CAN WE FOLLOW YOUR ADVENTURE?
SH: You can find us on social media:
@pilotsandpassports on Instagram and Pilots and Passports on Facebook.
XX: WHAT’S ONE MESSAGE YOU WANT TO LEAVE WITH XX READERS?
SH: You see a lot of inspirational quotes that convey the message of ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ or ‘wake up every day at 4am because the early bird catches the worm’. That’s all great in theory. In practice, sometimes even if you love your job, some days you cannot wait to get home and forget about your day.
You can suffer from burnout and stress and it’s totally ok not to be happy about every single thing, every single day of your life. What you need to be is grateful.
When you wake up, be grateful that you woke up. When you go to free schools in Trinidad, know that in Uganda, in a refugee camp, there are 5000 students for 38 teachers. When you can afford to eat, know that there are thousands starving.
For my ladies that are breaking barriers and shattering ceilings. It is never easy. I have been in tears on many occasions on the brink of quitting and giving up. It took me a long time to learn to never allow anyone else to control my destiny. People will tear you down for the pettiest of reasons. I did not give up because I am a stubborn, pig headed person. Know your self worth and have self-belief. If no one is telling you that you can, then you should tell yourself you can. There is nothing special about me. I just believed in myself, went out into the big bad world and it’s been a crazy, marvelous adventure ever since.