Even when Kassandra Stultiens Zandstra, who lives in La Herradura with her husband and two young sons, was young, she knew she wanted to fly planes. She really got hooked on them when her family moved to the small African country of Guinea Bissau because of her father's job with a Dutch NGO. “We flew back and forth between Africa and the Netherlands a lot in the four years we were living there and I got to really like planes,” she explains.
Kassandra, now 36, was just eight when the family moved to Africa and was 12 when they returned to Amsterdam. “At first I thought I would be an air stewardess and then I thought, why can't I just fly the thing?”
A father's support
During her teens, Kassandra committed herself to researching aeroplanes and how to fly them. Her father, Ted, realised how passionate his daughter was about this future career and fully supported her. “We would go to Schiphol airport on Sundays and he bought me a book, which was written by a woman, about how to become a pilot” she recalls, adding that doing research in the 1990s was difficult as there was no internet like there is nowadays.
After leaving school, having carefully chosen subjects she knew she needed to become a pilot, like physics and maths, Kassandra passed the selection process and was accepted into the Martinair Flight Academy in Holland. She explains that while she was the only girl among her fellow students she didn't feel any different from her male counterparts. “If anything they looked after me and would make sure I got home ok,” she recalls, adding, “They used to laugh at me because although I was training to be a pilot aged 20 and the thought of flying a plane was exciting, I was scared of driving a car and didn't get my licence until I was 23.”
In 2006, aged 24, Kassandra got her first job as a pilot for Transavia and flew to 93 different airports during her career . “My first flight was to Crete and it went well,” she recalls. “For a while whenever I got back to Amsterdam and watched other planes taking off and landing I thought to myself 'I just did that' but you don't think about it at the time.”
She has since flown planes with her father as a passenger and admits that she prefers short-haul to long-haul flights as they can be “a bit boring” and there is “a lot of sitting around as you can't really leave the cockpit, which is really small”.
Five per cent
Kassandra and her fellow female airline pilots make up only five per cent of the total. She admits that she has experienced sexism in the job. “I was flying with a female colleague once and a male passenger told us that he wasn't comfortable about two women flying the plane. I didn't say this to him but I thought, well you can just get off if you're not happy,” she says. On other occasions when she has come out of the cockpit to go to the toilet she has been given passengers' rubbish and asked for drinks. “I'm a woman, they just assume I am the stewardess and it's men who fly the planes,” she says.
The biggest blow came when she had to give up flying after the birth of her first son almost six years ago, when a pregnancy-related condition meant she didn't meet the strict medical requirements to keep her licence. A clause in what is known as loss of licence insurance, which pilots take out in the event that they lose their licence on medical grounds, stated that the company wouldn't pay out for loss of licence related to diving without oxygen, off-roading across deserts, or pregnancy-related medical conditions. “It's discrimination,” says Kassandra. “How can a company compare giving birth to diving without oxygen?” She hopes to be able to find a lawyer and fight the case.
In the meantime, last year Kassandra qualified as a flight instructor, meaning she can train pilots and help them to perfect their skills in order to be selected for both flight schools and airlines. “I also want to inspire other young women, but I would tell them to check their insurance carefully,” Kassandra says.
The instructor says that for her the biggest hurdle was not, in the end, being a woman, but the financing which is difficult as pilots have to fund their own training. She adds that although it can be difficult, it “isn't impossible and there are solutions”. And that is the message that she is keen to get across to anyone considering being a pilot, be they male or female.