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This is your Captain speaking...

This is your Captain speaking...

When was the last flight you heard a female pilot's voice over the tannoy? It's been almost five decades since the first female airline pilot qualified – yet today, just 3% of pilots are women. Virgin Atlantic Captain Lucy Tardrew (Psychology, 1988) explains what it takes to fly high. 

"I've always loved flying," recalls Lucy. "As a child, I would head to the flight deck to get my Junior Jet Club log book signed. I was fascinated by aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham. But I didn't think flying was a career for me because there were so few female pilots at that time."

Today, Lucy is the embodiment of the inspirational role model she craved as a girl. Stepping into the cockpit for the first time when she joined the University Air Squadron, she gained her wings – and the respect of her peers – at a little airfield outside the city. "I was the first girl to join the Air Squadron – and proved that women could fly."

After taking a gruelling first job flying post around the world to earn her flight miles, Lucy's career took off when she joined Virgin over 20 years ago. Now she flies the skies in the iconic 747 airliner. 

"Attitudes in aviation are changing. I've just completed a flight with two female First Officers and a female engineer. We all progress on merit – the most important thing is to be competent, capable and confident in the job. Our training is second to none. We're rigorously tested in a simulator every six months, yet people skills are also essential. I manage a team of up to 18, who then manage up to 500 passengers. Knowing how to deal with situations unrelated to aviation – like a medical emergency – is often what makes the difference.

We all progress on merit – the most important thing is to be competent, capable and confident in the job.

Lucy Tardrew standing in the engine of a Virgin Atlantic 747 aircraft


"Flying a 747 is an incredible way to see the world. My very first trip was to San Francisco, which is striking to approach from the air. One of my career highlights was flying Virgin's inaugural flight to Delhi with Sir Richard Branson. Our welcome party placed a garland and bindi on the aircraft when we arrived, before fireworks and dancing into the night at a palace!

"There's no such thing as a normal week. It can be a juggling act to maintain a family life, but we get a lot of time off in between trips, so I've been able to make the important events in my children's lives."

Now at the pinnacle of her career, Lucy is focusing on inspiring the next generation of pilots. 

"Last year, I presented an award at We Day, an incredible movement that empowers young people to change the world. As soon as I said I was Captain of a 747, the arena erupted in spontaneous applause. To show 12,000 kids, especially the girls, that an airline pilot is something they can aspire to was just amazing. Not enough women go into training and it's a real loss to the industry.

"When you safely land a flight there's a real sense of accomplishment – I wouldn't change my job for the world."

Captain in the making

Pilot-in-training Collette Siu (Economics, 2016) first took to the air as a student at Nottingham, sharing Lucy's passion for life in the skies. As she starts cadet pilot training with Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Dragon this autumn, Collette shares her dream of following in Lucy's footsteps.

"Aviation has always fascinated me. I had lots of questions that I wanted to explore and mysteries to answer. But I didn't realise becoming a pilot could be an option until I discovered the cadet programmes at Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon back in Hong Kong while I was at university in the UK. From there I started to pursue my goal with hard work and determination. 

Collette Siu, Cathay Dragon pilot-in-training

"Flight training in the UK was one of the best experiences of my life. Being up in the air,
doing manoevres and seeing the country from a totally different perspective is exhilarating. I was stunned by the number of instruments and gauges in the cockpit – you have to manage so many things at the same time! Yet it's all about the time and effort that you are willing to invest to succeed. Practice makes perfect is true. 

"The number of female pilots is increasing. I know there are some amazing female Captains out there, like Lucy. Flying has no gender – it only has attitude and ability. I start my cadet training in New Zealand this autumn. Once I graduate, I'll start as a Second Officer with Cathay Dragon and hope to work my way up to Captain. Becoming a pilot will fulfil my dreams and give me the life I want – flying, working with amazing teams and seeing the world."