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A RAAF pilot realises her dream

Taking on stereotypes and going against the norm makes for a challenging career. Here's a look at how RAAF pilot Samantha Freebairn has done it.

Samantha Freebairn, Squadron Leader of the Royal Australian Air Force, knows firsthand how to succeed in the face of big challenges.

Today, Freebairn can be found in the cockpit of some of the world's biggest military aircraft, flying missions around the globe. In the male-dominated world of military aviation, how did she find herself in the pilot’s seat?

The flight path to success

While on a family holiday at the age of nine, Freebairn visited an airplane’s cockpit for the first time, and something clicked. She knew straight away that she wanted to be pilot and was flying solo by the age of 15, juggling two jobs to pay for flight school.

After being accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at the age of 18, she started flying the C-130H Hercules, later graduating to the RAAF’s biggest transport aircraft, the C-17 Globemaster.

A female in a male-dominated industry

Freebairn says that being the only woman in a male-dominated training course was challenging at times. For example, she had to learn how to navigate the social complexities of fitting in with the group while maintaining her femininity.

During my early career as an Air Force pilot, I felt I really battled alone at times, being either the only woman or one of a few in my workplace of a few hundred men.

Samantha Freebairn

Freebairn also found herself confronted with what she considered to be outdated views on the roles of women. Consequently, she worked hard and fought even harder to create ways for women in the Air Force to support and empower each other.

In her role as the project manager of the Air Force workforce diversity project WINTER (Women In Non-Traditional Employment Roles), Freebairn took on the task of increasing female pilot numbers. 

To that end, she started the Flying Females Breakfast and Flying Solo magazine to connect senior and junior female pilots. She also developed the Graduate Pilot Scheme, which aims to encourage larger numbers of females to apply for pilot training by paying their university fees and grouping candidates together for mutual support and mentorship.

Her initiatives are working, with 25 female pilots in the Air Force in January 2015. 

“The latest figures for the Air Force show that within the next two years we will double women pilot numbers, when they have remained stagnant for the last 30 years,” she says. 

  

Staying focused and inspired

Freebairn attributes her success to studying hard, never giving up and staying focused. She never wants to look back and think: “I should have worked harder or done something differently."

She finds inspiration in her colleagues and ‘transformational bosses’, and feels privileged to have met so many inspiring young women who are intelligent, driven, talented and empowered – as she says, "women aren’t afraid to shake things up!".

Samantha Freebairn, Squadron Leader of the Royal Australian Air Force

Pioneering Australian aviator Nancy Bird-Walton, founder of the Australian Women Pilots' Association, has also been an important role model throughout her career. The two met in Sydney over afternoon tea, during which Freebairn learnt that Bird-Walton was not only a pilot, but also a mother, a wife and a champion of women in aviation. 

“She had a love of the air and felt women belonged in the industry and fought to ensure they maintained a role," Freebairn says.

The final word

Freebairn received the innovation award in the Telstra Queensland Business Women’s Awards in 2014. In her acceptance speech she highlighted why she’d begun the WINTER initiatives.

“I have a young son and a young daughter, so it is not OK to sit and wait for women to achieve equality in this country, it must be actively progressed. It is our job to make the future better for our children,” Freebairn says.