Meet Eva Claire Marseille, Airline Pilot and Instagram Inspiration

She wants to encourage more young women to have careers in aviation.

June 18, 2018 9:34 am
Eva Claire Marseille (Eva Claire Marseille)
Eva Claire Marseille (Eva Claire Marseille)

The history of aviation is already quite colorful in its essence. Some brave souls looked up at the skies and threw caution to the wind … literally … in order to share the clouds with the birds. Toss some ladies into the mix and now we’re really cooking with fire.

The history of women taking up wings as a profession goes back to the turn of the last century with some gals who decided that shattering a glass ceiling meant flying through it.

The world’s first licensed female pilot was Frenchwoman Raymonde de Laroche back in 1910. She was so inspiring that seven other French women became licensed pilots within a year.

By 1911 the USA had its own licensed female pilot in one Harriet Quimby, who, proving that she was totally bad ass, also became the first woman to cross the English Channel by plane the following year.

These days women in aviation are becoming less of an exception.

Women like Eva Claire Marseille whose dream it was to pilot a Boeing 747…and guess what she does now…exactly that. Before moving to Hong Kong with her current position as a 747 freight pilot, Eva flew passenger airliners out of Barcelona for four years. Prior to that she pondered becoming a journalist before realizing that her true calling was in the air. Now she criss-crosses the globe, explores each of her destinations with true travel savvy delight and uses everything from social media to her personal blog to inspire other individuals to pursue whatever passions light their souls on fire. Her instagram,@flywitheva,   is a montage of exotic destinations, delicious eats and sweeping views from the flight deck. If you’ve ever wondered what the Swiss Alps look like beyond the nose of a jet plane…well that’s just Eva’s office, and her backyard is anywhere with a runway…or a surf board…or a camel. Of all the shots on Eva’s profile that make you want to live a bigger more exciting life, the most beautiful one to me is that of her grandad. The caption reads: “Throwback – flying with my grandad. He was my super proud first passenger. He has no background in aviation, but when I got into flight training, he invested in a yoke and rudder pedals so he could also ‘study flight simulator’ regularly behind his PC.” Traveling around the world for a living and inspiring others to see the world, a dream come true. Making your grandad proud, priceless.

Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?

Eva Claire Marseille: Change gives me energy, from a young age I was excited to try something new. It could be anything to visit a new place, to taste new food or try a new thing. I was always curious. The aviation industry provides me with great energy, I love so many aspects about it, from flying the airplane, but also the teamwork, and how small the world becomes in this profession. By pursuing a career as a pilot, I moved cities and countries a lot, and I really love this. My job is more than just a job to me, it does not feel like a job even most days. A positive mindset helps a lot. I strive to achieve an interesting and rewarding career, but also to develop myself outside of the profession.

Your background and schooling is in journalism. How does one make the leap to aviation?

EM: Growing up we all dream about our future. I was an eternal dreamer. In my head I created so many different possible futures. What would be my ideal job, and my ideal life? Holland, my country, is great, but I wanted to live abroad. To experience living in several countries would even be better. I did not want to work 9 to 5 with the same people every day. I desired to feel a real passion about my job. Together with her love for literature and writing, this millennial narrowed it down: journalist! I would create insightful stories for respected media. I would live my life to the fullest, which in my eyes included living abroad, traveling, and a career that would always challenge me. How to get this lifestyle as a journalist? I planned to figure it out along the way, and started at University.

And so I studied literature and journalism. With several freelance writing jobs I payed for my study, and got experience in the field. I loved all the writing assignments. I got to interview famous Dutch authors, and truly enjoyed putting their words into the best articles I could. My grades were good. And then, doubt hit me. What if I was not on the right track? The kind of life I was aiming for required an amazing network, the best writing skills and building a name for myself. What if I would not succeed in all this, and be average at best? What if I ended up glued behind a desk, feeling envious when writing about the people who lived the kind of life I wanted to have? I tried to shake off these doubts, told myself that with attitude and perseverance one can reach a lot.

Several people noticed my doubts regarding a future in journalism. It was my mum who said: “Eva, why don’t you visit a flight school? See if this is something for you?” Wait. What? I didn’t understand her comment. “You often express your admiration for the job of airline pilot.” I did? It turned out I did. Several of my friends confirmed that I had sighed more than once “what an amazing job pilots have.” Apparently I had this subconscious dream inside me, and the people around me actually discovered it before me.

Now that my subconscious dream was out in the open, it became clear to me: indeed, I had always had this big admiration for the people flying jets. At the same time a voice inside my head told me this would be absolutely unattainable for me. This conviction is why I had always pushed this fantasy right back, deeply into silence. Could I be an airline pilot?

Some months went by. I researched as much as possible about the aviation industry, education, what the life of a pilot is like, and what it takes to become one. I graduated in maths and physics, with all those formulas I would never deal with again. It turned out I already met all the criteria to apply at a flight school. I realized that the profession of a pilot completely matched with my ideal kind of life. This job would bring more than I could have ever imagined for myself. And it might be attainable, if I dedicated myself to it. Becoming a pilot went from never crossing my mind, to something that became my ultimate goal. It was now time to stop dreaming and take action.

I worked hard that year. I wrote my thesis “The change in literary culture” to graduate University. At the same time I prepared for my flight school assessment. I spent days in the University library, and nights researching aviation websites. I was in the final stage of writing my thesis, when I got the invitation for an assessment at the flight school I hoped to get into. When I received the news that I passed the selection procedure, I was over the moon. I remember dancing in front of my mailbox, with the letter in my hand stating I got accepted to start flight training.

What was your first flight experience as a pilot like?

EM: My first flight experience as a pilot was in 2009 in a Piper Archer (PA28) at Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona. It was my first training flight, so I flew together with a flight instructor. I remember very vividly on that day, how I felt that I made 100% the right choice of switching to pilot training. Before it, there was always a hint of doubt if it was really for me. I had done eight months of ATPL theory, without any flying. But as soon as we were doing the preflight procedures, and going up in the sky, I felt that THIS WAS IT for me. Now came the reward in the form of over a year of practical flight training. That first flight, I had never been before behind the controls of an airplane, and from now on, I would do this a lot, and I loved it, and I felt so blessed that in the next months there would be much more of this experience of flying to come.

What’s it like to be an incredibly successful woman in a relatively male dominated space?

EM: I don’t consider myself incredibly successful and would like to tone this down a bit. I see that I have some success, such as flying the Boeing 747 as a First Officer at a relatively early stage in my career. I got the opportunity, and worked hard for it. I am not a pioneer in the profession, it is really no more a novelty to see female flight crew. Statistically indeed, we are only with a select group of women (about 5% of pilots are female) in the industry. I hope to inspire more girls to think of a pilot career. I feel that “you can not become what you can not see” and that is why I try to be very visible, on social media, in interviews and articles, and through my website. I love when girls reach out to me for advice, or to simply share their stories as they take their first steps in aviation. The consensus amongst colleagues is, that gender is no issue in the profession. The job that has to be done, can be done equally by men and women. Still we are with not a lot of women in the flight deck, and I would like to show that it is not “extra” challenging as a woman. At least I never experienced extra pressure, or felt that I had to prove myself a bit more. When I chose to start flight training, I had not really given it much thought that I would be joining a male dominated industry.

What are some of the reactions when passengers boarding a plane see you in the cockpit? Any experiences with women feeling inspired by your position?

EM: Usually people look twice when they see a female pilot. You will get some reaction, usually positive but kinda surprised. I had lovely experiences with both male and female passengers, who reacted so enthusiastic on seeing me in the flight deck. I had parents take their children into the flight deck before or after the flight, and they really pointed me out as a female pilot to their children. I loved when kids came in and asked me questions. I also had negative experiences, but not a lot.

When you stand out, in this case by statistics, this naturally triggers a reaction. The encouragement and surprised-but-positive reactions give a daily boost. But sometimes, the reaction is a not so positive one. When I decided to write about this topic, despite all positive experiences, a particular situation came to mind:

I am in the flight deck, we are on the ground in the turnaround. This is the time on the ground, when the passengers of the flight we just completed are at their destination, and disembark. We prepare the next flight, while new passengers board the aircraft, and we will take them to their destination. As flight crew we complete the necessary paperwork, check the weather for the whole route, decide on the fuel that we order, prepare the departure, discuss how we will fly, what specialties we have to take into account for this particular flight, and then do the checklist to see if all that had to be done, is done.

After all the preparations in the flight deck, I get out of my seat to make myself a cup of coffee in the front galley. Passengers are still boarding. I get a smile, I nod and smile back. While I pour some hot water into my coffee mug, I hear a female passenger that just got on board of our airplane, ask to the purser: “Ehm. That is not the pilot, is she?” Surprised I look in her direction, and we catch each other’s eyes. I reply: “Yes, she is the pilot, how are you, madame?” The woman looks somewhat confused, but smiles and shrugs.

Then a big man, who got on the airplane together with this woman, takes a little step forward. I am still standing in the galley. He turns in my direction: “You? Pilot? You have got to be joking! This does not feel right. Tell me, do you even know the left from your right?”

In my head, there is a brief moment of short circuit: This rude, middle-aged man, standing in front of me, towering over me, staring at me. Left from right? Does this man have a daughter? Then how did he raise her, with what values and beliefs, and has he taught her dignity and self-respect? Where he gets the nerve..? Ah well, quick now, he is actually waiting for an answer:

“Left, right? Who needs to know about that? I got my pilot license when I found it in a pack of cornflakes. Enjoy your flight, sir.”

I nod and smile, and walk back into the flight deck.

Now, on the Boeing 747, I fly cargo, so passengers will only see me walking in the terminal!

You worked really hard to secure a job for a big European passenger airline. Tell us about the years of dedication to the dream and overcoming obstacles that ultimately landed (hehe) you a dream job.

EM: I get lots of questions of which school I attended, how I afforded this, and how I got a job. There are many different routes, but this is my story in short.

Regarding flight schools and taking the modular route or an integrated course, I researched mostly online. Internet will give you a ton of information. I visited several information days of flight schools in Holland. I chose to follow an integrated course: this is 2 years of full time studying. Everything is done in this period to get a frozen ATPL: all theory exams, flight hours flying single engine and multi-engine, an instrument rating, all practical flight exams and an MCC course. I applied to the Dutch flight academy Nationale Luchtvaart School (now CAE Oxford Aviation Academy), and passed the assessments to start flight training.

How did I afford it? Flight training is very expensive, so I understand this question. When I started my training in 2008, there was a Dutch bank that offered “pilot loans.” If you got accepted in a flight academy, you could apply for a loan at this bank to fund your studies. I afforded my flight training by getting a loan, and as we speak I am still paying off this debt. The bank now stopped with this construction, so these pilot loans are something from the past.

I started flight training in October 2008; this was exactly the start of the “global financial crisis.” All I could do now was study hard: get the highest grades possible, and pass all my exams at once. I knew getting a job at the end of the course would be extremely difficult. In 2010, when I graduated, the market was full of cadet pilots, and hardly any jobs, not even for experienced pilots. Welcome to the pool of unemployed cadets.

Two long years I did everything I could to get a job, and kept improving my skills and CV. I tried to find work in an airline: if it was not as a pilot for now, then in another position. I managed to get a full time job at Martinair operations, where I worked as a dispatcher and crew scheduler. In the mean time I applied everywhere. I considered every airline, big or small, business jets, turboprops, open applications. I networked, I called airlines, I uploaded my CV into countless online databases. I spent hours of checking aviation websites and forums online, looking for chances. I made summaries of all the theory subjects, and invested in some more reading material to keep my knowledge sharp.

And there was more. I completed a bush pilot course in South Africa. I joined the editorial staff of the Dutch Airline Pilots Association and wrote voluntarily for their magazine. To obtain a certificate that would increase my chances on the German pilot market, I completed a German language course. I trained regularly on an expensive Boeing 737 simulator, to be ready anytime for an assessment. I kept my license and medical valid. For two years my whole life revolved around getting a pilot job at an airline. All my time, money and energy went there. I was only living for the future.

Then one day, in September 2012, I got the invitation for an assessment at a big European passenger airline. I knew that my time was now, otherwise maybe never. I felt a lot of pressure. But the night before the assessment I slept ten hours nonstop! I was so tired of preparing, and at the same time relaxed; I knew I had done everything I possibly could to prepare. I was ready. With this attitude, I started my simulator assessment. My nerves did not ruin things for me, and I flew the best assessment I could think of. This was followed by an hour of technical an personal questions.

To conclude the interview I got a firm handshake from the captain that had assessed me. He told me to start preparing for my type-rating on the Boeing 737: I had the job! This in now 6 years ago, and to recall this day still brings the biggest smile on my face. For those of you out there working hard to get a job, maybe for several years already: don’t give up! Keep working hard, keep improving. Many of us have been in this situation. Keep faith that you will get to that flight deck seat: you will, but it takes constant work, and the right attitude.

Can you describe, using the five senses, the experience of taking off, flying and landing a 747? Most of us will never know what that’s like…from the pilot’s seat. 

EM: “Oh my god it is finally happening!” I longed so much for my first 747 flight. Setting thrust and rattling over the runway, rotating to take the Queen of the Skies into the air…. then that first landing with that giant airplane, onto the touchdown zone and making it a smooth one. I was so happy. Despite having over 3000 737 jet hours and many take-offs and landings done, this was very special to me, as it was literally a dream come true.

By default you get to travel to some pretty spectacular places. Any favorite destinations?

EM: I only just started to fly the Boeing 747, so I did not see much of the destinations in the network yet. So far I had layovers in Penang (Malaysia), Hanoi (Vietnam) and Narita (Japan). I absolutely loved all three destinations, and we also had some time to explore these places. Next week I have Anchorage (Alaska) and New York on my roster, I am very excited about this. Anchorage should be amazing, and I really hope to join a flight with a local pilot in a float or ski plane during an Alaska layover soon. And I also have never been to New York!

Talk to me about your bush flying experience in South Africa and landing among giraffes. Makes me think of Beryl Markham in “West With the Night.”

EM: It was a great experience! I took a “Bush flying course” at Sky Africa, back in 2012, before I had a job as an airline pilot.

It is extremely hot, we have been flying for 1.5 hours. I already made five touch and go’s, at five different airfields. I just came from Rooiberg, a private grass strip. It has power lines at the end of the runway, over which the aircraft could only barely climb in the current density altitude. Rundu Bundu, the next field, gets visible. I descent to 200ft AGL to make a runway inspection. Out loud: “The approach is free of obstacles, it’s a gravel strip, I don’t see any potholes, just some giraffes on the runway… ehr what?!” I continue the low pass, descent a bit lower, but the giraffes don’t move an inch. They just stare at the brightly coloured Cessna 172 that approaches them. This is Africa!

Sky Africa is situated at Brakpan airport (FABB) since 1981, at half an hour drive east of Johannesburg International Airport. The team is specialized in bush pilot training courses. It is also possible to build some flight hours, affordable and in a fantastic environment. Frequently pilots from Lufthansa, TAP and Qantas come to Brakpan during their layover, to rent an airplane and make a nice bush trip.

The first two days of the course consist of the “foreign license validation.” I meet my instructor Glen, an ex-air force pilot with thousands of hours of experience flying at the South African bush. The program starts with several briefings: the rules of the Johannesburg TMA, high altitude operations and precautionary landings. When Glen concludes that my theoretical knowledge is sufficient, I am allowed to start preparing my first flight in the African airspace. It is back to basics: no GPS, no assistance of VOR radials or other navaids, but purely the map, pilotage and dead reckoning. With the map spread out on the table I juggle with my calculating disc and plot the route. We will fly for 2,5 hours and visit several landing strips. I force myself to remember all landmarks for my cross country check tomorrow, where I also have to make a diversion.

Upon arriving at the airfield the next morning, I understand the presence of several dixi-toilets right next to the Brakpan runway: it is time for the monthly car-race. When there is air traffic, the race gets temporarily suspended. Peculiar, but for the flying club it is a good source of income. In the clubhouse, I take the mandatory Air Law exam and prepare for the check flight. Unfortunately the wind picks up, and is out of limits to use runway 18-36. However, there is also a grass strip at Brakpan, direction 03-21, that has not been used for ages. In fact, this strip is not even included in Brakpan Airfield Information. Is it an option to use the strip? I jump into an open truck with my instructor, and we drive over the grass strip to inspect it. The grass is of medium length, and there are not too many humps and potholes. Runway 21 it is, let’s go!

This illustrates the mentality of the pilots at Sky Africa. The grass strip is very short, the only way to take-off is by early rotation, taking flaps, and building speed in ground effect. So there we go. Next to the normal parts of a CPL check, I also have to show a spin and spiral dive recovery, and pass for “low flying.” I have to fly at less than 50ft AGL, soaring over the fields with a high power setting and the nose trimmed up. Love it, where else would this have been possible?! I am satisfied, and so is the instructor. There are no rules “from throttle to bottle,” so when we return at Brakpan, he pours me a nice glass of “Suid-Afrikaanse” wine. I can now operate as PIC on any South African registered single-engine piston.

Now the adventure truly takes off. My instructor knows the nicest landing strips, with the most wonderful names: Klipriver, Zebra, Driefontein, Bierman Estate… every few minutes I make a touch and go at a new strip, always preceded by an accurate runway inspection. It is important to notice obstacles in the climb direction, at the end of the runway. This is of more importance than I initially realized: because of the heat and the high elevation there is hardly any climb performance. On full power we hardly exceed a 200 ft per minute climb rate. I practice several techniques: short-field take-offs and landings, different slopes, soft-field and crosswind landings. It is an intensive way of flying, and I can quickly log 50 landings. I experience a lot of fun and freedom while flying, and increase my self-confidence. Here you learn to fully control your airplane, to learn its limits and work with them.

The last night of the course we land at Kunkuru; a beautiful lodge in the middle of the bush. We will stay for the night. Approaching Kunkuru, we announce our arrival. The rangers assure that the runway is free of wild animals. This is no luxury: earlier that day I almost filleted a springbuck with my propeller. Despite an extensive runway inspection, the springbuck jumped onto the strip immediately after my touch and go, while I was climbing out. In this way, the course teaches me the specific skills required for bush flying. I also learn several facts about survival, wildlife, and technical maintenance; every bush pilot should, for instance, be able to change a V-belt, in case he gets stranded somewhere.

The week passes by so fast. The moment arrives of my last full stop landing at Brakpan. Through my headset, I hear Glen’s voice: “Now that was beautiful, darling.” And that is exactly my thought: what an amazing experience!

You have a new life adventure that just started flying 747s out of Hong Kong. Congratulations and please elaborate on this new role.

EM: A few months ago I moved to Hong Kong for my new job. We (my boyfriend and I) have settled in nicely on Hong Kong Island, and I love exploring my new city and meeting loads of new people. We hike and surf a lot, enjoy the food and all the new areas. I am currently halfway through line training on the Boeing 747 and worked hard the past months to pass the 747 type rating. I am based in Hong Kong and from here I fly to worldwide destinations for my airline’s freight operations.

Are there any female pilots in history or in your personal life whose stories have inspired you?

EM: I am very much inspired by the women who were pioneers in the industry. I would recommend everyone to watch the documentary Mercury 13 on Netflix, some incredibly inspiring stories of female aviators there, really worth watching! The recent Southwest Flight 1380 event with Captain Tammie Jo Shults was very inspiring, to listen to the audio of the ATC recordings. And I am inspired by the women around me in the industry,. I recently went to a lunch with a bunch of female pilots, and this was a wonderful experience. I met a retired female captain who was the first female pilot in her company. For me as quite a newbie in the industry, this was very special. I also had a good conversation with a highly experienced female training captain. She complimented me on my use of social media as a female pilot, and even urged me to continue: coming from a strong woman who earned her stripes, this meant a lot to me. It boosted my wish to continue to be visible for the new generation of pilots. It was very humbling to meet a group of such inspiring individuals.

Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?

EM: The distance between dream and reality is called discipline. I think you can accomplish a whole lot through hard work and perseverance. Often people see the end result, for example, a girl flying the Boeing 747, and might think you are “lucky,” but they should realize it is mostly setting a goal for yourself and then plain hard work. Other areas of your life might sacrifice a bit, and so be it. I missed out on social life for some periods of time, and a life of moving around makes it hard to build some stability, but for me, it was all worth it.

You seem to always be learning new skills and hungry for new experiences. What future life goals do you have for the next 5 years?  Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc. 

EM: Careerwise, I want to become very proficient in the long haul Boeing 747 freighter flying in my current job. I really look forward to all new airports and regions I will be flying to. I want to develop myself as a pilot further, and pick up different courses in aerospace engineering. I am also drawn to the idea of helicopter, float plane and aerobatic flying. One day I would love to be a training captain, but this is a much more longterm goal than in the next 5 years.

Travels,  I want to travel a lot with my boyfriend, now that we live in Hong Kong, Asia is calling to be explored. I picked up surfing and hope to get more advanced in that. I also want that my parents get to enjoy traveling outside of Europe, I want to thank them for all their mental support by supporting them in their travels.

Other goals, I want to continue writing articles to inspire and inform people interested in aviation. Not only do I want to write about my own experiences, but I also want to write about people in aviation who I think are inspiring, and share their stories.

I also want and I will write and publish a children’s book. I look forward to this a lot, my one-year-old nephew inspires me in this project, as do the e-mails I get from parents who follow my pilot journey with their children. Perhaps I get the chance to speak at career days or schools at some point, I would love this as well.

Any advise for women wanting to follow in your shoes?

EM: Go for it! Inform yourself well, do your research, know what you get yourself into, and if you feel this is for you, then it probably is, and I wish you best of luck working towards a pilot career.

Haha cleaned up my @gopro. I think this shot deserves the tag #happypilot ?

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