Spirit of Challenge

A 4-part series about Captain Hanadi Al-Hindi, Saudi Arabia’s first female pilot.

Part 1: Looking for Value
“My voice was so little, nobody heard it. I started screaming.”

Transcript for Part 1: Looking for Value

Part 2: First Female Saudi Pilot
“Oh my God, what trouble did I put myself in?”

Transcript for Part 2: First Female Saudi Pilot

Part 3: Beyond My Dream
“I trust you. Just do what you learned.”

Transcript for Part 3: Beyond My Dream

Part 4: Spirit of Challenge
“Now we have a voice, we can talk, and we can say it, loud and clear.”

Transcript for Part 4: Spirit of Challenge

Hold a Conversation

Can you imagine leading a conversation about this story? Where? With whom? What kinds of questions would you pose? (See How to use the questions for reflection for one approach.) Please email your questions to us or post them in the comment box for our consideration. If you use them in an actual discussion, let us know how the conversation went.

Looking for Value

“My voice was so little, nobody heard it. I started screaming.”

I was born and grew up in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. I think everyone knows Mecca is like the holy city for Muslim people, where we have the holy mosque. It’s crowded all around the year, because we have people come from all around the country, the world, to visit the holy mosque. This is make us, like the people in Mecca, more open and more exposed to others because used to communicate, to have a lot of people from different countries and different cultures all the time. This is kind of the most privilege that Mecca people have, to have connection with another people.

I was in the middle school; I was so quiet. It didn’t give me this value in the classroom amongst all the girls because the more you’re active, the more you’re outgoing with the teacher, you get better grades, you get better treatment from teachers. I was so quiet – so smart – but I was so quiet. So that is, okay, you pass your exams, you have high grades, but you don’t have value. The teacher doesn’t remember your name.

I started talking so much, very loud. My voice was so little, nobody hear it. I started screaming until now. My voice is just like, go to higher volume.

When I was in high school, they started asking us – the teacher: “What do you want to do, what do you want to be, after university?” I don’t know if you know her name, Miss Hanan Ashrawi. She’s a Palestinian politician. She was very famous at that time. She was on all over TVs and she acted like men.

I used to look at her, just like, I want to be like her, very strong, very powerful. Like men. I was like, “I want to be like Miss Hanan Ashrawi.” She’s like, “Why?” Like, “Because she’s a female, working with male, and she doesn’t have a problem. And she’s able to do it.” She’s like, “You’re not allowed to do this in this country.”

Then I went to my dad, ‘Dad, I want to do something different. I want to work with men, competing with men.” I don’t like competing with women, actually, especially in my country.

We grew up knowing that men have the most authority; they have the rights of everything. I didn’t like that. I love my father. I love my brothers. I love my uncles. I don’t have a problem with men. But why they are like they look at them as stronger than women? They’re not. We’re equal.

I said to my dad, “I want to compete with men. I don’t want to compete with women.” He said, “Why?” Just like, “I just want to do this. Do you think I’m able to do it?” He’s like, “Um, I don’t know, just leave it like this. You don’t need to talk about this in front of everyone.” And he left me about four years without even discussing these things. And suddenly he just like, he came to me, said, “What do you think if you become a pilot? This is, would be, really competing with men.” I said, “Okay, why not? I love traveling, I don’t have a problem to do it.” He’s just like, “Are you able to do that? You will be with men all the time.” Just like, “I don’t have a problem with men. I will be with them. I will succeed, I’m sure.”

First Female Saudi Pilot

“Oh my God, what trouble did I put myself in?”

I am the first female Saudi pilot, officially.

To be a pilot you just have to have high school certificate. Then you apply in an academy or aviation college to get a license, which is commercial. There is like many different license: private pilot’s license, then commercial and instrument which allow you to work and get paid for what you’re doing as a job. And that processing there is like a theory section. You have to pass it before doing the practicum training. That would take… the average is about 1 year and… 18 months to do everything.

The first thing I had to do that to get a permission from the government to do it, but they said, like, “We cannot say no, but we cannot say yes as well. Because we cannot guarantee a job for her. She’s doing it, and we cannot give her a scholarship for sure, because she’s a pilot, and we do not support this. If you want,” they said to my dad, “If you want, you pay everything for her. We’re not getting involved.”

At that time, we don’t have academy for pilot training for Saudi Arabia. Even if we do have, they would not let me in because I’m a female, because it’s only for men. So I had to go to Jordan to do my training; I couldn’t do it in Saudi Arabia anyhow.

In Jordan, they were so very, very supporting. I cannot forget how they were cooperating with me as a female from Saudi Arabia, from the first day I arrived to school. They used to have even female instructors. This is the first thing convinced me that I can do it, because they have female instructors.

When I applied first, at the academy in Jordan, I didn’t know that I was the first. Then the manager and the instructors in the school, they told me, “You are the first, because there’s no other female pilot did in Saudi Arabia registered in any other countries. Maybe they had a private pilot’s license, they do it for fun, but there is no female pilot to have a commercial license. So you will be the first.” I was like, “Okay, this is like, exciting, I want to do it.”

I have to say, I have to admit, I wanted the title so badly. I want to do it. I want to get the title. To be the first is something different. But afterwards, I was like, “Oh my God, what trouble I put myself in?” It’s a huge responsibility. It’s like no way to give up at any point, because if I was to give up at some point, no other female in Saudi Arabia would be a pilot ever.

Because especially when the media started to have the press saying, “There is a female pilot in Saudi Arabia. And she’s the first, and she broke all the rules. She’s challenging her society.” I don’t want to be in trouble with my country, but I’m doing it for myself. I’m not asking for something in my country.

At the first, I wanted just to get a license, picture with my uniform, and give it to my dad, put it in his office saying to people that my daughter know how to fly. This is the only thing at the beginning. And then, when I started actually training, and I knew I was the first female pilot, I said to my dad, “Dad, I want this as my career. This is my job, forever. I want to work as a commercial pilot. Would you let me do that?” He’s like, “I was dreaming to see you a commercial pilot. But I don’t want to put this load on you. But if you want to do it, I’m behind you.”

The journey started from then that I had to finish. I have to succeed. I have to prove to the country that I’m able to do what a man can do.

Beyond My Dream

“I trust you. Just do what you learned.”

I was so amazed to the response by the Saudi press, how they took it. The day, all Saudi newspapers, they just announced there was the first Saudi female pilot. It was so positive. I was surprised, really. I didn’t expect that.

Already the media helped me so much in Saudi Arabia to get me known by the government, by the royal family, that there is a female pilot. And they was announcing and saying I needed support, I need to be supported in the country because I’m doing it for my country.

In 2004, I had the big support from one of the royal family in the country. His name is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. He’s a big name for a royal family member who is really supporting women in Saudi Arabia very much. Then he gave me a job in his company, which is like a private pilot in a VIP company. Just be his pilot for his family. So that was like, “Oh, my God, this is a big thing.”

He hired me in 2004. I graduated from Jordan, I get back to my country. They refused my license in the beginning because I’m a female. And then I had to do more training in England, more training in America, to get the FAA license. It took about 9 years to approve me as a pilot, to give me the Saudi license.

I had a big doubt in my mind that the Prince would never fly with me. How would he believe and trust women to fly him? I wasn’t the only one who was flying. I was first officer, so I had my captain and he was a man. Still, I’m the first officer; I have a lot of responsibility to do many things. And then, the Prince, when he came up to the plane, he said, “Oh, I’m going to fly with you now.” He’s so friendly and he’s so normal. He’s like, “I’m going to fly with you, finally.” “Okay, are you sure you want to fly with me? If you want to change your mind, I don’t have a problem.” He’s like, “I trust you. Just do what you learned.” Okay.

I couldn’t be emotional at that time. I couldn’t cry. Because I’m so emotional; I couldn’t cry. I had to be strong. I had to take him. The airplane wasn’t that big. It’s a jet, but it’s for eight passengers. And he was in the front. Our cockpit doesn’t have a door, so it’s not closed. I could hear him, and he said, like, “Okay, Hanadi, go, go, go, go!” when we did the first takeoff.

When I landed, I did the landing. It was manual, obviously. So I did the landing and he started applauding. And he asked the people to applaud for me. Ah! At that time I had to be emotional; I had to cry. This is just like – it goes beyond my dream, very much.

I got permission from him to flew with my parents, just like to take them for a tour. My mom was kind of afraid. Even when I was doing the training, she was like, “Ah, I don’t want to put any pressure on you, that’s why I don’t want to fly with you,” when I was doing the training. I was just like, “Mom, I have the license now, I’m approved by the government in Saudi Arabia, you have to fly with me. You have to believe in me. We’re not going to die.” So just like, “You have to come.”

She was crying when she saw me in my uniform. And I took them on the plane. Just like, “Okay, have your seatbelt, you’ll be fine.”

My dad, when we landed, he said, “I don’t – I wouldn’t dream anymore. This is what I dreamt of, and that’s it. It goes much, much beyond. I wouldn’t be able to sleep and dream about you flying again.” Just like, “That’s it.”

This is the most important days of ever, in my career. I would never forget it. Never.

Spirit of Challenge

“Now we have a voice, we can talk, and we can say it, loud and clear.”

My parents give me the confidence in myself. Even before doing, being a pilot, my parents, when we used to travel in the summer and we had our summer trip, my dad used to give me the authority to lead them. Just like, to put this inside me, just like: you’re a leader, you’re a leader. This positive energy being strong and leading others.

I think my power, the power I got, I got it from the people I love, from my family, from my brother, from my nieces, nephew. I couldn’t be weak in front of them at all. Sometime I am, I do it, I cry a lot. Most of the time I try not to show it that much because I want to give them this energy of being strong, and being fighter, and do whatever, be a successful people in the society.

It took me so much time to prove myself. Ages. I sacrificed a lot of things in my life just to prove that I’m capable.

This is the… most costly thing I had to pay to be in this position in my journey. I had to pay it. I had to pay this. Not to have a family, not to have a normal life. I knew it in the beginning. I want it. But when you get older, things is changing in your mind, just like, “Okay now time is to have children, now time is to have fully established in your social or emotional life.” And that is what is missing right now.

When I first started they told me, like, “You will never find a Saudi man who will accept your situation or accept your work.” I said, like, “No, I will find one day. I’m not going to give up on this. I will find a Saudi man who accepting my situation and he will supporting. He will be supportive.”

My last training was with a female instructor. She’s a pilot; she’s a captain in Delta Airlines. She’s a female and she has a family, she has daughters, and her life was normal! She’s instructing and she flies normally. She doesn’t have to worry about being a female at all!

Sooner or later, the women has to get their right to do whatever they’re able to do, if they want. I’m not asking her to go outside and work, and get involved in other things, rather than what she’s doing, because it’s her choice to be with the house, with her children, her husband, at house. But I’m saying for the women who wants to do something in their life, like do work, or vocation or something. Why? What’s the reason why we’re not allowed to? Because we’re women, like any other women around the world? We don’t have disability. But the opposite! We have this spirit of challenging, because we’re kind of forced for a period of time not to doing many things. Now we have this spirit of “we have to do it, we have to prove that we’re able to do it.” This is, I could see it for at many Saudi female, that we cannot be abandoned for the rest of our life, we have to do something. And now we have a voice, we can talk, and we can say it, loud and clear.

I’m so loyal to Saudi Arabia, very much. A lot of things in my mind, I’m like, I want to do it for Saudi Arabia, because I love this country, it’s my country. This is where I was born, where I was raised. So when I hear some girl saying, “Thank you very much, you inspired me that everything is possible. It’s not about only being a pilot, but you’ve done something, it was not permitted to do in the country, but you did it.” So this is what makes you feel like: Okay, I’m able to do more and fight more.

This is the most important days of ever, in my career. I would never forget it. Never.