Meet Susan Boyne: Commercial Pilot

Meet Susan Boyne

Susan Boyne is a pilot for United Airlines with 25+ years of flying experience. Boyne graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and currently flies the Boeing 787. She mainly pilots international flights and visits major cities such as Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Rome.

Interview With Susan Boyne

Susan Boyne is a pilot for United Airlines with 25+ years of flying experience. Boyne graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and currently flies the Boeing 787. She mainly pilots international flights and visits major cities such as Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Rome.

Did you always want to go into STEM as a child? 

I always knew I wanted to be a pilot ever since I was a little girl. I went through other stages, of course. There were times when I wanted to be an actress or President of the United States. But, the one thing that stayed consistent was that I’ve always wanted to fly airplanes. It was something I had always dreamed about. I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and Burke Lakefront Airport used to have the most amazing Air Show. My mother is from Alabama, and she’d take me  to the Dayton Air Force Museum and also NASA at Redstone Arsenal. Aviation was just something that never went away. 

In the B757 cockpit

Where did you go to college, and how well did those experiences prepare you to become a pilot?

My father flew a lot for work because he worked for a Swiss company. He’d always stop the pilots of his flight and say, “My daughter wants to be a pilot; where do you recommend that she goes to school?” Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida was one of the schools that always came up, so I chose to go there. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science and a minor in Flight Safety, which was sort of an Aircraft Accident Investigation minor.

When I graduated high school in 1987, being a military pilot wasn’t an option for me because I wear glasses. Back then, it was extremely difficult to get a military waiver to be a pilot. I always knew I wanted to fly commercially, so I didn’t do the military route. Because nobody in my family flew, Embry-Riddle was a great experience for me because it really introduced me to aviation and increased my love for it.

What are the degrees and training required to become an airline pilot?

You do need a bachelor’s degree to get if you want to go the commercial route, which is what I wanted to do. You can get a degree in anything, and there are many different ways to become a pilot. I wanted to study aviation, so I was able to do that at Embry-Riddle. There’s also flight schools, like ATP Flight School, where you’re able to get all your ratings within six months to a year. 

The important thing is that you need to build your flight experience, and you want to get paid for doing it. When I graduated college, I was a flight instructor and worked for an FBO that, fortunately, also had a 135 charter. I taught people how to fly and was able to build my flight experience time. Because we flew 135 charter, we also had multi-engine airplanes. We had a jet, a Citation II, a Conquest II (a turboprop), and a Beechcraft Baron (a light twin, multi-engine airplane).

I got hired with Continental Express. I flew a Beechcraft 1900 (a turboprop) and then was upgraded to Captain on the Embraer 145 (a small turbo jet) in 4 months. I then went to Continental Airlines, which then merged with United, so now I’m with United Airlines.

United just started a program called “United Aviate”. If you have your college degree, you can go to the United Aviate Academy, get all your ratings, and eventually work for United Airlines. 

How would you describe the work-life balance as an airline pilot?

The airline industry is based on seniority. I’ve been there for 25 years (fairly senior), so I’m able to hold a great schedule. Another way to have more time off is to drop your trips down. But, you won’t make as much money that way since you get paid what you fly.

This week, I just came back from Frankfurt, Germany. Later this evening, I fly to Denver, Colorado, where our training center is. Every nine months, I have to go get requalified in the simulator, where they give us a bunch of emergencies and things that you should never see on the line but you get to see in the simulator.

I work approximately 10 to 12 days out of the month with 18 to 21 days off. What’s nice about my job is that when I’m home, I’m home. When I’m on vacation, I’m on vacation. Unlike my husband who has to answer emails on vacation as an attorney, I don’t have to answer anything.

What does a typical flying day look like for you?

For international flights, we’re supposed to show up an hour and a half before departure so that we can flight plan. I hate being late, so I always show up two hours prior. We meet as a crew and discuss the flight plan, the weather, the fuel, and our route that we’re going to fly. We look at where turbulence has been reported so we can try to find a smooth ride for our flight attendants and for our passengers.

Then, we get into the aircraft and do our pre-flight check. Once all the passengers and bags are loaded, we push back and taxi out for takeoff. Most pilots tend to hand-flight up to altitude; we don’t just leave it on autopilot like the general public thinks we do.

Because I’m flying internationally, there are three pilots. During our crew break, I actually do sleep in the bunk room on the airplane. When we come in for landing, we brief the type of approach and arrival that we’re doing. We come in for landing, clear customs, and go to our hotel room.

In Europe, you tend to land in the morning. Depending on the time of day, I’ll sleep for 3 to 4 hours, but no more than 4 because you won’t sleep at night otherwise. Depending on the weather and if I’ve been to the city before, I’ll either workout or go sightseeing. I then meet the crew for an early dinner, and we’re usually back in a room by 9 or 10 pm to get a good night’s sleep before flying back to the states the next day.

What has been your favorite layover while flying so far?

In the spring, I was fortunate enough to have a five day layover in Rome. The other pilots and I took the high speed train down in Naples, and we went to Pompeii. Because of the pandemic, they had just reopened. We were all of 12 people in Pompeii, which was amazing because normally it’s always crowded with tourists. We also hiked Mount Vesuvius. When we got back to Rome the next day, we did a cooking class. I learned to make homemade pasta and tiramisu. That was definitely one of my favorite trips.

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of being a pilot?

Even after all this time, I still love my job. I still love flying airplanes. My favorite part is takeoff and landing. When I’d fly the 737, we had what’s called the River Visual 19 into the Washington Reagan Airport. That was always a challenging and fun arrival to do.

I’ve always been fascinated by flying. I still think it’s a miracle that we’re flying up in the sky. I still get a thrill when I break on top of the clouds. Next to my family, I think it’s the most beautiful sight in the world.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?

I would say managing sleep. I’ll fly to Tokyo, and I’ll be there for 48 hours. A few days later, I fly to Milan, which is on the other side of the world. Managing my rest schedule, especially with international travel, has been the most challenging aspect. As I get older, what I could tolerate in my 20s is definitely different than what I can tolerate in my 50s. So, I’m very protective of my sleep.

Aside from the technical skills, what skills would you say are important for being a pilot?

Perseverance is important because when you first start learning to fly, everybody will hit a plateau where maybe one maneuver is challenging or you’re not getting how to enter a hold when you’re on instrument flying. But, if you just stick with it and persevere, it will all come together. 

Don’t give up on it either because I think some people might be dissuaded because they see airlines furloughing pilots or another hiring pilots on the news. That’s not any different than any major corporation merging with another corporation and laying people off. If it’s something you really want to do, then it’s worth it. You spend most of your time at work, so you should really, honestly love what you do.

Are there obstacles to being a female pilot in a predominantly male field?

Some of my friends are in their 60s. When they first were getting hired at the major airlines, they would be married, but they would lie and say they weren’t married because they were afraid that the airline wouldn’t want to hire them because the airline was afraid that they would go on the “mommy track” and not stick with it. 

My peer group was the first to really start having children and making it work. I think it’s much easier for the young women coming behind me.

What would you say to a middle school or high school student who is interested in becoming a pilot?

If you’re interested in becoming a pilot, go to your local airport and do what’s called a “discovery flight” at a flight school. It’s a 30 minute flight with the flight instructor and just gives you a taste to see if you really like it and want to pursue it.

Then, there is a magazine called Aircraft Owner Pilot Association (AOPA). If you go to their website, they have a resource called “Learn to Fly”. It’s a good source of information on where to start and the different paths you can take. Some people go to college, get their degree in education, and then do the Air National Guard. Other people do ROTC, do the academies, or go to schools like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Ohio State University, University of North Dakota, Kent State University, and Purdue University and many more schools all have aviation programs. 

There’s all different sorts of routes. I’ve flown with pilots who had a career change in their mid 30s. They decided they weren’t happy with what they were doing, went to a flight school, got all their ratings earned, built up their time, and are now working for major airlines. 

In high school, you take aptitude tests to help you figure out if you might be better geared in a career towards liberal arts or things like that. At school, I did band, theater, and choir. Even though I took AP Physics and AP Calculus, those tests showed that I should pursue a career in liberal arts. At the time (this was 1987), my guidance counselor told me I shouldn’t be a pilot because the test shows that I should do liberal arts. I came home very upset. My father marched in there and said, “My daughter can be anything she wants to be, so how dare you discourage her.”

So, don’t let those tests define what you want to become or who you are. I think the tests are worth taking only to help you spark an interest in maybe something you haven’t thought of before.

What was your inspiration behind starting “30 WEST”, the United Airlines female book club?

The inspiration was I’ve always wanted to be part of a book club. But, with my schedule, it’s been hard to commit. With the pandemic, we are all more restricted: during some of our international layovers like in Australia or Tel Aviv, Israel, you’re not allowed to leave your hotel room.

We have a United Airlines female Facebook page, so I reached out and invited people who wanted to join a book club. We have about 25 to 30 people in the club, but depending on everybody’s flight schedule, we have anywhere from 4 to 10 people once a month on the Zoom call. I send out a survey and we vote on what book we want to read. It’s just a nice way of building up camaraderie and feeling together. 

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