"There is another approach, which is equally as powerful.” - Katrine Friis Olsen
Merging the professional with the private and embracing Feminine Leadership
Katrine Friis Olsen | First Officer Pilot, Cathay Pacific Airways
Katrine Friis Olsen grew up in Denmark, now living in Hong Kong, she is a First Officer for Cathay Pacific Airways at age 29. A friend and fellow tea lover, Katrine talked with me about her experience as a young female in flight school, having a Zen mindset, feminine leadership and her well-being in and out of the cockpit.
Tell me a little bit about where you are right now in your life and in your work.
Right now I’m working as a Pilot for Cathay Pacific Airways and have the qualification of First Officer. In terms of being a junior vs. senior [First Officer], I’m quite comfortably in the middle. Most people would tell from looking at the stripes; the more you have, the more senior you are. The Captain has four - I’m the one with three. Being a First Officer is a very wide segment though, since it takes many years to become a Captain. I’ve been at Cathay for six years - the first three I spent as a Second Officer, basically learning from my more senior colleagues. I was only 23 when I started, a baby. Most of my Danish friends were not even close to finishing university, so for me to have a regular pay-check and fill a full time job, was like being thrown into a stage of life that I first thought would come much later.
Did you go to university?
I didn’t, actually. I thought I was going to study Nanotechnology Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark - my parents thought so too. But while I took a gap year after high school to go out and see the world, I met a Pilot (I went sailing in the Pacific for four months, which was probably the most amazing four months of my life and a bit of a story in itself). So much to my parents’ concern, I came back and said I wanted to become a Pilot.
"Much to my parents concern, I came back and said that I wanted to become a Pilot.”
What was it about the Pilot role or life that appealed to you when you were 18? What was it that stirred your ambition?
It was really a lightbulb feeling. We had this amazing retired SAS Pilot on board, who would often entertain us with stories from his colourful career. At first I was drawn to the stories, but later I realised that being a pilot was really the perfect combination of what I treasure most in life. Even though I was a mathematical high school student, I didn’t want to be confined to a lab. I wanted to see the world, to stay curious, see different cultures, different ways of life, I wanted to explore. Flying really gave me the opportunity to do both [study science and see the world]. It’s equally a very technical and practical job.
So you didn’t pursue university, but went into flight school?
Yeah, when I came back from sailing I started looking for flying schools, but realised that I needed either rich parents or a wealthy uncle in America to finance me [laughs]. Which was not going to happen, I’m from a very normal middle class family in Denmark. Learning to fly is very expensive, it’s difficult if you don’t have the means and probably one of the only careers in Denmark, [where education is mostly free] that you have to self-finance with no guarantee of a job. And it’s very hard to get a job afterwards, hence many people think it’s too risky to pursue really, and that’s very much what my parents thought as well. Luckily my Pilot friend ended up talking to one of his friends, a Captain at Cathay, and he told me they were taking cadets and educating them from scratch. He said, “It’s not easy to get in, but if you’re keen, you can send an application and try your best.” And I thought, I might as well try, before I go and pay out of my own pocket for a Private Pilot Licence in America, which was the cheapest and most affordable place at the time. So I submitted an application [to Cathay] and went off travelling in Asia in the meantime - I figured, I might as well see more of the world while I can. Fast forward half a year and several trips around South East Asia, I found myself with an interview invitation.
How old were you then?
I was 22 at the time of my first interview, that was my second visit to Hong Kong. Then two months later I got invited for the second interview. I think I went through six tests in two days, various things from psychological to mathematical, group tests and physical tests, the whole shebang. And one month later again they sent me to flight school in Adelaide to check if I could fly. That was only the second time I was ever up in a solo aircraft [laughs]. The first time I’d gone up just to make sure that I wasn’t scared of flying.
That was only the second time I was ever up in a solo aircraft - the first time I’d gone up just to make sure that I wasn’t scared of flying.”
How was it when all your friends were studying at university and you were learning how to fly in Australia?
It was a very tough fourteen months, probably the toughest I’ve ever had in my life. I had never been away from my family for such a long time. Yes, I’d travelled around the Pacific Ocean and had fun out there, but that was still only four months and in a very different space. This was lots of training, lots of challenges. I was the least experienced of my entire course. Many of the others had private licences, came from military background etc. I came with my blank face and zero hours in my log book. I had thought nothing of it before, that’s what I thought they were recruiting me for. I didn’t know who my peers were before I went to the flying school.
So actually even starting out you were unconventional…!
Absolutely, and I realised that on the first day when people were comparing flying experiences, I had zero on me. First I thought “great!”, cool I could get in with zero. But then the flying started and I realised I had so much to catch up on, that was intimidating. And adding to that, English is my second language. I had capable English but it was not super conversational or technical at all. I had read some Danish flying books but that didn’t prove very helpful in terms of terminology. My first month at the flying school, I remember coming home every day and shutting myself in. I was very a-social and had headaches from studying so much, my capacity for doing anything else in English was zero.
Back then, Pilots were not really associated with women, it’s historically been a very masculine career path. What was it like, in your experience, being 22, female and in flight school?
There was one other woman in my course, who also happened to be the most experienced, and the oldest. So we were literally encapsulating the whole course on either end. We were ten in total, half of them ex-military guys and traditionally ‘masculine’, so they came with twenty-something male hormones raging, straight from military school. It was very interesting because in Denmark we have virtually zero gender differences. I know I’m a woman, but I never saw that as anything else other than a physical feature. It was almost like I became aware of being a woman at flight school.
You would think that on paper the one other woman and I should have stuck together like glue and worked together as females. But actually the opposite happened, we didn’t like each other! You’ll be happy to know she is one of my best friends now. I think it was the struggle that we both had gone through in different ways, because she certainly didn’t have an easy time either.
I feel that there’s an expectation in those environments that the minority should stick together or immediately get along because there’s a commonality, when actually there’s a resistance to that because you want to be your own person, you want to be seen for who you are and not just your gender, or whatever makes you ‘different’ to the majority.
Yeah, people don’t want to stick out. We have a word for that in Danish, janteloven.
It basically means don’t poke your head out, don’t think that you can do more than anyone else, just keep your head low, do whatever everyone else is doing. I think it’s a very Danish thing. It’s great in many ways, because it does create coherency and community within the population. Of all places, Denmark is a very coherent country in that there’s very few rich people and very few poor people, we’re very balanced in terms of money and gender. But it also challenges those people who have great ideas and other ways of doing things that would like the freedom to do so. The way I’m living my life is kind of poking out in a lot of ways. I certainly don’t speak much about my flying back in Denmark, but I also don’t do that in Hong Kong.
What is day to day life like now as a First Officer?
Well, it’s really just flying planes. Most of the time it’s very easy. If you’ve had a boring day, that’s a good thing. It means nothing happened, that the autopilot did most of the job, that you parked the plane in one piece and went home, that’s it. That’s how it is 99% of the time. And most of the time when things are not like that, it’s usually due to the passengers, which leads me to one of the most interesting thing that I’ve come to realise doing this job; that the best pilots are the ones with the best people skills.
“The best pilots are the ones with the best people skills.”
Most people can learn how to fly with enough training, not all people are cut to be great colleagues, communicators, cooperators and leaders. You deal with so many people, the cabin crew, the air traffic controllers, ground staff, engineers, catering. It takes literally a village to get the plane off the ground, and most people don’t know that there’s so many people who need to be kept in the loop. A breakdown in communication, a change of procedure or departure time can suddenly lead to a lot of issues for all of us. You really have to be good at taking a step back and think things through, but you also need to be able to get things going. It’s this dual capacity to see the whole picture as well as the details, to recognise where and how to fix the issue.
I always say that working as a commercial pilot is like taking a psychology degree for free. You work with so many different personalities. And I’m working in a company where you have almost the entire world’s nationalities working, so you have to be very quick at sensing what kind of person you are flying with today. That can be very different from yesterday or tomorrow. Our procedures and manuals are the same of course, but sometimes the way to obtain the outcome and exercise your authority can be very different. It sounds a bit woo woo, but it’s actually just situational and social awareness.
I just read a quote about Zen the other day, which spoke about Zen in relation to spirituality and mindfulness, that “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes, Zen is just to peel the potatoes”. Flying is quite a lot like that. It’s not thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner or the argument you had with your boyfriend before you left home this morning, it’s just about flying, and being exactly in the moment. You deal with stuff and have a life outside of flying like everyone else, but you kind of have to erase that when you’re flying. When you’re up in the air and you’ve got the autopilot engaged, it’s fine, then you can start wondering again whether that argument with your boyfriend was worth having [laughs], but you certainly don’t want to think about it while you’re rotating the aircraft off the runway. It’s a great skill to adopt as a pilot, to have this sort of Zen mind where you kind of switch into just doing what you’re doing and letting the rest disappear into the background.
This leads me to my next question, given how much presence you need to bring to your work and your awareness of how your mind operates at work, what do you do to take care of your mind, body and soul ?
My self care has become extremely elaborate over the years, it’s kind of ventured into every corner of my life. I’ve found yoga to be the most beneficial form of exercise for my flying duties, it really helps my sore back after flying, works all the muscles and improves my flexibility. My food choices have also become very important to me, I can just feel that if I eat proper food that doesn’t come out of a package, that doesn’t have more than a handful of ingredients, real, organic food, it makes such a huge difference. I feel more and more that I have a responsibility to take care of the planet and since flying a plane is not taking much care considering the amount of fuel I burn on a weekly basis, I aim to give that back in other ways. But also my body is being exposed to a lot; the plane’s electric fields, cosmic radiation, plastics etc. Some people even say; “sitting is the new smoking”, and I certainly sit a lot. So moving my body and eating organic is at least two things I do have control over, trying not to exposing my body to more than it needs from the outside.
“To fully embrace being a woman has had some powerful qualities and been a surprisingly important tool for me...”
From a mind perspective, this is something that came much later than the physical, and from a very unlikely place, being Women's Temple HK* [where Katrine and I met, training to facilitate women’s groups]. To have a space with other women was really a kind of homecoming and very fulfilling. I had sort of realised womanhood through flying because of the very stark male contrast in my work life and flying training. But I didn’t really have a space to explore what that meant, or to embrace it. Meeting and practicing together as women from all different backgrounds and careers at Women’s Temple gave me that space on a psychological level. To fully embrace being a woman has had some powerful qualities and been a surprisingly important tool for me in my flying job.
I love how a practice for you like Women’s Temple, which is probably seen as unconventional with some of the things we talk discuss and practice, has brought such a benefit to an environment like flying…
Absolutely! With problems, I find men often wants to go and deal with them straight away. Actually most things don’t necessarily require immediate action, but a lot of things are made a lot worse by making the wrong decision. If you “sit on your hands" for a second or two you can better clear your head and observe what’s happening, and then when you have fully absorbed what’s going on, you can make a plan and execute it. That means you’re likely going to do it right the first time, you’re going to do it the intentional way. This is one of those qualities I’ve found women to be very good at. Women are very good at this motherly kind of attention and intentional leadership. I’ve flown with several female Captains and some of them even have this sort of motherly quality in the cockpit, you really feel like you’re sitting with the mother of the plane. I think this soft but powerful presence adds a really important dimension to our traditional masculine leadership.
Being present with other women hasn't really been nurtured or cultivated in my life or training as a pilot. I was surrounded by so many men, which lead to an often times more outwardly, not necessarily aggressive, but more forceful way of leading. You kind of end up mimicking the guys, which did not feel great, because it’s not who I am. I’ve now found there is another approach, which is equally as powerful. I feel more and more that I’m stepping into being fully me in the cockpit, without compromising authority, my professional image and the way I work.
“What you do, the person you are and what you cultivate in your private life, seeps into your work life.”
It sounds like this practice of connecting with your feminine has really served you in terms of your impact at work and your self-care?
All of these things are ultimately bringing my work and private life much closer in a way that is actually very nice. Like the way I treat myself at home, the way I work, the way I am on layovers and with my colleagues is more and more unchanged, more and more me. And this has been such a beautiful process over the last three years. All of these rather unconventional things that I do in my private life have been remarkably impactful on my work, but if you had told me that three or four years ago, I’d probably shaken my head, it all seems so unrelated. But what you do, the person you are and what you cultivate in your private life seeps into your work life in a way and to an extent, most people are probably quite unaware of. You really do bring the choices that you make in your private life into your workplace.
What are you ambitious about?
I used to think that ambitiousness was about climbing the ladder and getting to the grandest, best and most interesting position I could get. Where now, it’s a more internal ambition, it’s more about becoming the best Captain I can be, the best leader and colleague I can be. It sounds somewhat simple. But I have seen so many ways of leading, when you start having that awareness and that ambition, you start cherry picking things from all these great people around you. So hopefully years down the line when it’s my turn [to be a Captain], these things will become the way I work, how I lead as a female Captain.
When I go to work, maintaining the big picture and having everyone working in synchronicity is like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle. Some days you get it right, and when you do, it’s like watching a well-tuned orchestra play, everything just falls into place, the rhythm is smooth, the tones flowing effortlessly, and just like that all doors are closed and you’re ready to go.
That’s how beautiful great leadership and flying can be.
*In between her busy flying schedule, Katrine continues to facilitate the beautiful practice of Women’s Temple with a small group of other female facilitators specifically trained to hold space for women to reconnect with themselves, their femininity and with other women. For more information about Women’s Temple Hong Kong, visit here.