Flying with JAL's female pilot - Ms Aki Mitsui

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke with Ms. Aki Mitsui, one of Japan Airlines’ female pilots. Aki is encouraging a new generation of women that it is possible to achieve their career goals, even in traditionally male-dominated roles. This is her story of growth, learning and transformation. We hope it will inspire you!

Name:  Aki Mitsui

Company: Japan Airlines 

Profession: Boeing 737 Pilot

Becoming a pilot

What inspired you to become a pilot?

I knew there weren’t many female pilots, so becoming a pilot was not on my initial list of possible careers. But when I heard from a friend who worked at JAL that they’d started hiring women for an in-house training pilot course, I realized for the first time that this was my chance.


Female pilots are still a minority in the aviation industry. What difficulties did you face -  and how did you overcome them?

The most challenging time for me was during my training in the U.S. When I arrived, I realized that all my female colleagues had already returned to Japan. So it was just me. All my classmates were male. They all shared rooms, but because I was alone, I had to do everything on my own. Getting used to living in the U.S and getting things sorted out on my own was lonelier and more difficult than the training itself!

Ultimately, it was the love and support from my friends that kept me going. Prior to my U.S training, I’d been working at Narita Airport for about six years. On my last day at Narita, everyone I’d interacted with during my time there all came to say “good luck.” Whenever I looked back on that day when everyone rallied round to support me, I always thought: “I can’t give up!” I knew I had to do my best.


Who are the women that inspired you most on your journey to becoming a pilot?

There are several female pilots who have preceded me. That first wave of women pilots also went through everything I’ve experienced and trained for. The difference is that they didn`t have the strong support I had. In the early days, when they had problems, they had to try to solve them on their own and be creative.

Now they share those experiences with us. When I talk to them, what strikes me is that they all have a very strong core, while still being very cheerful and open-minded. I think that’s really amazing. There are also women who have given birth and are raising their children while training to become a Captain. We also have female Captains who are instructors. So there are many different paths women can take at JAL. I'm hoping that I can continue that tradition and help forge some additional paths for my younger colleagues as well.


Are there any advantages to being a female pilot? 

When it comes to working as a pilot, I don't think gender matters. Some people are better at communication than others, and it’s not a matter of gender. But generally, I feel that women tend to be more cheerful and smile more when they speak. Some men, on the other hand, can be less expressive even when they are passionate. When we communicate with cabin crews and other colleagues, I feel it’s an advantage that women are able to communicate cheerfully and with a smile!


The theme of this year’s IWD is #ChooseToChallenge. You have overcome many challenges to become a female pilot. Are there any other challenges you’re looking to conquer this year or words of encouragement you’d like to share with young women?

My personal challenge is to continually improve and aim for perfection. When reflecting on your work, you can always find things you could have done a little better or differently. So I'd like to challenge myself to strive for perfection!

As for young people, they have the energy and opportunities to try new things and recover quickly from mistakes. I think the younger generations should continually challenge themselves in whatever they are interested in.


What are the unique aspects of being a JAL pilot?

Due to a rich history of merging with different airlines, JAL has a fantastic spectrum of pilots with truly diverse experiences. Even if it’s the same 737 we are flying, there are many ways to connect the dots; so many options to get to the answer.

Our mission is always a simple one; “to arrive safely at the destination”. But exactly how we do that can differ depending on the person you are flying with. It’s always greatly stimulating to learn alternative human approaches. Choosing your own path or another pilot’s: it’s two sides of the same coin. I learn a lot from listening to the ideas of different people. Having many creative ways of doing things is one of the great things about JAL.


We know that some JAL pilots also go the extra mile by handwriting message cards to welcome passengers and children too. 

Yes! Some pilots also cut and laminate pretty map charts that they no longer use to make bookmarks and set them on the counter for passengers to pick up. 

Life as a pilot

What was your most memorable flight?

The first flight that I ever operated. On that flight, I was not only joined by my childhood friend, but my “Senpai” (senior), “Kohai” (junior) and “Doki” (peer) from when I was training as ground crew in Narita all boarded the flight too. Having such close friends on board really helped hit home that I was flying a plane with people who were entrusting their lives to me.


How was the flight?

It was a flight from Tokyo to Kita-Kyushu. The weather was sunny and perfect for a first flight. So I did a round trip to Kita-Kyushu from Tokyo then went to Nagoya. One of my “Senpai” (senior) lives in Nagoya, and she arrived to board my flight first thing in the morning. She said, “If I’m going to Nagoya in the end, I will go with you all the way” and as a result, boarded all three flights on my first day!


What do you miss most about flying when you’re not in the air?

I definitely miss the view of Japan from the sky. I can see airplanes flying from my house, but I sometimes feel I haven’t seen the world from up there for a while now.

Has flying given you greater appreciation of Japan’s beauty?

Yes! I fly a 737 aircraft so I don’t go abroad too often, but Japan has all the distinct seasons. There are parts of Japan where it snows in winter, like Hokkaido, but when you travel down south to Okinawa, you can see the clear blue sea. We also have many majestic mountains. There is the famous Mount Fuji of course, but also the stunning Japanese Alps.

It’s very beautiful to see all of these sights from different angles. Not many people have a chance to enter the cockpit and view the scenery through the big window, so I feel this is a very rare and precious opportunity that we have as pilots.


As a pilot who flies constantly, do you have any relaxation tips for frequent travelers after a long flight?

For relaxation, whenever we have a layover, we always choose hotels with a bathtub. I fill the bathtub with hot water and have a long soak in it. I always carry bath salts in my travel bag and use plenty of them!


How do you spend your days off?

I go to the gym to train. When I don’t fly as much, I feel my physical strength gradually decreasing. Flying my usual schedule of 3-4 flights a day really requires physical strength, so I go to the gym to keep up my stamina.

Flying into a better tomorrow

Do you have any career milestones that you have set for yourself?

I think this is something unique to women in Japan, but I purposely try not to set milestones.

By the time I completed my pilot training, I was over thirty. Many women have life events around that time, such as getting married and having children, and it can be slightly stressful to see your own life taking a different path.

If I were to get pregnant and have a baby in the future, I think it would be good to have a certain period of time to focus on my children and family. But if that's not the case, I’m also happy to continue building my career as a crew member with my peers, so I try not to plan ahead in too much detail.


How do you refresh your knowledge and maintain your faculties when you don't have many flights?

When I fly again after a long break, I always visualize the basic, ordinary procedures that I have to go through before the flight inside my head. I imagine each step; from the dispatch briefing to walking to the spot; getting ready in how many minutes; setting up; push back; talking to the controller etc…

I think what we call “image training” is very important. When my friend took me ice skating, for example, I hadn't done it since I was a little girl. But somehow, I felt I could do it because I could visualize it in my head. Then, I was able to skate - just like that! Though if I try to visualize myself running fast, I can’t run fast! (laughs). I guess it doesn’t work for everything! The same with sports: I think you can never do what you can’t imagine or visualize yourself doing. Preparing with your mind is very important.


When you fly, I’m sure you’ve come across unexpected things?

Yes, all the time! Surprises can range from “I never expected this area to be bumpy” to finding huge cumulonimbus clouds right in the middle of our planned flight path. We often have to re-plan our direction and speed and how exactly to avoid what we come across. It happens all the time.


Most people would panic when something unexpected happens. How do you keep calm?

Panicking is the last thing you want to do! To keep calm, I always ensure I’m prepared with multiple options in mind. People who are experienced can usually come up with more options. So I think experience is very important in keeping calm.

I also try quantify the situation by having a number in mind to tell myself that I have enough time. For example, if you’re a cabin crew and only have a short service period in a domestic flight, I would calculate the number of minutes it takes to serve 100 passengers with 4 crew members. Numbers like that can be a way to reassure your mind. I’m talking as if I know everything, but I’m still in the midst of learning new things!


Do you have any advice for those aiming to join the airline industry?

If you want to work in the aviation industry, the first thing you need to do is be in good health and stay physically fit. It's a job that requires a lot of physical strength, so you need to take good care of your body!

Sleep well, eat well. Have a healthy body and also a healthy mind.

The airline industry is not in its best state at the moment, but I believe that it has and will continue to play an important role in helping people connect with each other around the world. I’m sure people will start traveling again to meet in person once this pandemic is over. So, my message to younger generations and anyone aspiring to work in aviation is: never forget your dreams, and always try to keep moving forward!

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