Turkey’s first and only female firefighter helicopter pilot Burcu Dinçer talked to UNFPA about her experiences, including how she feels about working in a male-dominated field and how she is setting a benchmark for other women.
On a warm spring day in Antalya, I met Burcu Dincer, Turkey’s first and only – at least for now – firefighter helicopter pilot. During our drive to the airport where the helicopters are being kept and maintained before the fire season, we talked about her professional journey starting from her childhood years to her adult life.
Burcu Dinçer is a very friendly and approachable person. Despite the “masculine” image of her profession, she proudly insists on her feminity. “I like to take good care of myself. I paint my nails red, then I fly to put out wildfires” she told me with a smile. She doesn’t think that she needs to be “masculine” around her all male crew to fit in.
Chasing your childhood dream
When she was a little girl, she was not into the mechanics of flying, but she was in love with the concept of flying and the planes. She said “I was into planes when we lived in Ankara near Esenboğa airport. I watched military planes take off and listened to their roaring engines, completely transfixed.” That admiration turned into a career path in her high school years, “In my high school years, I decided to become a pilot no matter. I worked systematically to reach the point where I would be able to fly a plane. To pay for learning English, I worked part time, promoted products in supermarket aisles, and did other odd jobs. Once I had saved enough money, I registered for English language courses abroad. With my family covering transportation expenses. To learn English, I had to I suspend my graduate studies in political administration. Of course after I finished learning English, I completed my university studies. Upon graduation, I signed up to a flight school. 2.5 years later, I was a certified pilot capable of flying Boeing 737-800s”
When we arrived to the airport, her crew greeted us. The tech services climbed on top of the helicopters, replacing engine parts and running diagnostic tests. Burcu looked comfortable in this setting, also the men around her. I saw that they respect her not because she is a woman but because she is their teammate who works as much and as hard as others. Burcu noted that “Those who don’t know aviation assume that a woman cannot work in this environment. It is wrongly assumed that a woman would be crushed easily under the pressure. Yes, it is true that being a firefighter pilot is very demanding physically and psychologically; and yes it is a stressful job. But don’t forget the fact that this is a team work done systematically requiring a disciplined work ethic. The job is hard, that’s true, but it is hard for men as much as for women. This profession requires mental strength more than muscle power”.
I asked Burcu what keeps her going. She replied with one word “determination”. She added “It does not matter whether you are a woman or a man. Once you decide what to do in life, if you commit yourself fully, then the success of turning your childhood dream into a reality is inevitable”.
Burcu Dincer’s recipe for success
Burcu seems to do things with ease. I asked her whether it is a challenging process to be a pilot. Her answer defies gender barriers with one powerful principle: “determination”. She added “I studied and worked very hard to get to where I am now. I remember one time, I was getting ready for an exam, I studied for one straight month without even bothering to look out of the window, I was that focused. That didn’t feel like a burden for me though, I wanted to pass the exam so I studied hard, that’s all.” I felt inclined to ask about her social life, but I think she sensed this and raised the subject before I said a word “Don’t get me wrong though, I am not anti-social either – I have friends and I enjoy their company a lot.”
It is evident that you cannot be a mediocre pilot on board. She nodded and said “Being a pilot is not something that you can fake it until you make it. You have to know everything inside and out so that you don’t put your crew in danger. Nobody in my crew cuts me any slack just because I am a woman; I need to perform my tasks perfectly during flights.”
Being the first woman in this field is risky
I asked her whether she had second thoughts about she took up her work. Her reply was “I have a great relationship with my crew. They appreciate me and I am happy to be around them. It was tough in the beginning though; I have to admit. I realize now that I took a huge risk for all women when I signed up to be a firefighter pilot. If I had failed, that would have been a big loss for all women, a disaster. Now that I proved myself, I opened the gates for other women to be able work in this field as well. Otherwise, the word would have been ‘See, a woman cannot pull this job off.’”
What are the advantages of being a woman in this field?
All the other published interviews zeroed in on how she overcame the difficulties as a woman. I wanted to use a different approach, so I asked her the advantages of being a woman in a male dominated career. She replied without hesitation “The advantage of being a female pilot is that we are much more systematic than men. I still keep my notes from my flight classes, I always go through my first flight and the things I learned from that flight in my mind. Men at times can be over-confident, and become too sure about their skills.”
She also noted the shortcomings of women in professional lives, by saying “We women, on the other hand, underestimate our capabilities, which leads to uncertainty, which in turn leads us to practicing and double or even triple checking every procedure. However, it is also a disadvantage because it may cause us to be too humble. As a result, we become timid and silent at times. We should be more vocal when it comes to sharing our success with the world. When men are proud of themselves, they are much more outspoken than us; we should do the same.”
Career advice from Burcu Dinçer
I wanted to have her career advice for young girls and boys. Her response is something all high school and college students can learn from: “I never based my career decisions on money. Instead, I decided what I want to do first. I put experience over money. I see that some prefer only to make more money, and [they] have miserable lives at the end. Although I fly in a very loud and very hot cockpit over extremely hot wildfires in a very stressful conditions, I never felt miserable, not once. I felt tired and exhausted, yes. But on the next day, after a very tiring flight, I am always ready to go. I never used a sick day, or never threw my hands up in the air and said “I am done, I cannot do this anymore” after fighting forest fires day in and day out. Why? Because I passionately enjoy what I do.”
She works in a very challenging yet supportive environment. What is important to remember is that Burcu earned that support with her strong will. She managed to overcome gender barriers with her determination and discipline. Actually, what Burcu is showing us is that she constantly seeks solutions instead of being the prisoner of her shortcomings. She told me that “When I was being trained to be a pilot, never once did I think that being a woman would be a problem along the way. I thought that the most difficult part would be passing the exams.”
Burcu Dincer is a living example of how to defy gender barriers in this day and age. If you are determined enough, and you don’t buckle under tremendous pressure to prove yourself more than men need to do so, you can open the gates for other women, which makes you a pioneer in the field of your choice.
So what is Burcu Dincer’s next ambitious plan?
“My far-reaching future plan is to be a trainer. But to be recognized as an authority in my area of expertise, first I need to gain enough experience by flying. I want to be a most-sought after lecturer in the field of aviation”.