The Sky in the Eyes of Shams

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Mrs. Shams is an Iranian pilot. She tells her story from when she resolved to be a pilot until now that her husband is also a pilot.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “It is 3:10 in the afternoon. We have a Shiraz- Mashhad flight at 5 o’clock, and will then come back to Shiraz. I hope the weather will be good, and we can conduct the flights on time, as always.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Receptionist: “Do you have any luggage?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams: “You sometime get the feeling that something is going to happen.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Do you have (indistinct)?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Man: “Yes.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Staff member of Airport: When the pilot uses the brakes too often and the lining's temperature rises above 200 degrees, warnings go off in the cockpit, and it will prevent the pilot from overusing the brakes.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Receptionist: Just one person. (Indistinct)

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams: Ms. Shams told me, “You’re not yourself today”. I said, “Something’s wrong. Something’s gonna happen.””

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: It was in 2010, if my memory serves me right, April 5. It took us 6 hours and 35 minutes to go from Muscat to Chabahar and then return to Muscat. We spent 3 hours and 10 minutes flying at night, and we experienced clouds and rain and thunder for 2 hours.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams: I was going to Mashhad. It was winter, and the sky was clear all over Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: We went to Dubai, Bushehr, Dubai and Shiraz. All the flights took place during the night, over the clear waters of the Persian Gulf. In 3 hours and 40 minutes, we conducted the Mashhad- Bushehr, and Mashhad- Shiraz flights. We had rain and wind and thunder and severe jolts the whole time. Our route for going from Shiraz to Isfahan is defined by two points. They have a name. The entrance point to Shiraz and its exit point towards Isfahan is called “Cavot” and the entrance and exit points from Isfahan to Shiraz is called “Gesi”.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “I told Imam Reza, “These people who are boarding the plane in this cold winter… it was minus four degrees… they have come to visit you, so I put them in your care. The plane was ok. There was nothing to make us think there was something wrong with it. But I had a feeling that something was going to happen.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: When I went to the Airline office to buy a ticket, I saw Captain Asfar, and I thought it was a good opportunity to broach the subject. I had only seen his picture in the newspapers before, and that's how I recognized him. When I asked him if they were hiring females and I told him I had myself in mind for the job, he said, “Are you Ms. Shams?” and I said, “Yes.””

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot:“We suddenly encountered a thick cloud in an area of 10 square kilometers. Iran’s sky was clear everywhere else, but… I’m not saying 10 km, it might have been farther… there were clouds all around us at the extent of 20 or 30 square kilometers. And then it began to snow.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Captain asked me to fill in the application form, telling me to come the next day. Since I had poor eyesight, there was no tomorrow for me, so I didn’t go there. I just went to Tehran without letting anyone know.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “They defrosted the plane, we picked up the passengers, and we stood at the runway, ready to take off.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “What am I going to do now? Where can I find a good doctor? Doctors who are in Northern Tehran might be more skilled." So I went to Gandi and took a look at the signs and went to the oculists that I found. I visited about 8 of them, telling them, “This is the reason I want an eye surgery. Will you be able to treat it?” They all said, “Nothing is certain. Maybe” Then I went to another doctor in Gandi and he told me, “Of course. Your eyes will be as right as rain.” As gentle as a father, you know. It was such a relief!”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “The clouds descended… I think they were 30 or 40 meters high. The clouds were about 30 or 40 meters above the ground. They might have been higher, I’m not really sure. They were turning into mist.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: When I went there, Mr. Asfar told me, “You were supposed to come the next day. What happened? It’s been a month. Where did you go? What did you do?” I didn’t tell him the truth. I thought it better not to tell him. I just told him I had something to take care of. But that month felt like a whole year to me.

The day I went to apply for the job in the Aseman Company, there was a doctor there. He was from Isfahan. He said, “A woman? And so short at that?! And you had a laser eye operation?"”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “We took off. We had to take off from the Mashhad runway, circle Imam Reza Shrine, and then fly southwestward.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: I was one centimeter short of the desirable height, but they let it pass. I am 165 centimeters; I had to be at least 165 centimeters (5 feet 5). When they were going to measure my height, I couldn’t stand on my toes, but I tried to stand tall.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “While we were going round the shrine, one of the plane’s anti-icing systems broke down. Ms. Dhams glanced at me, and I told her, “Don’t worry. Let’s be on our way.””

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: They asked me to go outside and wait for the commission’s opinion. After a short while, they told me I had passed. It happened when I had come back from Isfahan to rest for a couple of days and then go back to the university. I was sitting in the yard, and I remember it so clearly. I was talking to my family about Shiraz and Isfahan and the university. Then I told them I had taken a trip to Shiraz without their knowledge and they asked me why. I told them, “I took a test.” “A test?” “Yes. A test.” It was then that they really started to listen. I never thought my father would accept it, because it’s considered a man’s job after all. I never thought my family would allow me to try to work as a pilot, because it was considered a man’s job.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Shall we go? Ya Ali!

There were 12 of us who took the test. I and 11 boys. I was sitting in a corner, telling myself, “These guys have a future. They have a motivation. What about me?" When we completed the test, they said we were going fly a plane according to our scores. There was no discrimination against me, they really called everyone according to the scores. When it was my turn, I flew the one-engine aircraft. After 9 hours and 50 minutes, my coach concluded that I was capable of managing the plane on my own and without his help, as I had just demonstrated. After that I told myself, “I don’t care if I’m employed or not, I really love this job and I’m willing to go to the very end.” This is the first flight of the month. I’m responsible for checking some of the interior systems. I hope I encounter no problems. I take my time checking out the plane, and if I find nothing wrong with them, the passengers will come aboard.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “About 30 seconds later, the same thing happened to the right engine. It was really impossible. The wing's anti-icing system stopped working, which made the situation even more dangerous. The wing would freeze over and if the ice thickened, it would be our downfall.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: People’s opinions differed. Someone who was religious questioned the fact that it was a woman working there. Someone else believed that I had stolen the job of another man, a man who was the head of a family. Someone else believed I was not up to doing it. They didn’t express their opinions straight to my face, but showed it in their action and behavior. I noticed it and it did upset me, but the only thing that calmed me down was the fact that I was the one swimming against the tide.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: How are you?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Fine, thanks. Where are you going today?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Abadan. I checked the weather. It’s fine. I called the guys and asked them to (Indistinct).”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Who’s accompanying you?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Captain Farsian.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “That’s great.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot:Thanks.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “I’m flying to Tehran.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Tehran. That’s great.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “See you in Shiraz.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Ok, I’ll land 10 minutes sooner than you, so I’ll wait for you.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Ok. I’ll see you in Shiraz.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: “I think my car has arrived.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Yes, so do I. what time is it? Yes, it must have arrived. Shall we go?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Let’s go.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Well, is there anything else?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “No.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: I hope you have a good flight. See you. Goodbye.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “We ran a few checklists and procedures, and she quickly finished that. We tried to guess the probable scenarios, deciding what to do if the wing froze solid and there was an explosion, asking the control project to stand ready because we were heading back.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: I’ve been married for four years, and my husband pilots the (indistinct) airplanes that I’m going to fly today. When we got married, he was a co-pilot too, and we have an aviation-ish kind of life; it’s either him studying, or I preparing myself for one test or another; and when we’re done, one of us has to get ready for taking the stimulation test, for which we have to go abroad for six months, and before which we have to study. Anyway, it’s a difficult life, even for a man. Imagine how it would be for a woman, a married woman who has to run a household. My husband’s not here, but I owe every success I’ve achieved in my life after my marriage to him.”

I always used to talk to my colleagues, even those who were my senior. But not to Firouz. We only said hello to each other now and then. We were flying to Dubai one day, and I was a passenger. When I went to the cockpit to say goodbye to him, he said, “Ms. Shams.” I said, “Yes, Captain.” He said, “Take care.” That was a romantic comment on his part!”

“I really would like to thank him, because he always supports me, pushing me to achieve more success in my life and career, and hopefully become a captain. He’s more concerned about me than himself.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_21:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “We were getting ready to go back. Ms. Shams had contacted the control tower, informing them that we were going to land. But we had to go through a procedure before we could land in Mashhad Airport. And you couldn’t see very well in the airport. In the last minute, the plane’s pressurization system also broke down. Anyone who is faced with such a situation will know for certain that they’re going to die.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Studying is only one part of what you need for flying a plane. Experiences are the other important part. Each day is different from the previous ones; many things happen, and you encounter different weathers every day. Because of the job I have chosen, my life is not an ordinary one. As it happens, we sometimes are in Shiraz in our workplace for 2 or 3 days, but we don’t get a chance to see each other. We sometimes hear each other’s voices in communications with the center in Tehran that controls the flights, and greet each other by saying something like “Have a nice flight” or “Good job”. The only hardship we have is being away from each other, and that may not be a bad thing. Perhaps we’ll appreciate each other more that way. I don’t know. This is one way of living after all.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: We had an emergency during the flight. To put it in a nutshell, one of our systems stopped working. You can’t call it a bad memory; it was a good one since we were able to handle it. It was the Mashhad- Shiraz flight, and our anti-icing system stopped working, and we ran a few procedures according to the checklist we had.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “By then the plane was covered in snow, and what was going to happen happened! The plane swayed sideways, putting its weight on its left wing, flipped, and we went straight towards the ground. All the alarms and warnings went off.

Ms. Shams treated that situation very calmly and firmly. She was very firm. I know all my colleagues. I don’t think many of my male co-pilots would have reacted that way if they had been with me.

We were looking death in the eye. I myself felt its clutches for about 5 seconds. It was over. This is where Ms. Shams came in. Everything had happened so quickly, and normally Ms. Shams should’ve panicked or lost her self-confidence.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: It sounds easy, but it was difficult. Though I didn’t show it. People need to realize that everyone is entitled to do what they want in this world. It’s not that I’ve taken a man’s rightful place. They need to realize that you don’t need muscles to fly a plane.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Husband of Ms. Shams, Pilot: “Ms. Shams was with me every step of the way. When you’re in such a situation, when you’re about to die, you will undoubtedly panic. You freeze and can’t do anything.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian], Ms. Shams, Pilot: Flying has many aspects. It is a job or an art pursued by those who are interested in it. But I believe it has a spiritual aspect as well. Because when we’re up there flying, the sky might be the same no matter where you go, but there’s a sense of emptiness and loneliness, especially when you’re flying during the night or over the sea or the desert. When you’re flying over the desert, the light is low and the sky is more explicit. At night you can see the sky more clearly, see the stars. There’s absolute silence and there’s a spiritual feeling that can’t be compared to anything else.” 


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