According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, 94% of the world’s pilots are men. Meet MAF pilot and instructor, Dr Bridget Ingham, who bucks that trend. Bridget worked in Timor-Leste as a pilot and for MAF Mareeba’s Flight Training Centre, which trains tomorrow’s MAF pilots. Bridget shares how she broke that proverbial glass ceiling…
New Zealander Dr Bridget Ingham’s passion for aviation and God-given desire to become a pilot, began at the tender age of 11:
‘I have a very distinct memory of wanting to fly small planes. I don’t know where it came from because I’d never been in a small plane.
‘I said to mum, “I think God wants me to be a pilot” and she said, “maybe you could fly for MAF”. “What’s that?”, I asked, and she explained that they fly missionaries around the world. She’d just heard a radio advert on our local Christian radio station about MAF.
‘A few years later, a couple from my church announced that they were going to be joining MAF – that’s what set me on the path. As they were talking about MAF and what they were called to do, I just felt this burning in my spirit that I should follow too.’
Fulfilling her God-given desire
Bridget excelled academically and completed her PhD in physics in 2005. During her studies she took up flying lessons and obtained her private pilot’s license at the age of 19.
She worked as a government research scientist in experimental physics for 13 years, using synchrotron X-rays to probe the atomic structure of materials.
Her work included overseas stints at Imperial College London and Stanford University in California. Her medical certificate for flying and biennial flight review eventually lapsed, but in 2016, God reminded her of her dream:
‘When I looked into becoming a MAF pilot, God showed me how different parts of my life – abilities, opportunities & experiences – fitted together. That had been His plan all along.’
Dr Bridget Ingham – MAF pilot and flight instructor
Bridget achieved her commercial pilot’s licence in 2017 and completed her flight instructor licence at MAF Mareeba’s Flight Training Centre in northern Australia in July 2019. In August, she began teaching.
MAF trainee pilots are ‘living the dream’
As a qualified flight instructor, Bridget’s specialism is ‘Ab-initio’ classes – delivering crucial first lessons to new students. Bridget loves their eagerness to learn:
‘It’s great seeing students’ infectious enthusiasm, especially when they first arrive and get to look at a plane up close and personal. We take the cowlings off (metal cover) so they can look at the engine, but when they get to do their first flight, there’s always a bit of buzz.
‘They’re living the dream, which has often been under the surface for a long time. Their milestones – their first solo flight, first solo navigation, passing their exams and seeing the penny drop – it’s really rewarding!’
Bridget is particularly proud of designing a course for the Commercial Pilot’s License Aerodynamics exam:
‘A lot of students struggle with this and although we have books and resources available that do a pretty good job of covering it, it’s a lot better to have someone who can actually explain things and have that interaction. It was a privilege to be asked to put that together.’
An unexpected change of scenery
As much as Bridget was enjoying her flight instructor role, little did she know she would be urgently reassigned to Timor-Leste. In July 2020, she was transferred to Dili for six months due to a shortage of pilots caused by coronavirus.
At the height of the pandemic, MAF was the only local operator to fly in-country. For people wanting to get to Oecusse – an exclave surrounded by Indonesia on the north coast of the island – it was their only option.
For the first three weeks Bridget had to undertake bespoke training for a very different terrain:
‘Some airstrips in Timor-Leste are more basic and shorter than Mareeba. When you fly into an airstrip that’s only 640 meters long, you don’t have a lot of margin.
‘There are many important factors to think about – wind, length, altitude, and slope. When you land, is it uphill or downhill? Is the surface grass or gravel? Is it sealed? Are there any obstacles near the airstrip that you have to fly around to get in? Technique and decision making are critical.
‘Some airstrips in Timor-Leste have a 90-degree crosswind across the runway, so you can land in either direction because you get no assistance from the wind.’
In addition to the technical differences, visually, Timor-Leste is completely different:
‘I like the scenery the best – very steep mountains, forests, plus flying over coral reefs and the beauty of the sea. I got to fly over that on a daily basis. It’s a fantastic place to fly from one end of the country to the other – it’s very different all the way along.
‘There’s always something to look at out of the window, as opposed to Australia, which is very flat and the same for hours. I never tired of doing those flights, especially in the east from Viquequeor to Los Palos.’
‘Blessed are the flexible’
This was the first time Bridget had moved to somewhere where English was not widely spoken. She also had to lower her expectations in a country that moves at a much slower pace than Australia:
‘I realised that I had to keep my expectations of what I could achieve in a day very low. Everything takes longer and is harder – especially when communicating with people and you can’t speak the language, and you’re limited to pointing and pleases and thank yous.’
Simple things like running water from a tap and turning on power from the flick of a switch, also proved challenging:
‘Every house has a water pump that draws water out of a borehole, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s the water pump itself and other times the power’s gone out. You have no idea when it’s going to come back on! That happened twice a week.
‘Once I was trying to cook dinner – I had my rice in a pot and turned on the stove, but the gas bottle had run out. Sometimes the water, electricity and gas ran out at the same time!
‘If you want to have a shower when the water’s not working, you have to take water home in buckets. I did that for two weeks waiting for the pump to get fixed. Things can take a while to get sorted out.
‘You have to be prepared for anything. Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken!’
MAF is contracted by Timor-Leste’s National Ambulance Service to provide medevacs. Since operations began in 2007, MAF has carried out nearly 3,000 medevacs. Consequently, 75% of Bridget’s flights in Timor-Leste have been medevacs.
At times, medevacs can be highly stressful. Bridget recalls a motorcycle accident casualty she flew from Viqueque in the south to Dili in the north where the National Hospital of Guido Valadares is located:
‘The guy was in a lot of pain. I tried to do the turn-around as quickly as I could. We got him, his family member, the medic on the plane and took off. It was only a 30-minute flight but in the last 10 minutes when I was coming into Dili, he started yelling and calling out constantly. I just knew I had to concentrate on flying that plane and landing as smoothly as I could.’
Another memorable medevac was when Bridget transported a head injury patient from Baucau on the north coast to Dili – another 30-minute flight:
‘A guy in his 20s was trying to pull out the IV line from his arm and the oxygen line from his nose, so the medics had to physically tie him onto the stretcher using bandages. One medic was on each limb, holding him down as they tied him. That was just so hard to watch – seeing him struggle.
‘When we arrived in Dili, the guy’s mother came over, took my hand and pressed her nose to it. In Timorese culture, that’s a sign of deep respect and gratitude, something that people do to their parents, grandparents or an important person. She did that to me, which was really touching. She appreciated what we had done so that her son could get medical treatment.’
Flying in Timor-Leste has made Bridget a better flight instructor.
‘Now that I’ve seen how MAF operates in a programme, having that picture in my mind as the end goal when I teach, will help my students achieve what we want them to achieve.
‘I now have a few more real-world scenarios that I can draw on. My hands-on flying in Timor-Leste should make my plane demonstrations a bit tighter as well. Being more disciplined here has really helped – it’s something I will carry over into my instructing.’
Bridget will never forget her time in Timor-Leste:
‘Knowing that you’re making a real difference in people’s lives is just so rewarding. It has been a great experience and my flying skills have really improved. It’s been a real privilege to come here and get a taste of what it’s like flying here.’
After leaving Timor-Leste, Bridget returned to flight instructing at MAF Mareeba in January 2021. She left Australia in October 2021 and relocated to Papua New Guinea in January 2022 as a MAF pilot. Bridget is loving every minute:
‘I’m incredibly excited to be used by God in this way, serving Him through MAF. I know the future won’t be easy, but I know God goes before me and I can trust Him in all things. I thank and praise Him for everyone who is supporting me on this journey of faith.’
Follow Bridget’s MAF adventures in Papua New Guinea here