Teacher, nurse, police officer or farmer: if you ask a child in Timor-Leste what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll hear a profession they see every day.
Growing up in the small village of Costa, in the Indonesian-enclosed enclave of Oecusse, Cristina Amaral would see aeroplanes – on television and for sale as toys and trinkets at street-side kiosks, but not with her own eyes. She never saw the pilots inside them, and certainly no women pilots.
At just 26, Amaral sits steely-eyed and confident in the cockpit of one of Aero Dili’s seven-seat Cessna planes. She is one of just two fully qualified pilots on the staff of this new local airline – and the country’s first-ever female pilot.
“Many people in Timor don’t know they can be pilots because not many people take aeroplanes,” she told Southeast Asia Globe. “They’re scared; that’s the dominant feeling. But when they know, or when they have people who explain it to them, they’re not scared.”
But with no guide, no one to explain it to her, fearlessness was a required attribute for the then 20-year-old Amaral, who left home in 2013 to study in Jakarta, Indonesia. After she completed her pilot training in 2015 with the support of a full scholarship from the Timorese government, Amaral stayed at the school for two more years working as a flight instructor.
She says she enjoyed her time training new pilots – supervising flights, delivering theoretical lessons and running flight simulations – but was excited to return to Timor-Leste in April 2018 to accept a job offer from the then-unlaunched local airline Aero Dili.
“It meant I could serve my people, help the people I love,” she explained. “So I’m happy and proud.”
Pilot dreams connecting remote communities
While the municipality of Oecusse hosts Timor-Leste’s third-highest urban population, 83% of families in the region live in rural areas and an estimated 80% of Timorese families are subsistence farmers. The Asian Development Bank estimates that nearly four in five girls in the traditionally patriarchal country aren’t enrolled in school above grade eight, putting professional dreams out of reach for most young women and setting Amaral and her four younger siblings on a path to follow in their hardworking parents’ footsteps – tending the family home and farm.
But Amaral had bigger ideas.
“I wanted to become a pilot because I wanted to do something for my country,” she told UN Women in 2015. “We don’t have many pilots, so I thought to myself, ‘I would love to do that to help with my country’s development.’”
Amaral said her goals in life are anything but self-centred: “I want to help people. I don’t want to become rich or an important person, I want to be a happy person, a person who helps others. People need transport, sick children need transport, and we can help them here [at Aero Dili].”
Timor-Leste’s mountainous geography and the generally poor condition of its rural roads makes road travel between towns difficult and aeroplane travel attractive. The drive to Baucau, an Aero Dili destination 126 kilometres east of Dili, the capital, along the country’s northern coast, takes four hours – time Amaral believes to be painfully long for some families.
Limited opportunities for Timorese pilots
Few airlines operate in Timor-Leste. The country’s national airline, Air Timor, operates a single flight weekly between Dili and Singapore under an agreement with SilkAir. The UK religious charity Mission Aviation Fellowship operates charter flights for private passengers between Dili, nearby Atauro Island and the airport in Pante Macasar, in Oecusse.
Amaral said Aero Dili intends to operate a flight to Oecusse and is now awaiting approval from the region’s president, former Timor-Leste Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.
It’s a quick expansion for the airline, which launched in August and currently offers six domestic flights daily between Dili and seven towns.
Pioneering pilot paving the way
While no consistent global data on female airline pilots exists, data for the US and United Kingdom indicate that just over 4% of pilots there are women.
Amaral admitted it can be daunting for women and girls to enter male-dominated industries like aviation, but said confidence, conviction and – crucially – guidance can help.
“Young people in Timor need someone who can guide them,” she said. “For the next generation, we can dream, but we also must work hard. If we don’t have ambitions, our dreams don’t [happen]. I liked it when I was a [flight] instructor – now I want to remain an instructor, to guide other people, especially women.”
While many passengers are surprised to see a woman in the cockpit, Amaral said her biggest career challenge hasn’t been discrimination, but attending flight school taught in Indonesian, her third language. “Some passengers say in the home, women are the ones in control; now in the aeroplane, women are the ones in control,” she said, grinning broadly. “Your life is in the women’s hands, they say, so behave yourself!”
Warm and bubbly, Amaral spoke in Tetun with the unmistakable singsong accent of her Oecusse upbringing and its singsong native Baikenu language. “Pronto,” she said frequently at the beginning of her sentences to punctuate her thoughts: ready. Which she is, for whatever she tackles next.
Additional reporting by Felix Maia