If you see petite former flight attendant Suwapich Wongwiriyawanich, 37, you’d never guess that she regularly maneuver a giant commercial plane through the skies. Better known as Captain Windy, the Thai-born is the first female pilot on long-haul budget carrier AirAsia X’s Thai team.
She started her career in aviation as a flight attendant before joining AirAsia’s student pilot programme in 2005, and has been flying with the airline ever since. The avid yogi and certified nutritionist also co-owns a fitness studio in Bangkok.
The fun part of Captain Windy’s job is to fly to exotic locations such as Maldives and Hawaii. The not so fun part? Having to navigate through a thunderstorm to save a passenger having a heart attack from dying. She recounts the harrowing experience to us below.
8 DAYS: What kind of challenges did you encounter as a woman in a male-dominated field of work
CAPTAIN WINDY: I grew up near the airport and have always wanted to work on a plane. Back then, there were very limited opportunities for women in the aviation industry. There were no avenues for me to even prove that I had what it takes to be a pilot.
When AirAsia opened up opportunities to women in the region, I felt like a significant milestone had been achieved for all women who aspire to be pilots, not just for myself. While being a pilot is not a common career choice for women, my male colleagues treat me the same as any other individual — not based on my gender, but based on my capabilities.
What are the misconceptions about being a pilot that you would like to correct?
People normally think that a pilot should be male and if there’s a female pilot, she should be taller, bigger or more masculine. But really, you don’t have to be big or tall. I’m small — 1.64m-tall — but I can perform every task well despite my size (laughs).
What’s one thing you wish passengers would stop doing on a flight?
I really wish that passengers would keep their seat belt fastened throughout the flight. Sometimes they think it’s alright to unfasten their seat belt to relax, but having the seat belt fastened at all times can prevent injuries that could happen in unforeseen circumstances.
There was once I had to divert the aircraft I was flying and was forced to fly through a thunderstorm, ’cos a passenger had suffered a heart attack on board. The cabin crew had called for a doctor, but there were no doctors [among the passengers].
Three nurses who were present assisted the sick passenger, but his condition continued to worsen. The purser relayed that the passenger required immediate medical attention or he may die. I was under lot of pressure during that flight, but I’m glad to have saved a person’s life.
It has been said that being in a high pressure cabin affects our taste buds. Any tips for making plane food taste better?
My taste buds work just fine on board and I enjoy eating a lot on the flight! But that’s maybe because I enjoy eating so much (laughs). My tip is to eat whenever you’re hungry so no matter what you eat, everything will be delicious.
You’re a fitness instructor and you co-own a yoga studio in Bangkok. What kind of exercises do you do onboard?
There’s nothing much I can do due to space restrictions, but I try to do some light stretching. Yoga can help release the muscle tension from being in a fixed position for an extended period, like sitting [in a plane] for many hours. Sometimes you can get back pain, especially in your lower back. Yoga poses can stretch these muscles, release the tension and bring relief from the pain.
Some people feel tired, even after a short-haul flight. Why?
Air in the cabin is pressurised to be around 6,000 to 8,000 feet, making it feel like you’re on a high mountain. It’s normal to feel tired because you’re breathing in air that’s less dense.
Some folks also find it hard to sleep on a flight. What’s your strategy for getting some shuteye on a plane?
As a passenger, I always have my soft eye mask and face mask to cover my nose and mouth. Cabin air can be very dry and make your nose too dry when you sleep. Covering up your nose and mouth while sleeping can help retain moisture.
You spend a lot of time travelling for your job. What’s one thing you always — and one thing you never — buy at airport shops?
I always buy food that I can snack on, besides eating the meals allocated for the crew. But I have never bought souvenirs at airport shops!
Do you watch movies about flying, like Top Gun, Snakes on a Plane and The Aviator?
I love to watch movies about planes and have hardly missed any! I think all those movies did a pretty good job portraying the lives of the crew and flying a plane. My favorite one is [the 2016 American biographical drama flick] Sully starring Tom Hanks.
For more info on AirAsia flights, go to www.airasia.com.