HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Many Houstonians hear them every morning, helping to guide drivers through the sometimes maze-like pattern that is the traffic in our city.
Or maybe you hear from them later in the morning, as they launch for breaking news like police chases or fires.
As helicopter pilot Samantha Fisher and helicopter reporter Tammy Rose will tell you, they've seen it all and wouldn't want it any other way.
"There's nothing I'd rather be doing than doing what I do. I mean it's not even a job. I love it," Rose said.
"The view up there and seeing for forever... the sunrise and the birds... it's just absolutely amazing," Fisher gushes.
Both women make up the rare female flight crew commanding ABC13's chopper, SkyEye, Monday through Friday, during the morning commute.
According to Rose, the women are the only all-female flight crew in their company.
Rose, who is also an author and rides motorcycles, describes herself as an adrenaline junkie. Her background and degree in broadcast journalism have led her to different news gigs covering everything from sports to serving as a weather anchor in markets across the country including Greenville, Mississippi, Waco, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona.
But like many industries, journalism requires you to be multi-skilled. So when the opportunity came up to hop in the helicopter, she jumped on it.
"I'm like, 'Sure, I'll do it.' And after my first flight, I was hooked. Every day my office view is different," said Rose, who wanted to get into news to do investigative reporting.
But for Fisher, flying helped her get out of the office. She was working at a software company 13 years ago and needed a change.
"I would go to work every day and I was getting quite bored with it. My husband's a pilot, he flies for Southwest Airlines, and he came home from work one day and he had had a wonderful trip," Fisher begins.
"He came in and looked at me and I had had a horrible day arguing with people on the phone. I said, 'I don't think I can be doing this for 20 more years. I really need to find something else to do.' And he says, 'If you're going to do it, might as well have fun with it,'" she continued.
So her husband bought her helicopter lessons for her birthday.
That journey has led her to jobs as a flight instructor, flying pipeline and now piloting SkyEye, where she and Rose do more than just fly the chopper, they also maintain it, clean it and troubleshoot issues, whether that be with the camera onboard or other equipment.
"If I can help them (the pilots) spot an aircraft, I do listen to air traffic control whenever I can. Obviously safety is our very first priority. That's first and then second, is the video. I don't know if a lot of people realize I don't have a camera operator with me. I do it. So first I'm looking for traffic and then I'm doing the camera work and then I'm also doing the switcher work, and the ENG work, so I'm multitasking," Rose explained.
Fisher says there is also plenty to do before the flight even begins.
"Take the helicopter out of the hangar, start it up, listen to our weather briefing, figure out where we want to go, where we want to start our day," Fisher said. "As we're flying around. I'll look and see if I can see any traffic along the freeways. Sometimes it gets kind of crazy if we're dealing with a police chase or SWAT team or something like that. We have different altitudes that we're supposed to be at. Police get the lower altitudes."
Fisher and Rose have rarely worked with other women while flying before this.
"I was flying for about 15 years before I worked with my first female pilot in Phoenix, Arizona. And, you know, Sam is the third female pilot that I've worked with," Rose said.
Fisher says she'd only worked with one other woman as a flight instructor.
It's one of the reasons Rose posts TikTok videos showing what it's like for her and Fisher behind the scenes.
"I post these videos because I want to inspire people, I'm hoping any young girl out there or females seeing these videos will say, 'Hey, I can do that!'" Rose said.
Like any job, there are ups and downs. Fisher and Rose say it's always hard to cover tragedy or moments when families may be most vulnerable.
"One of the ones that probably touched me the most recently was the Santa Fe shooting (in 2018)," Rose explained. "Officers rushing in, they're trying to do everything they could to take the shooter down and to save as many people as they could. That is very hard, covering these types of stories. That probably was one of the worst things."
Still, both women carry on because they know that they can help people and work with each other.
"She's coming in every morning with a smile. She always has such a positive attitude," Fisher said of Rose.
Rose echoed mutual feelings about Fisher. Both have worked together since September 2020, with Rose calling her a breath of fresh air.
"I'm just so happy that she's here," Rose said. "I'm so proud of her. She started 13 years ago. Incredible to start later and this is what she wanted to do."
They urge that despite aviation being a male-dominated profession, no gender roles should keep women from giving working in the field a try.
Fisher and Rose said that they have had positive experiences so far.
"I have not met any resistance as far as being a female. Yes, it is a male-dominated industry. So you do have to have thick skin, people like to jab and joke and stuff like that, but I think that's just the nature of someone who pilots as far as the way they interact with people," Fisher said.
But don't underestimate it. Becoming a pilot is hard work, and the amount of hours you need to earn a license depends on the type of aircraft you fly.
Fisher explains that, at minimum, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires:
- A minimum of 40 hours to get your private license.
- 250 hours for a commercial license (fixed wing/airplane) and 150 hours for a helicopter.
- 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument conditions for an instrument rating.
It should also be noted that each license requires a certain amount of solo and cross country flights along with flights where you fly only by reference to the instruments, Fisher says.
And when you take your test, there are specific maneuvers that must be performed to a specific standard with an approved FAA examiner onboard the aircraft. Most people require more than the minimum hours.
"I have only known of one student that was able to qualify for their exam with the minimum number of hours," Fisher said.
Still, she encourages people not to give up on the commitment.
"It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be able to devote time to study in order to get your license, and that part can be a little disheartening. But if you can get past that, it's worth it," Fisher told ABC13.
There's also no one way to break into the industry.
Much like how Fisher decided she wanted to switch careers, you don't have to start out knowing exactly what you want to do and you can change at any time.
You also don't have to become a pilot if you want to work in aviation.
Women in Aviation International CEO Allison McKay knows that firsthand. She got her start in the aviation field through sales and marketing, working her way up through companies.
"My whole career has kind of been based on aviation, but I don't fly and I don't fix, so I'm kind of that unique example of the industry is open to everybody," McKay said.
McKay explains there are many possible pathways.
- Pilot: "If you want to be a pilot, there's the military route that is fantastic training grounds, especially for helicopter pilots, and even even airplane pilots. They give you fantastic training, on the government's dime, which is always a great way to go," McKay says.
- Colleges and universities: Schools like Embry - Riddle Aeronautical University offer four-year degrees where you can become certificated as a pilot or a maintenance technician. The community college route is also very robust for aviation training.
- Private maintenance schools: You can also do training here and get certification.
From there, you'll need to build up your hours if you're going to be a pilot or maintenance technician, training on smaller aircraft and gradually moving up the ranks.
If you're interested in going into aviation, but worried about paying for it, McKay says a key thing to know is there are a lot of organizations offering scholarships.
"You can apply for all scholarships, and our organization alone has given out over $14 million since 1995, but we're not alone. A lot of these trade organizations have robust scholarship programs. So the money is out there," McKay said.
Female flight crews, especially those who fly helicopters, are rare, but how rare?
ABC13 wanted to know how many women helicopter pilots there are. It's so uncommon, the FAA doesn't have specific data on women who are helicopter pilots.
Helicopter Association International estimates that the number of female helicopter pilots is around 5%, while the FAA says the total number of certificated female pilots is at 7.9%.
"If you look at the airlines, 5% of women are pilots, 1% are airline captains, so we have our work cut out for us if we want to really bring in a proportionate number of women. Maintenance technicians, 2 1/2% are women," McKay explains. "We are a rare breed. You'll have some women who really never work alongside another female, which is unique to other industries, I would say."
Still, McKay says, the FAA is working to change that, recognizing the need to increase diversity within the industry.
The agency has created a Women in Aviation Advisory Board, of which McKay is a member. The goal of the board is to provide recommendations to Congress to encourage more female students to pursue a career in aviation.
Giving girls and women their wings
Women in Aviation International is one of the organizations aimed at helping young women break into the industry through offering networking and mentoring even through their careers.
Created in 1995, WAI now has 14,000 members and 147 chapters throughout the world.
You don't have to be part of a chapter to be part of the organization.
"The Dallas/Fort Worth - Houston area is really a robust aviation industry, so we have a lot of corporate members that come out of Texas. You really do have a large portion of your economy that does come from our industry," McKay said.
To help encourage girls and expose them to aviation careers, activities and technology, WAI holds an annual Girls In Aviation Day, targeting those in the age group between 8 -16.
Pre-pandemic, WAI brought girls to two sites for the event, reaching up to 20,000 girls in 2019.
The Dallas/Fort Worth chapter brought 3,000 girls alone in one day.
Like last year, this year's event will again be virtual, taking place on Saturday, March 13. During the event, the female contingent of the Air Force's Thunderbirds - including the pilots and maintenance technicians who work on that program - will be interviewed along with two NASA astronauts.
The event is free on Zoom, but you'll need to register. McKay says you can also download the Aviation for Girls app as a companion to access interviews with dynamic women of all careers in the industry, activities, and tours of airports and manufacturing facilities.
What jobs are available in aviation for women?
While piloting may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about flight, that's far from the only opportunity.
"Every job that you could possibly think of has application in aviation. Photography, design," McKay said, adding that even interior design is needed for corporate aircraft, such as jets.
Other career areas within aviation include:
- Human Resources
- Development and apps
- Writers for trade organization publications and magazines
- Journalism and production work
There is also a desire to recruit from diverse communities.
"Our push is to create a workforce that looks like our communities. We've seen the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce in other industries, diversity of thought really expands the way that organizations run, understanding your customer base. All of the customers that fly and interact with the aviation industry requires a diversity that currently is lacking in our industry," McKay said.
McKay also points to pre-pandemic workforce shortage reports that show just how many roles needed to be filled.
"We were in need of hundreds of thousands of people to fly, fix, run our airports, be in the cabins," she said. "You're never going to have that many people enter the industry if you're just looking at the traditional ways that we have had people enter the industry so we really have to have a concerted push to go into communities that don't really consider aviation as an opportunity for them."
For those looking for jobs, McKay said WAI also annually holds a two-day conference for networking. This year, it will be March 11-12.