As Israel’s first female commercial pilot, Smadar Schechter is the only female captain at El Al. This year, she was chosen as one of the pilots to fly four El Al planes over Israel as part of today’s national Independence Day (Yom Haatzmaut) festivities.
Schechter, 40, flew a Boeing 767 that is dedicated to Israel’s missing soldiers and was called, “We are all with Ron Arad” — a reference to the Israeli Air Force Captain, captured in 1986 during a mission in Lebanon. Another one of the four planes will be called “We are all with Gilad Shalit.” Shalit is the young Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 2006, and is being held hostage in the Gaza Strip.
This is the first time a female pilot has taken part in these annual festivities. “I received a text message from the head of the El Al fleet asking me if I want to take part in the flyover,” Schechter told Yediot Aharonot. “I didn’t have to think even for a second before I answered ‘yes.’”
When Schechter was 18, she tried to enter the IDF pilot training course, but was denied acceptance because of her gender. This was more than 20 years ago, when the pilot’s course, along with many other combat positions, were closed to women.
Schechter’s interest in flying began “when I was 12 and my parents took me to South Africa as a bat mitzvah present,” Schechter told Shalom Life in 2009. “Before I was drafted into the army I wrote letters to the air force and asked to become a pilot. Every letter was answered with an unequivocal ‘No.’ The commander of the air force himself, Avihu Ben Nun, told me there were no women pilots in the IDF. However, I served in the Air Force, although not as a pilot, but as an operations clerk for a squadron of fighter planes.”
Despite the setback, when Schechter was 21, she began to take flying lessons, and six years later became a commercial pilot with Arkia airlines. Later on, she trained to fly the Boeing 757 and 767, and several months ago received accreditation to become First Captain. Today, she flies all over the world, on some of El Al’s longest flights.
She even gained brief fame in 2001 when she made an impressive emergency landing of an Arkia plane near Eilat.
Schechter, a mother of two daughters ages 4 and 6, says that although it can be challenging to combine flying with motherhood, there are also advantages. “It’s true that sometimes I’m away from home, but when I get back, I’m at home quite a lot, more than most other mothers who are out every day,” she told Yediot. She flies on average twice a week, and has a required rest time between flights.
She also says that her male colleagues are generally very supportive of her. “I am judged based on what I do and do well,” she said in the interview. “Everybody treats me very well and likes me. I hear only good things.”
So next time I’m on an El Al flight and hear a woman’s voice saying, “This is your captain speaking,” I will smile knowing that women are reaching new heights every day; and I will be able to tell my daughters that the sky is, truly, the limit.
With Yom Haatzmaut Festivities, a Gender Barrier Is Broken
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author and feminist researcher, educator and activist. She is currently studying to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and is blogging about her journey at www.jewfem.com