Kalina Milani

Airline: Emirates Airlines
Crew Position: Captain (Ret.)
Aircraft: B777
Domicile: Dubai, United Arab Emirates (pre-retirement) / Presently: Milledgeville, GA, USA

What is the year and location of the flight school you attended?

Kalina: I started attending flight school in 1983 in my hometown of Recife, Brazil.

That was when I learned about the costs of fulfilling my dream of becoming a pilot.

I was just a high school student, who had recently arrived back home after living in the U.S. for 2 years, which by the way, was the period that changed my life completely.

Since it was clear that I would have to postpone my dream, I said to myself: “no problem, I just have to work hard and save as much money as I can”. 

So it wasn’t until 1988 that I earned my private pilot wings.

What airplanes have you flown during your career?

Kalina: The airplane I first learned to fly was a Piper Cub. I absolutely loved that aircraft!

While working on my Commercial, Multi-engine and IFR licenses, I flew the Piper Archer, Arrow II, and Seneca.

Professionally, I flew the EMB-110 Bandeirante for a short while until I joined Brazil’s flag carrier airline, VARIG, in 1991. I joined as a First Officer on the B737-300 and later on, I transitioned to the B777-200ER, based in Rio de Janeiro.

In 2006, I joined Emirates as a B777 Senior First Officer and operated all of those wonderful models of the B777s, including the freighter.

What is your current job, type of aircraft, and location?

Kalina: In 2016, I made the transition from being a full time, super busy ‘airborne’ lady, to becoming what I call myself: a ‘chairborne’ pilot! (LOL)

I won’t be ‘chairborne’ for too long, at least I hope, as I am preparing to earn my FAA CFII. My plan is to join established programs that focus on helping women pilots succeed in their dreams of flying through flight training.  Eventually, I would like to create one of these programs myself in Baldwin County, Georgia.

As for my career, inside and outside aviation, this is what it looks like:

 In order to accommodate family demands, and after 10 years with Emirates as both a B777 Senior First Officer and Captain in Dubai, UAE – I retired in 2016 and moved to the US with my (new) husband and my 18-year old daughter.

We are all very happy and grateful to have made this enormous shift in our lives, because, little did we know, that right after our transition to the US, we had to confront some serious health issues, both related to us and within my husband’s family. 

Things seem to have worked out fine, as we are now close to family and friends, and enjoy an active lifestyle.

My retirement has also allowed us to begin fulfilling our other quests: setting up our own business and focusing on our respective non-profit organizations.

Our company is an Executive Search business that focuses on American military veterans as they make the transition into the civilian world.  We position them in jobs that very much value their talent. I am the Managing Director and my husband, our Senior Advisor. We have a small but quite competent team of associates.

The American veteran is a new discovery for me. That is, until I met my husband, a retired Army Aviation Colonel.  As I became more familiar with veterans’ work ethics, qualifications and struggles, I decided to focus on helping them.

As I was completing my MBA before leaving Dubai, I applied that veteran understanding into my Dissertation research, and looked for a way to help them make the link from the military into the civilian world.

What I learned was so exciting that I became determined to do just that:  assist veterans by recruiting and selecting candidates that were fit for their perfect job!

For two years, we worked full time at building the company. Due to health issues, we were unable to work so we had to put the company in a ‘holding pattern.’  Then, a little over six months ago, when an excellent opportunity was presented to us, we jumped back in full throttle to recruit retired U.S. military officers looking for a great job!  Since then, we have been incredibly busy.

Have you had/have any mentors throughout the years?

Kalina: It’s interesting to look back at who has impacted me throughout my journey, and helped to fulfill my dream.  I can say, without a doubt, that my mother was my very first mentor. She instilled a belief in me that I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as I studied hard, maintained focus and believed in myself.

I didn’t have anyone I could call a mentor for most of my journey. Actually, I lacked guidance and wish I had encountered someone that would have provided me with a ‘True North’.

I didn’t know at the time whether I would be able to get the position of an airline pilot or not, since our national carriers didn’t hire women pilots!  It wasn’t until 1986 that VASP, one of Brazil’s airlines, hired its first lady pilot.

But actually, the airline I dreamed of working for was VARIG, the major airline in Brazil and the one I had chosen to be my second employer, and my very first job at an airline. That was my dream, until I had all of the requirements that would allow me to apply for one of VARIG’s pilot selection programs.

So, I joined VARIG in 1985 as an airport ground staff and then, in 1986, as a flight attendant. But there were still no women pilots at VARIG. And I was told that there wouldn’t be any – according to those at the leadership level of the company, at the time.

In 1988, at a time when I was working again on my private and commercial written, and finally back at taking flying lessons, I did meet someone that inspired me to continue to pursue my dream.  He became my husband.  He was also an experienced airline and former Air Force pilot, so he too, was a very good mentor to me.

How did you get interested in aviation?

Kalina: I was always fascinated with airplanes.  As a child I would love to play on airplane carrousels at the amusement parks and my favorite place to go was the airport, with my family.  I don’t recall how often we went there or if we were just going to say goodbye or to pick up someone.  Or maybe it was just for the fun of watching airplanes take-off and land (I think it was the latter).

I kept watching airplanes at the airport with my younger brother as one of our favorite past-times, the other one being assembling and flying kit planes at the aero club.  So, I made a decision, right then, that was what I wanted to do as a profession.

My brother also later earned his wings, to fly general aviation.

Do you have any future aviation goals you hope to achieve?

Kalina: Yes, many.

I hope that by earning my CFII, I will be able to assist the already established non-profits and their flight instructors to support and encourage future women airline pilots complete their flight training here in the US.

I also hope to help girls from around the world, especially those from Brazil – girls that I know are facing many challenges in their training e.g. language, financial, etc.

I’m not very sure of how I will do it, but hopefully having a link between a local flying school here in my hometown and our non-profit organizations.  This is an amazing community!

Following an old dream, in 2018, I co-founded Brazil’s first association of women pilots, called Aviadoras, Aviatrixes in English. It also carries the acronym ‘AMAB’ and it’s based in São Paulo.

Aviadoras has existed, as group since 1997. I had been inspired by the wonderful work done by The 99s and ISA+21, especially when I personally met with many ISA+21 members at the Costa Rica Convention.  ISA+21 has helped me envision a similar, Brazil-based, support group.

So I did!  My plan was that our group would inspire and encourage everyone to reach out for their dreams and hopefully, spread their wings internationally too, by becoming members of ISA+21 and the 99s, just like me.

We made some pretty good advances!  Some of my friends became ISA+21 members and by the year 2000, we founded the Brazilian Chapter of the 99s and they nominated me as its first Governor.  We rotated Board Members every 2 years.

After I moved to Dubai, I made sure to take part in the Brazil 99s national annual Conferences as often as my roster would allow me to do so.  Unfortunately, after 2010, both the group and the Chapter started to wane.

That is why, between 2017 and 2018, I thought it was time that we all got together again and awakened that ‘giant’.  Hopefully we would finally fulfill our old dream of being an official entity again, this time stronger!  By being a domestic non-profit organization, we would be qualified by the government to obtain certain tax exemptions and therefore  attract sponsorships.  This would definitively better assist our present and future generations of women pilots.

Besides inspiring, mentoring, and providing networking as we always did as a group, we also wanted to help our local girls in other ways, such as obtaining scholarships.  So far, Aviadoras has presented 21 scholarships and doubled in size.  It has been challenging, especially due to the pandemic, but we are keeping our focus and resilience.

We also hope that the local girls will eventually earn scholarships from our sister organizations, such as ISA+21, the 99s, WAI, and any others that might have such programs.

However, for the many girls and women in Brazil, the payments of their international annual membership fees have always been an issue. Covid-19 hasn’t helped, as we all know.

It is my hope that once everything settles down and we are able to receive financial sponsorships, which we hope will happen sooner rather than later, who knows – we might be in a position to help those who wish to become international members of these wonderful organizations! Fingers crossed!

Do you live in base or commute?

Kalina:  When I was flying for Emirates I was based in Dubai and the rosters didn’t allow commuting of any kind.

What have been some recent challenges you have faced?

Kalina:  The main challenges I have faced were at the beginning of my career.

The main challenge at that time was lack of financial support.

Then there was the culture.  Women weren’t allowed many rights for a long time.  The only reason I fulfilled my dream of being a pilot at VARIG, besides the fact that I was by this time, fully qualified and ready, was the fact that the whole upper management was replaced by forward looking leaders, who were tired of the chauvinistic excuses for blocking women from joining the company as a flight crew.

So, I was the company’s first woman to attend VARIG’s flight academy First Officer training, where I was under tremendous pressure and constantly in the spotlight. This continued throughout my training, which took around 9 months at the Academy, all the way through to flying the line, 3 months later.  Many pilots and passengers had never flown with a lady pilot.  Did I find it stressful?  Big time. After a while I got used to being very patient, overlooking that a co-worker is checking out my abilities, even though I had already proven everything through all of my checkrides, right?  Nowadays, my husband, who is my biggest supporter, likes to brag to everyone he meets that his wife Kalina was the first woman pilot at VARIG, with the highest score ever at the academy – embarrassing!

That whole experience was actually good, in a way, because it prepared me for what I was to face later in 2006, at Emirates Airlines.  I went through the exact same experience at Emirates.  The company had just recruited its first lady cadet pilot in 2005, a sweet local Emirati girl, who had just graduated from High School.  She went on to attend Emirates Aviation Training College in Dubai, for her 3-year aviation degree, accompanied with an ab-initio flight training, in Australia.

I had applied for a position at Emirates in 2003.  But it wasn’t until 2006 that I started the selection program.  I became the company’s first lady Senior First Officer and later, its first lady Captain.  It was quite remarkable because I was faced with very similar challenges and also with new ones.  This time, I was in a completely different environment, with different cultures, not only the local one but also from the more than 100 different nationalities of flight crew members.

It was a very interesting experience.  

What would you say to girls looking to become an airline pilot?

Kalina: Resilience.  Determination.  Have faith in yourself and invest in your own preparation.  Be ready for when the opportunity arises, you will succeed!

Oh, one more piece of advice: shut your ears to those who wish to discourage you.

What do you feel is a benefit to being an ISA+21 member?

Kalina: I think I mentioned once or twice how important it is get support from others, right?

Well, I was inspired by every piece I read about each woman pilot that fulfilled her dream.  It might have been from articles I read as I was growing up or from books, they all had stories of pioneers who persisted in their pursuit of their dreams.  Women who faced challenges unimaginable to me.

This is exactly how I feel about being part of an organization such as ISA+21.  Learning members’ stories was eye-opening, and then, meeting everyone in person, made all the difference in my life!  I learned, so much! I  have made real friends since I joined back in 1996. The knowledge exchange, the camaraderie, the support and huge network, is incredible.  I know I have sisters that I can count on, that understand me and that I feel completely comfortable being myself. 

1991 - Kalina is hired as the first lady pilot at VARIG (Brazil's Flagship Carrier)
2006 - After becoming Emirates first lady Senior First Officer, Kalina became the first lady Captain at Emirates