Vashty Roberts joins an elite rank

One of only 13 female licensed pilots holding her own in the traditionally male-dominated aviation industry

The aviation industry has always been a part of Vashty Roberts’ life. The daughter of an aircraft engineer, she was practically raised at the airport and developed a love for the industry, but there’s one thing she says she has always known and it’s that she did not want to be the person fixing the aircraft. Vashty wanted to be at the controls – flying. Today, Vashty is a commercial rated multi-engine pilot with an instrument rating. All that fancy talk broken down means as a pilot, she can get paid to fly airplanes with two engines and that she’s familiar with flying in instrument conditions where visibility may not be the greatest.

When she’s in the air behind the controls, Vashty, 23, says she gets a sense of peace.

“I’m able to think and breathe,” said Roberts. “I love the peace that surrounds me when I’m in the air. It’s like a different world.”

And when she’s in the air by herself, she describes the feeling as “mind-blowing.”

“Just the thought of some manmade machine being able to soar through the air carrying you to any destination imaginable is just amazing.”

She has made good use of her abilities to take in the beauty of the Bahamian archipelago. And has piloted a craft to all the major islands except San Salvador, Acklins, Crooked Island, Ragged Island and Mayaguana.

“The Bahamas is very beautiful. The scenery still catches me off-guard. One of my favorite places to fly to is Long Island because the water between Exuma and Long Island is breathtaking,” she said.

The flights that left her awestruck included flying into Norman’s Cay in the Exumas with another pilot, and to Little Whale Cay in the Berry Islands – both private cays.

“Little Whale Cay has a slight thrill to it because of how short the runway is, but so far, those two are definitely my top experiences,” said Vashty.

Coupled with witnessing life on the cays, she said it was a culture shock for her to see how relaxed and laidback the residents were.

As to which country she would like to have the opportunity to fly to, she said the list is endless.

“The Bahamas is beautiful, but I’d also love to experience flying throughout the Caribbean, Canada, the United States and even European countries. If I had to choose one place in particular, it would be to fly to St. Martin [St. Maarten] – just to experience the thrill of being able to say I landed on their short runway.”

St. Maarten’s short runway (7,546 feet) at Princess Juliana International Airport means planes fly extremely low over Maho Beach as they descend.

And then there’s the fact that she is one of only 13 licensed female pilots in the traditionally male-dominated field.

Vashty, according to the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority records, is in the ranks now with captains Gwendolyn Ritchie, Frances Smith and Gail Saunders; as well as Whitney McIntosh, Julliana Mehalis, Sherelle McSweeny, Laurie Johnson, Kenrece Carey, Chavan Pinder, Larona Miller, Sheryl Carey and Denise Bethel.

Smith, Ritchie and Saunders also hold the distinction of being Bahamasair’s first female captains. They were promoted in 2012, and followed in the footsteps of Patrice Clarke-Washington, the first female pilot hired by Bahamasair in 1984, nearly 11 years after it opened. At the time, Clarke was the only female professional pilot in The Bahamas. She has gone on to become the first female Black pilot hired by United Parcel Service (UPS); in 1994 she was promoted to captain, becoming the first Black female, and one of only 11 female captains to command planes for a major United States airline.

Since earning her “wings” Vashty said she has not noticed any competition amongst the women in aviation that she has come in contact with.

“Everyone is easygoing and helps out where they can,” said Vashty.

She also said she does not have any particular female role model in aviation .

“I’ve met a few female pilots, and other women in aviation, and each inspired me in their own way – there isn’t one person in particular. With aviation being a male-dominated profession, the aviatrix I met have done nothing but welcome me with open arms, given amazing advice, offered words of encouragement during tough moments while sharing stories about some of their own experiences.”

Vashty is currently employed with a private company that transports passengers and cargo throughout the country, and if needed, the Caribbean with flights to the Turks and Caicos, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

And said she has no intention of limiting herself to a specific branch of aviation – whether it’s a private charter or commercial airliners.

“Since I’ve returned from school, I’ve been flying privately doing charters, and I’ve seen some amazing turboprop airplanes like a King Air, private jets like Gulfstreams/Falcons up close that I wouldn’t mind flying in the future. The airlines are also a tease – nothing beats being able to see companies like Delta, JetBlue, American Airlines, even Bahamasair, take off and land, and hearing the beautiful sound of the turbine engines.

With aviation never ending when it comes to learning and training, to fly an aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds, Vashty would need to have additional training.

“I’m currently building experience on a Piper Navajo to become more proficient with the systems and overall airplane to eventually be able to fly it solo. With smaller general aviation airplanes that weigh less than the 12,500 pounds, I would be able to do in-house training to build experience, get signed off, and legally be permitted to fly it by myself.”

During the pandemic, Vashty said the only aspect that affected her company was the changed protocols to reflect the times.

“Business has been steady. If anything, demand increased. On average, my time at work ranges anywhere from 10 to 12 hours. In terms of flight time, we average anywhere from 20 to 25 hours per week. The average person may say ‘that’s it?’ it’s more to it than just hopping into a plane, pushing a few buttons and relaxing.”

And for the young woman or man who has aspirations of becoming a pilot, Vashty’s advice to them is to just do it, but to be the best they can be and never get complacent about learning.

Being a pilot isn’t solely about flying. It’s also a lot of never-ending studying. Pilots are the soul that makes every takeoff and landing worth it. Choosing this career path won’t be easy, but key is to focus on the journey and not the destination.”

She said there will be tough times, but that they should remember that airplanes always takeoff against the wind, and that they should continue to soar and always let their dreams take flight.

Knowing that is what she wanted to do with her life, Vashty said she was in ninth grade at St. Augustine’s College (SAC) when she began researching flight schools and universities with aviation programs.

Upon graduating high school in 2016, she did not immediately enroll in flight school. She enrolled in the University of The Bahamas for a semester, even though it did not offer any aviation-related courses. She said she found sitting in classes and listening to planes fly over daily discouraging, as she was sitting in a class that had nothing to do with the career she wanted.

After that one semester, she transferred to Mount Allison University, Sackville, Canada. Unable to meet the financial obligations, she left after a year and enrolled in Wayman Aviation Academy, Pembroke Pines, Florida.

She said studying aviation at Mount Allison was more expensive than going to flight school. You don’t only have to pay for the degree, but you also have to pay for the flight training – expenses on top of expenses. It made sense for me to go to flight school.”

Her parents Vincent and Sharlene Roberts also took out a loan to fund her education, and family and friends helped when they could.

“My parents never told me this, but I could tell that funding my dream was stressful for them. I had to figure out how to tell them that I need X amount of dollars for this training activity,” she recalls. Armed with the knowledge that the quicker she advanced through the program, the less money she would have to pay, she did just that.

Vashty started flight school in September 2018 and began flying in October 2018. She earned her private license in March 2019, and her instrument rating license in November 2019. She received her commercial license in September 2020.

As of yesterday, she has logged 485 hours of flight time.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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