An interview with Sandra Legg, Chief Air Transport Officer of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) in Chad and the first — and only — woman to head an Aviation Field Operation for the World Food Programme (WFP).
How does it feel to be the first female Chief Air Transport Officer?
I’m very happy for the recognition. At first, I was nervous to take on this role as it’s a big responsibility. In such a vast country as Chad, the scale of the job is huge, especially since UNHAS is like the “national airline’’ in the country.
What is a typical working day like for you?
Although my day typically starts at 06:30 am and ends in the evening, I am on call 24/7. I take the early hours to support my team, either in the operations office or at the airport.
And then, when you think everything is going smoothly, you get a complicated request — like a medical evacuation — or a call that the runway is wet and inaccessible to the aircraft. There is no boredom in this job.
What does your role involve?
You have to make sure that the aircraft is flying, that our humanitarian passengers and our donors are happy, that important missions are planned properly, that the airfields are safe and secure, that the work atmosphere is conducive and productive and that the authorities and management are collaborative, abreast of important issues. Passengers, crews, ground handlers at the airport, immigration police, protocol officers, civil aviation staff, drivers — all these people are important for our work, they are like the pieces of a puzzle.
As a woman, what challenges do you face in your role?
Generally, when they first meet me, people tend to have a preconceived perception and doubt my abilities. But I take it in my stride to earn their trust and soon win their minds and hearts as we work together towards the same goal.
Is the way you do the job any different from how a man would?
Not at all. I like to think that we are equal, but I do recognize some small differences. Perhaps, as a woman, I may tend to look more into details and let emotions play a part in all that we do. However, I enjoy the combination of the two — when men and women team up, it makes a great working atmosphere.
Why do you think there are still few women working in the aviation industry?
Perhaps because of fear of the unknown. But women are tough and equally smart and do the work with grace and heart, no matter the challenge. I encourage fellow women to really try and join us in this industry because in aviation, once you start you never go back. It’s addictive. Seeing an aircraft fly with its own power never ceases to amaze me.
What can be done to change the perception that aviation is a male-dominated industry?
There are a lot of women in the industry — working as flight attendants, at check-in counters, in customer service — but I encourage them to be ambitious and push even further.
Women should aim to ensure positions in aviation security, aviation safety, ground management, aircraft engineering; they should become pilots. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing someone grow in their career.
As a mother of three, I had to juggle my family life and a demanding job for many years. It was difficult but, as I said, everything is possible if you enjoy what you do, and your hard work will pay off.
What is your advice to women wanting to become Chief Air Transport Officer?
In aviation, qualifications are very important, so while you are working, take the necessary licenses, follow the online training offered by aviation authorities, get to know the authorities in the country you work in, captivate your staff, lead by example.
What are the most valuable lessons you have learned through your experience? And what makes you think you succeeded in your job?
User satisfaction — our passenger satisfaction is very rewarding. The best part of this job is getting the job done and seeing the results straight away.
In Chad, the humanitarian community supports over 400,000 refugees from Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria and 2.6 million vulnerable Chadians and internally displaced persons. Thanks to UNHAS flights, staff from 90 humanitarian organizations can access the epicenter of crises promptly.
Like Pope Francis said, “don’t put a number to a person but a name or feeling to a person”. All those we serve are humans, and we need to care for them.
Put yourself in their situation: a humanitarian who has worked hard in the deep field with all the challenges of electricity, water, extreme heat, sandstorms, fatigue, and is ready to go home and then suddenly hears the flight is canceled; or a beneficiary who is under your responsibility, who is in a critical health condition and needs this life-saving flight immediately. I am grateful that our mandate offer us the opportunity to serve this way.
The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), managed by WFP, offers safe, reliable, cost-efficient and effective passenger and light cargo transport for the wider humanitarian community to and from areas of crisis and intervention.
In her 24-year WFP career, Sandra Legg has deployed her aviation skills to save and change lives in several countries across the world, particularly in some of WFP’s most challenging operations. She is a member of Women in Aviation International (WAI) and a role model for women aspiring to work in the male-dominated world of humanitarian air operations.