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Susanne Ryhl in the cockpit. Photo: Mikkel Jul Hvilshøj
Susanne Ryhl in the cockpit. Photo: Mikkel Jul Hvilshøj

People

The flight attendant who became an airline captain

Airline captain Susanne Ryhl began her aviation career as a flight attendant. But she found the cockpit so fascinating that she leaped at the chance to take part in a special SAS program that gave employees the opportunity to train as a pilot.

When the first female pilot in the West, Norwegian Turi Widerøe, successfully completed her pilot training in 1969, she created a sensation in both Scandinavia and America and was a PR scoop for SAS.

When, in 1989, Susanne Ryhl and Agnete Schrøder were selected from around 450 applicants to be among the 14 to train as pilots as part of a special program at SAS, they were also pioneers in their field. Worldwide, still only 4% of all pilots are women.

Ryhl is a true traveler. Before starting her SAS career as a flight attendant in 1985, she worked as a tour guide, and since being employed as a pilot by SAS in 1996 she has flown both long-haul and short-haul routes to destinations all over the world.

Name: Susanne Ryhl
Age: 56
Career: Joined SAS as a flight attendant in 1985. Became a pilot in 1991 and an SAS First Officer in 1996. Became an SAS Flight Captain in 2015.
Home base: CPH
Flies: Airbus A319/320/321
Flight hours: 12,000

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Becoming a pilot was not immediately on the cards for her though.

“Actually I studied law and economics at Copenhagen Business School while I was working as a flight attendant in the cabin,” Ryhl says. “I only needed the final examination to earn my Bachelor’s degree when I was accepted for pilot training.” 

From April 1989 to January 1990, she then attended flying school in South Carolina, where SAS had hand-picked instructors to train those selected for the SAS pilot program. In the meantime, however, the global situation changed with the outbreak of the Gulf War and SAS was unable to continue the program or offer employment to the newly trained pilots, Ryhl says.

The trainees were able to fully convert their American certificates to Scandinavian ones and would then have to spend six months using a flight simulator in Stockholm before they were ready to fly. But although the new pilots had an agreement with SAS which made them first in line as soon as pilots were being hired again, the job situation was unpredictable.

“I was so lucky that I had applied for leave from my job in the cabin, so I had something to go back to,” Ryhl says. “And then I got a job at a flying school in Roskilde, so I spent some of my time in the cabin with SAS and some in Roskilde, where I worked in the office and also did some flying so I could maintain my certification.”

Ryhl continued to fly and became the first female pilot at Cimber Air, where she flew for a year before coming home to SAS as a co-pilot in 1996. Since then she has flown long-haul routes with SAS for 16 years and short-haul routes as both first officer and captain for the past four years.

“I’ve always been happy in my work and I can’t imagine having a nine-to-five job, even if you do have some unsocial working hours and lose a bit of sleep over the years,” Ryhl says.

“I’ve spent many years on various long-haul routes and now I’m working with the more predictable short-haul routes. But I was happy flying long-haul, especially to Bangkok and America, where they have some slightly longer stopovers at the destination, so you can take an impression of the climate, the food, and the people back home with you.”

 

Text: Lise Hannibal

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