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So, What Do You Do? Part 4: Carole Hopson, Airline Pilot

March 11, 2019

“So, What Do You Do?” is an MM series featuring extraordinary women in the kinds of jobs that make you sit up and say, “What’s that like?” Every week, another original entrepreneur, executive, artist, or scientist will own the answer by sharing what she does, how she does it, and why she does what she does. Up this week, airline pilot First Officer Carole Hopson on loving her passengers, her supportive husband, and beauty at 36,000 feet.

Carole Hopson started her career as a police reporter in New Jersey and Philadelphia. She quickly made a leap to the corporate world, rising to executive positions at the National Football League, L’Oréal Cosmetics, and, at the age of 29, vice president and director for training and development at Foot Locker, USA. Then she went home to raise her two boys, a full time job that lasted 13 years. “I was a basketball mom, a soccer mom, a class mom—all of that,” Hopson says. Once her sons entered middle school, Hopson leaped again. She credits the man who would become her husband for helping her take flight.

“On our first date, he asked, ‘What’s your heart’s desire?’ I said, ‘I want to fly an airplane.’ Then he gave me a gift certificate to a flight school. I showed up and sat in a teeny airplane waiting to take off. When they finally let us go, we whipped down the runway and took up, and I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to do. I was making six figures as a company vice president, but I quit that job and went to flight school full-time. I was never happier!”

Today, Hopson is a First Officer with United Airlines. She is also Vice-Chairwoman of the Board of Directors at the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. Her home base is Montclair, New Jersey.

Here’s just some of what she does in a day:

Handles constant change with grace.

“My schedule is turbulence! Because there are fewer pilots these days, I might have three or four flights in a day, each with different crews.”

Makes sure to schedule weekends off.

“Yes—because seniority. I’ve flown enough to say what my parameters are.”  

Triple-checks her equipment.

“There’s no quick way of making sure the aircraft is airworthy. The most important part is the walk around, when you literally walk around the plane and check everything out. I also check the maintenance log with every flight. I want to read what someone else has written by hand and make sure the plane is safe for everyone.”

Stays calm in a storm.

“We have a saying: ‘Always fly the airplane first.’ If something is on fire, you have to put it out, but you still have to fly the airplane. Fly first, think, and then speak. It’s important to keep cool-headed the entire time. If you’re screaming, everybody else is going to lose it, too.

Enjoys her customers.

“I love passengers. Sometimes you’re busy because you’re hustling in-between flights, but I always make a point to stop and talk to my passengers. They’re often fascinated by seeing a woman pilot, let alone a black woman pilot. It’s like, ‘Girl, I’ve never seen one of you before! Are you real? Where did you come from?!’”

Juggles life between numerous cities.

“When your base airport changes, you have the option of moving or commuting to work. I commute, like most pilots do. If I finish work at 8 p.m. in another city, that probably means I’m not going to get home that night, so I need to figure out where to stay before hopping on the next plane.”

Morphs her role constantly.

“I can be a badass in that airplane, but I can also go down on one knee and help a kid tie his shoe. I can do it all in the course of two or three minutes.”

Nourishes her marriage.

“I’ve been married for 22 years and my husband and I have been together for 26. When I was training, he said something I’ll never forget: ‘The one thing that frightens me is how laser-focused you are. You’re going to start flying and forget we have this life together.’ I thought that was insightful and courageous for him to say. Sincerity and quality time are important. When we’re together, we turn off the phones and put everything else aside. Oh, and hiring housekeeping is important, so you’re not fighting over dumb stuff.”

Praises the day she chose her second career.

“I have a rigorous schedule, sometimes flying to 12 cities in three days and waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. every day. But when we close that door and I’m at 36,000 feet, I have the best office view in the world. The weather, the crew, and the passengers change, but the one thing that never gets old is my love of flying.”

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Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edits New York Magazine's pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Airbnbmag, and Wired. After spending 3.5 years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she has settled in Minneapolis, MN—the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme. Read more of Ashlea's posts.

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