Dawn Cook | Soaring with Possibilities

An Interview with Kat Mische Elle

Dawn Cook is a bestselling author, a professional pilot, a successful course creator and the CEO of a unique life-coaching practice, The Aviatrix Mindset. Dawn is also motivational speaker and co-founder of the world’s largest social network/non-profit for female pilots known as FAST (Female Aviators Sticking Together), which proudly supports over 13,000 female pilots worldwide. One of her many goals is to be an example of what is possible, not only to her two young daughters, but to all women.  A native of northern Virginia, she has remained on the east coast for most of her career. 

Dawn, tell us what makes you, YOU, and the inspiration that brought you there.

I am a mother, a wife, and I’m a professional pilot and entrepreneur. But all that being said, the hats I wear all came about because of another incredible woman, my mom. I love how people say, “Behind every great man, there’s an incredible woman.” But there is usually another incredible woman behind every driven, determined woman! 

“What’s caught is taught.” That came from my mother. She was a flight attendant for U.S. Air during my high school years, and I would go to work with her in the summers. This was way before 9/11, and you could bring your children to work. We would come up to the crew van and walk on the airplane. 

My mom was based in Northern Virginia, the National Washington, DC airport. Her route in the summer times was the D.C. shuttle. So that was D.C. to New York, DC to Boston, and back and forth all day. So that’s what I would do. I would wake up at five o’clock in the morning and fly with her and have breakfast in New York. Then I would return to D.C., fly up, and have lunch in Boston. Then I would come back to D.C. 

My journey started when I told my mom, “I want to be a flight attendant.” That was the only thing I knew about, how to travel, get paid, and see the world. My mom said, “No.” I thought, “Well, how else will I do this?” My mother told me that she had seen a female pilot. She said, “If there’s one, there’s another. And if there’s only one, why not you?” 

This is the mantra I took on. And my mother’s belief in me. 

My mother raised four children on her own for a very long time. She had this belief of “And.” She believed she could be a great mother AND leave and travel. She could see the world, AND she could raise four incredible children. 

Being raised not knowing “You can’t” and believing in the power of ‘And,’ were game changers for my belief system and were the start of so much for what was ahead of me. In the world, when you’re a minority, and if you’re a woman, if you’re a double minority, you are presented with some invisible work rules that you need to learn to follow. I knew that I had to work twice as hard to seem half as good in the eyes of my peers. Developing that drive and determination, it’s almost like it was the platform for every decision I made.

Some situations came to a point where I had to make hard decisions to get where I needed to be, but I held myself with respect the entire time because anything less was not an option. It was non-negotiable. 

I got my private pilot license, which was required then, and my commercial license. But it wasn’t until I was a flight instructor, when I graduated the year of 9/11, that my flight school went under, and when the world was scared to fly. But I was determined. I said to myself, “I will be a pilot. I will figure it out.” I thought, “I didn’t work this hard and come this far to quit now. Something’s got to give.”

I applied to 55 flight schools on the east coast, where I knew I could stay with a family member or friend until I could build up enough clients, students, and finances. I know it was 55 schools because I only had 55 pieces of paper left on the tablet. I had to go to FedEx and print them out because this was before people had iPads and personal computers, and printers at their houses, and I didn’t have that kind of money.

I was hired at a school in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. That position led to an incredible cargo position, which led me to a regional flight job, opening my current airline job. I will be one of the most senior people to retire at this company because I was hired so young. I believe this happened because I refused to give up. 

What is your personal checklist that you use to see how strong your self-respect is ranking? 

Daily, people are conditioned to go, go, go all the time. We are not taught to check in with ourselves. We, especially as women, are conditioned to check in on everyone else first, kids, spouse, and work. It’s easy to put ourselves at the bottom of that to-do list.

The first thing I do in the morning is check in with myself and ask, “How are you doing? How are you feeling?” And if I notice any overwhelm, I remind myself, “If you want to speed up, you have to slow down.” And this is coming from the Queen of 500 miles per hour all the time! We have got to slow down. I do take that very seriously. Just slow down, especially with different gut decisions. It’s almost as if two different sides are happening within me. The younger Dawn who wants to go, go, go, and the more experienced, not even enlightened, but living with a better perspective Dawn who tells herself, “Let’s just see.” 

 Have your experiences given you a broader sense of awareness?

Yes. And when I tap into that and let that voice be louder, it helps me make decisions more clearly. That clarity gives way to the confirmation of, ‘this is going to work.’ It feels good. This sits well with me. Instead of being in that version of an old mindset of, “This is what everybody else is doing… go here, go there, this is bright and shiny, I must follow along.” I now walk a path of, “How does this feel?” type of centeredness. When making decisions, my check-ins are, “Is this heavy? Is this light? Does it feel okay? How does my gut feel? Is there a little frustration with it?” I refer to those answers versus what everyone else is doing. I stopped following the crowd or what seems easy, popular, or even practical sometimes. If it doesn’t sit well with me, I won’t do it. 

What was the most impactful experience during your climb to your next career level or personal success? Tell me about creating F.A.S.T. 

From the cargo flying, I went to regional jets. From the regional jets, I was hired at a major airline. After I took my position at my new airline, I was assigned to mentor new hires coming in. This was unique because the new hires didn’t have a lot of guidance when I began my career. I stepped up and wanted to help with all the questions I wished I could have asked when I started. This was a very different situation because there was a large number of women that we were hiring. I loved seeing this! But now, these women are also starting families. There was no protocol to inform these women about situations for having a baby. I took a few under my wing and became a mentor. Other female pilots and I began discussing some ideas and decided to start a group for the other women at this airline. A group for topics such as when they are starting families and going through all of the things that you don’t want to talk about in the open groups because you don’t want any red flags put on you for having questions. It was to be a platform for the female pilots to communicate their inquiries and curiosities safely. 

We started a Facebook community for the women at our airline. And it was fabulous. It was a wonderful success. It contained information in an almost step-by-step to-do list of “Welcome to the airline. If you’re having a baby, here’s what you must do. Here’s how you leave. Here’s how you come back to work. Where to find maternity uniforms (which are hard to find), and so on.”

We were inspired to create resources and a support group for being a professional and a mother in an aviation career.

My inspiration came from being raised to view life with ‘And,’ not ‘Or.’ This was important for me to develop because the message was, ‘Or.’ You could be the pilot, but you couldn’t be the mom. ‘Or’ you could be the mom, but you had to quit being the pilot. I knew a woman didn’t have to do that and make that kind of choice.

After I started this group, women from other airlines found out and wanted to join. We knew our contract and work rules but didn’t know theirs. So we created a non-profit for female pilots named it F.A.S.T. – Female Aviators Sticking Together. A collective of five female pilots started this organization; we immediately grew to two hundred women, then to over a thousand within a couple of months, and over three thousand in one year.

We now have over 13,000 women worldwide who connect on everything for support in their careers as female pilots. From beyond being a new mother to retiring from your career to your health, your wealth, your mindset, imposter syndrome, living in the power of ‘And,’ and even sometimes, simply sharing, “I just need help.”

We have over a thousand posts a day on Facebook. We are now building out, and we’re expanding. Having that instant support and knowing ‘I’m not alone’ is the most important aspect. That is the biggest theme that we have found in being a female pilot in the airline industry.

 The female pilots members can be from anywhere. If you feel so alone because you’re the first in your family to fly, the first one of your friends, or the only female at the flight school and you are some anxiety around it, I get it. For someone to have your back when you are constantly being questioned and nitpicked is important. It’s where other powerful, amazing women remind you that you are good enough! It’s very powerful. 

Where does the gratitude for your inspired life begin? 

I don’t even think my mom knows how she inspired me. She’s always unapologetically been herself. Being able to witness her having that kind of mindset was everything. Other people who inspire me are the women who say, “Yes, I can.” Whether it’s Sonia Sotomayor or Rosa Parks, it’s “Yes, I can! Yes, I can do that!” 

What can we expect from you and F.A.S.T. for the rest of this year? 

We are creating a program to help encourage all little girls who dream of being a pilot. Our goal is to sponsor and support 20,000 discovery flights for young girls. 

A discovery flight is when someone without experience goes on a flight with an instructor. They take off, fly around, and land, all with the guidance of a flight instructor. I don’t want to create just 20,000 new female pilots. What we will create at the end of this is that we will have inspired 20,000 young girls who now have that seed of confidence, perseverance, and perspective that no one can take away from them. That is a game-changer for someone’s life! Someone doesn’t need to become a pilot, but you must know it’s possible. Knowing it’s possible that you can live that dream, you will be able to create many others.

How can we find out more about F.A.S.T?

F.A.S.T. (Female Aviators Sticking Together) can be found at: fastpilots.org. My personal website is: DawnDebbieCook.com

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