Dawn Cook | ‘AND’ F.A.S.T

An Interview with Kat Mische Elle

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

I am a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a professional pilot and entrepreneur. I’m a best-selling author and co-founder of an incredible nonprofit that networks over 13,000 female pilots worldwide. But all that being said, the hats that I wear, all came about, honestly, because of another incredible woman. I love how people say, “Behind every great man, there’s an incredible woman.” But, behind every driven, determined woman, there is usually another incredible woman! “What’s caught is taught.” That came from my mother. She was a flight attendant for US 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 literally come up to the crew van and walk on the airplane.  

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

My journey honestly started when one day I told my mom, “I want to be a flight attendant.” That was the only thing I knew for how to travel, to get paid, to see the world. My mom said, “No.” I thought, “Well, how else am I going to do this?” She said, “I saw a female pilot, you should be a pilot.” If my mom said to do that, then this is what I was going to do. I’m fortunate that my story starts with believing I could do anything because I didn’t know I couldn’t. That’s what she instilled in me, the “Yes, you can!”

dawn cook

My mother told me that she saw another female pilot. She said, “If there’s one, there’s another. And if there’s only one, why not you?”  

That’s 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 that she could be a great mother, AND she could 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,’ they were game-changers, and that was honestly 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, that determination, it’s almost like it was the platform for every decision that I made. If people are going left because it’s easy; I’m going to go right, because I know that’s what’s best for me. It might be harder having to climb that hill, I know that. But when I’m not going to follow the crowd, I’m setting myself apart, and that’s what I need to do to get where I want to be.

Some situations came to a point where I had to make those decisions to get where I needed to be, but I held myself with respect the entire time because anything less is not an option. That’s a non-negotiable when it comes to the decisions that I make in my life.  

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 a friend until I could build up enough clients and students and finances. I know it was 55 schools because that’s all the paper I had left. I had to go to FedEx and print them out because this is before people had iPads and personal computers and printers at their house, 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, which then opened the airline job that I have now. I will be one of the most senior people to retire at this company because I was hired so young. I absolutely believe this happened because I said giving up would not happen.

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

I love that question. We are not taught to check in with ourselves. On a daily basis, people are conditioned to go, go, go all the time. Especially if you’re a parent, check on the kids, what are they doing? How is school? How’s your spouse? How is everything and everyone else? It’s so easy to put ourselves on 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’m noticing 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 there are two different sides happening within me. The old Dawn who wants to go, go, go and the more experienced, not even enlightened, but just better perspective Dawn who tells herself, “Let’s just see.”  

So, your experiences have 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 with so much more clarity. 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, must follow along.” I now walk a path more of a, “How does this feel?” type of centeredness. When it comes to 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 go off that versus what everyone else is doing. Not so much following the crowd or what seems easy, or popular, or even practical sometimes. If it doesn’t sit well, I’m not going to do it.

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

From the cargo flying, I went to the 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 be mentoring 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 it was a large number of women that we were hiring. I loved seeing this! But now these women are also starting families. There was really 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 we decided that we should 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 really want to talk about in the open 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 be able to communicate their inquiries and curiosities in a safe way.  

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 a step-by-step to-do list of, “Welcome to the airline. Hey, if you’re having a baby, here’s what you need to 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 how to be a professional and a mother in an aviation career.

This was so important for me to develop because the message out there was basically, ‘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. My inspiration came from being raised to view life with ‘And,’ not ‘Or’. I knew a woman didn’t have to do that and make that kind of choice.

After I started this group, other women from other airlines found out and wanted to join. We knew our contract and work rules, but we didn’t know theirs. Then the decision came to create as a collective whole and start a group where it’s all-female pilots. So, we did that. And we called it F.A.S.T. – Female Aviators Sticking Together. It was a collective of five of us that started this organization. We happen to be from the same airline, but we thought what a beautiful thing to create for all the different airlines collectively. We went from two hundred women to over a thousand within a couple of months and over three thousand in a year.

We created a nonprofit out of it in 2015. It is now 2022. We have 13,000 women worldwide who are connecting on everything for support in their career as female pilots. From beyond being a mother, to retiring, to your health, to your wealth, to your mindset, to imposter syndrome, to living in the power of ‘And,’ and even sometimes, simply stating, “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. It doesn’t matter the country, you feel so alone because you’re the first one in your family to fly. You’re the first one out of your friends to fly. You’re the only female at the flight school. I get it. You’re the only one in your training class. The need to express your feelings of frustration happens far too often. Emotional support is needed when feeling exhausted. For someone to have your back when you are constantly being questioned and nitpicked. It’s a place where other powerful, amazing women will remind you that you are good enough! It is a place where other women just get you. It’s very powerful.  

Where does the gratitude for your inspired life begin? 

Goodness, it starts with my mom, I don’t even think she knows what she did. She was just always, going to do her. And you can ask questions, but she’s going to do it, (whatever she wanted to do) anyway. Being able to witness her having that kind of mindset, it was everything. Other people who inspire me are the women who say, “Yes, I can.” Whether it’s Sonia Sotomayor or it’s 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 that will help encourage those dreams to come true for all little girls who want to be pilots one day. Our goal is to sponsor and support 20,000 discovery flights for young girls.  

A discovery flight is when someone with no experience whatsoever goes into a flight with a flight instructor. And they take off, they fly around, they land, all with the guidance of a flight instructor, What I want to create with this is not just 20,000 new female pilots. But what we will create at the end of this is 20,000 young girls who have had that seed of confidence, of perseverance, of a perspective that you can’t take away from them. 20,000 young girls who have been at the controls of an aircraft, who have turned left, who have turned right, who have descended, who have landed, who have taken off, who have seen the world from a bird’s eye. That’s 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, that you can be you, that you can do you.

And what is the best way for people to find or follow you?

Our nonprofit can be found at: fastpilots.org. And that’s for F.A.S.T., Female Aviators Sticking Together. I can be easily found at DawnDebbieCook.com. Or if you have a question, just email me. It’s empowered@aviatrixmindset.com. 

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