Last Updated on April 13, 2021
As we bring the first year of our GlobetrotterGirl of the Month series to an end, it make sense to reflect on the obvious question: just what makes a GlobetrotterGirl?
A GlobetrotterGirl is someone who is smart, savvy, an independent traveler who has found a way to incorporate their passion for travel into a career they love. You might remember some, like Bonnie Kassel and Torre DeRoche, who have been long-term travelers and then written about it. Or Ash Ambirge and Jill Stanton who built location independent businesses in order to live, work and travel wherever they feel like it. Still other have travel built right into their professional lives, like Arlan Hamilton, Katrine Hyllegaard and Nat Morawietz.
Our final GlobetrotterGirl of 2013 fits into this category, and it seems so fitting to feature pilot (and proclaimed St Croix beach bum) Melanie Folcik Barillaro. In this fascinating interview, we cover Melanie’s unconventional path to becoming a successful pilot, how and why aviation is such a male-dominated field, her love of adventure, inspiring travel tips and why you really shouldn’t be scared to fly. Our personal favorite part of this interview is Melanie’s description of her first solo flight.
For more inspiration heading into 2014, check out the other, incredible 11 GlobetrotterGirls of the Month from this past year who have all managed to create a career they love without ever having to sacrifice their passion for travel.
Meet Melanie Folcik Barillaro
Melanie, thanks so much for this interview. You currently have parallel careers as a Corporate Pilot and Aviation Emergency Specialist. Where did your interest in aviation in general first come from?
I was born and raised in Connecticut and was working as an EMT – Emergency Medical Technician – when I had the opportunity to fly in Connecticut’s Emergency rescue helicopter.
You could say it was love at first flight.
I realized I wanted to be the one flying, not sitting in the back. I immediately signed up for flight lessons at a local airport and held down my job working full time as an EMT to eliminate any debt when I finished the lessons. I completed three ratings in exactly one year: my Private Pilot, Instrument and Commercial Pilot licenses.
When I ‘soloed’ for the first time, there was no greater feeling in the world! The ropes of the earth unravel and you are set free! I’ve always pictured myself of a caged dove (odd, I know) with a chain around my ankle secured to the ground. When I soloed, that chain was severed, the cage lifted and that was when I knew, I was finally free.
I finished on October 14th, which was the exact day, years before, that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in flight. One month later I started working as a flight instructor.
Before we get into the details, let’s find out a couple of things. First: how many countries have you been to?
I have been to all 50 states except Hawaii, traveling extensively through Alaska and also the Caribbean, plus I have ventured through South America and Mexico, but oddly enough have not spent nearly enough time exploring Europe. There is still time though!
Second: You have an incredible list of qualifications – many of which go beyond your life in the air. What does a list of all of your adventurous and life-saving qualifications look like?
I am an Airline Transport Pilot with type ratings and am completing my Helicopter ATP pilot license. I am a flight instructor in single engine, multi-engine, seaplanes and tail-wheel aircraft, a rescue diver with PADI, a certified Class A skydiver with the USPA, an EMT with the state of Connecticut, an American Heart Association instructor, an OSHA compliance contractor, an instructor, a prospective sailor in the making, a traveling addict and an adventure junkie!
What were the steps involved in starting a career as a pilot?
To become a commercial pilot (a pilot who can be paid to fly) you have to complete 40 hours in flight to become a private pilot, then a minimum of 40 more hours flying in the clouds (instrument endorsed), then a grand total of 150 hours to qualify completely as a commercial pilot.
The first thing I did was to sign up for lessons with an instructor and worked with him 3-4 days a week in flight learning emergency procedures, special maneuvers, navigation, communication and pilotage. The bookwork I completed as self-study. Testing with the FAA consisted of written, oral and practical exams.
I want to encourage people to avoid the university route if only to save thousands of dollars. My entire training was $25,000 while university costs at places like ERAU, ATP, Colgate might even cost that per year.
March right down to your local small airport. You know the one. The one with little tail dragger aircraft tied down and the beat up old building. Ask for their oldest, most well spoken instructor and sign up. You will pay a fraction of the price for your flight training. This real-life experience will lead to job prospects that you would never find at a university.
The license I had at the entry level point would have already allowed me to work flying skydivers, as an instructor, towing banners or flying blood at night, for example. From there you can continue flying and getting ratings as you gain experience.
You were able to get your license and three ratings by the time you were 24 years old. A major accomplishment to say the least! Is this when you became a self-proclaimed St Croix bum?
Yes, I became a commercial pilot just shy of my 24th birthday and not long after starting as a flight instructor, I was hired as a private pilot to fly in the Caribbean. I was flying Caravans and Pilatus into the islands of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Barts and other islands that passengers requested. We landed in tight airports in vacation destinations. It was a tough, but charming life.
The job brought us (pilots and crews) to St Croix and we lived there during the seasons when we flew. I fell in love with the island and it immediately just felt like home. It was quaint, peaceful and had barely any tourists.
This is where I grew as a person, found myself, healed from a broken heart and became a scuba diver. I still return to STX (that’s St Croix, in airport speak) several times a year and plan on retiring on-island when the time is right.
What is it that continues to draw you back to St Croix?
One word: Irie. It is a word in Patois that means to be at total peace with your current state of being. Life on St Croix combines the people, the food, the diving, the aquatic life under the sea, the sunsets (oh the sunsets), the dark, dark nights and the sunrises in Point Udall in a way that truly arouses your soul. You simply sit on the wall in the dusky warm air and wait. As the sun peeks up over the horizon and splashes the sky and the clouds and the ocean with a vibrant orange and pink explosion…you just get it.
At least I do. I know I have achieved my Irie.
How long did you spend living on St Croix? What was the balance of time spent in the air vs on the beach?
I lived there on and off for two years while flying and the lifestyle was very laid back and a lot of fun. When we weren’t working our long days, we were expected to clean and wash the aircraft every night. I think every crew member found a way to enjoy their time individually, but mostly we enjoyed crazy events like hermit crab racing, dancing on full-moon nights out on the beaches, scuba diving together, playing drunkin-tennis (don’t ask!) and falling in love with each other’s spirit. The people in my condo, which we labeled the Frat House, would change my life forever.
What made you leave island life?
I moved off island when I got my first job flying jets in Florida and then in New York. I missed the islands every day but continued to fulfill my dreams of becoming Captain of several jets and learning about all the states in America as I traveled.
I decided not to fly for an airline, as I prefer corporate aviation. I continue to do private charter flights and am based out of the home airport KBDL. I still do flight instruction with students as well, though I am taking a quick break to start the makings of a family!
What is your take on this bit of ‘news’ recently that 51% of British passengers surveyed by Sunshine.co.uk don’t trust female pilots? In the year 2013?!
I read this article and had to chuckle. In fact, I’m known for my contagious smile, and when I welcome people on board the aircraft with that smile, people are very excited to fly with me. I have never once had a passenger that was concerned when I buckled into the left seat and began the process of aircraft start up and departure.
The article as well as this one on CNN.com highlight that in North America, only 5% of pilots are female, citing a stressful, male-dominated environment, high out-of-pocket training and specialization costs and the amount of time spent away from home as reasons.
What is your personal opinion on why the number of female pilots is so low?
I agree that this is a very male dominated field. I wonder if this never intimidated me because I left one very male-dominated field (emergency medicine) to join another, aviation.
Perhaps women do not believe they have what it takes, or the lifestyle doesn’t appeal. But I have met fabulous women pilots that have captained aircraft along side me and they are by far some of the most responsible, critical thinking professionals I have ever had the honor to fly with. They balance a beautiful ballet of their dream job and their dream life seamlessly, with husbands and children and houses and dogs to greet them when they are not in the sky.
I think possibly we as a society rarely see images or hear stories of a female pilot mastering the controls, and so women don’t internalize this as part of their own career dreams.
Have you personally ever faced any difficulties with male pilots or male colleagues taking issue with your being a female pilot?
I have never had a problem I couldn’t deal with, but there have been some issues. One male challenged me in taking my ATP written test, assuring me that I would never pass. I passed with a 98%!
Another man conceitedly told me I would have to work three times as hard to succeed in aviation just because I was a woman. I practically rolled over that assumption landing my first job as a turboprop pilot soloing as Captain at times, with only 700 hours under my belt.
The third was during my jet career, when a male pilot was so jealous at my promotion to a larger jet than his that he attempted to sabotage my career. He actually lost his job the following week.
Your career has come full circle now as you own and operate an emergency rescue company, Red Line Elements. What does your company do?
My career is still in the sky but I now brought a new element into my life. Redline Elements specializes in teaching first responders (Fire Department, Police Department, EMS) how to respond to aviation crashes. I instruct them on the special hazards specific to aircraft as well as the unique injuries that pilots can sustain. Bringing my past as an EMT and my present as a pilot together in a very unique marriage has opened up possibilities for not only myself, but for so many emergency responders that take away vital information.
You must always be working. How do you balance both your career as a pilot, Redline Elements and a private life?
I have learned that life is about sacrifice. It is not about the money coming in, the size of your house or the expensive car. It is about balancing the time with the people you love and the career that you love. Settling for anything less than that in life, is well…settling. I don’t mind “working” a lot, because to me, what I do is not work. It is a dream and it feels like it has only truly just begun.
What are your goals for the future? Will you continue to balance both career paths or are you looking to focus entirely on Red Line Elements?
This is a great question. I plan on balancing both career paths but would like to focus on my specialty classes with Redline and eventually when I complete my helicopter ATP rating, I would consider flying full time for our local rescue helicopter. I am also trying to fulfill the biggest dream of all, becoming a mom.
What career paths are available for women looking to become pilots?
The sky is the limit (pun intended!) Career paths aren’t just airline or corporate pilots. You can be a bush pilot and fly rangers in Alaska. You can be a seaplane pilot and deliver supplies to remote lakes in Maine and Canada or fly medical aircraft and transfer sick individuals to hospitals across the country. You can be a flight instructor and introduce others to the beauty of flight, fly banners, spray crops, tow glider pilots or ferry aircraft thousands of miles across the seas. You can join the military and defend our country or fly search and rescue missions with the Civil Air patrol.
If an aircraft can fly and is needed, there is no question you can be at the flight deck!
The longer we travel, the more nervous Dani and I get on planes. I don’t know why. It should be the opposite, since the more we fly, the more evidence we have of its overall safety.
What do you say to people who have a fear of flying?
Aircraft don’t just fall out of the sky. Even helicopters can auto-rotate (windmill of sorts) down to safety. Accidents do happen, but with an average of 50,000 flights everyone over the USA alone, the incident rates are so low that it really should let you rest a bit easier boarding your next flight.
When you hit turbulence in the skies, imagine it is waves under a boat or potholes under a bus. Air is still a ‘solid fluid’ and bumps are just that – bumps in the sky.
Pilots undergo an incredible amount of training, little lenience for error, are subject to random drug and alcohol tests and see doctors every 6 months to a year to secure their flying medical license. Aircraft maintenance has gotten stricter with less tolerable errors. Overall, the FAA is doing their best to increase air safety.
How often are you able to escape on an actual holiday? Do you prefer not to fly anywhere at all?
Nope, I am still a flight junkie. My holiday escape is anywhere that adventure awaits me: New Mexico, Alaska, the PC1 highway in California, Maine, Peru or the islands. I truly cannot pick just one.
What book inspires you?
Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas
What music inspires you? What do you fly to?
Bob Dylan is my inspiration, but I fly to darker music like Ben Howard.
Do you have a mentor?
My flight instructor Matt Galicia was my idol. He was patient, hard on me, trustworthy and made me one of the safest and most critical pilots under his instruction. My mentor now for helicopter flying and sailing is my friend and Vietnam vet Rich Magner who flies our medevac helicopter (read his story here).
Motto you live by?
I tell myself “You got this” Never give up on yourself.
Favorite travel quote?
Leave your heaviest baggage behind when you travel (and I don’t mean your suitcase).
As GlobetrotterGirl of the Month, can you share travel tips for our travel-savvy readers?
Travel without agenda, just a few key ideas of what you want to see in each location. It may be a building you saw in a Pinterest post, a new Banksy sighting or a restaurant you saw on a TV show.
Just use that idea as a stepping-stone to find more unique gems in a city.
And stay away from tourist traps so you can see the world through your eyes and stay flexible. The most interesting, kind, safe and loving people you will ever meet will be in a tiny coffee shop on the outskirts of town. You will find them loading lobster pots onto a boat on a chilly pier in Alaska. Stop, talk to them. People are the adventure. The scenery is simply the backdrop.
How can our readers get in touch with Melanie Folcik Barillaro?
I’m not that into social media, but I’d love your readers to email me at [email protected].
Interested in finding out more about the most important thing that keeps us trotting the globe? Pick up our book, the Ultimate Guide to Housesitting, to start getting free accommodation and traveling authentically around the globe.