We inaugurate our Trailblazer column with a determined gal who chose a job that would satisfy her craving for adventure and adrenalin but also her need to be at the helm of her own journey.
In a world where conformity, fast gains and financial stability govern most life decisions, Cristina seems almost defiant by doing only what she really wants to, saying “no” to compromises and accepting the hard work that comes with living one’s dreams. What drives her isn’t recklessness, although her age still affords it.
I met up with her to find out where she gets her determination from, how she makes bold choices – and sticks to them – and overcomes the inevitable obstacles in life and career. And yes, to make friends with a cool gal.
Scorching hot August, at lunchtime. I climb the steps to the subway station at Piața Romană in a hurry, trying to arrive on time for my rendezvous with Cristina, at Café Verona. Cristina-helicopter-pilot-Ciufu, from Constanța, who happens to be in Bucharest with work, so I can’t afford to be late. I get a breather at the McDonald’s zebra. Lights turn green and I resume running, dodging the sea of people as I cross.
In the middle of my slalom a tall girl catches my eye. She stood out of the crowd by advancing in her own asynchronous rhythm, calm and constant, as though floating, unhindered, in the bustle surrounding her. Quick scan: slender, straight long legs, straight back, long black hair, also straight, held in a pony tail. Skinny jeans, black sandals, a loose black blouse and a clutch bag held effortlessly. Verdict: ”yeah, she’s a model”, I tell myself resignedly, being reminded that Bucharest is full of beautiful women.
I arrive at the café and look around. 12:58pm, I made it in time. I see no one waiting so I take out my mobile and call Cristina. It’s ringing. ”I hope we recognize each other fast” I tell myself, while I keep looking around. I see the model again, now making a left and walking into the yard. She’s looking for something in her bag. ”Yes, hello?”. ”Hello, Cristina?”
Still holding the phone to my ear, I walk towards the model/helicopter pilot, my hand reaching out. ”Hi, ha ha, I just passed you by like two minutes ago”. She has a wide smile, big eyes and a somewhat shy gaze, but she talks fast and unaffected.
While we’re waiting for our lemonades I tell Cristina about the Trailblazer column, where we feature ordinary people, with virtues and imperfections, yet people that stand out through their passion, their daring to do things their own way, to wander off the beaten path. She says it sounds great so I jump right into the list of things I’m curious about, starting with the first.
How did you end up a helicopter pilot? Was it something you’ve wanted to do since you were little?
I’ve always wanted to be a vet, growing up. Up until the 11th grade, when I was already preparing for the admission exam to the school of veterinary medicine, I was convinced I will be taking care of animals and that nothing will steer me away from that.
That was until I was at the Otopeni airport with my mother one day, waiting for dad to return from a trip. We were there, watching the planes take off and land when I told mom: ”that’s it, I know what I want to become!”. Mother went ”yeah, you want to be a vet”. ”Wrong, I wanna be a pilot!”
Just like that?
Yeah, just like that. I told myself, right then and there, ”we’re not doing that anymore, we’re going in a completely different direction”.
Up until I sat the admission at flight school I had never been on a plane, ever. I had no idea whether I would be afraid, or get sick, or won’t be able to put my foot up on the ladder… ”I don’t care. I want to be an airplane pilot!”
Shortly after that I met some people that told me there’s a school in Bucharest where you can train for this job and I told myself ”so God really sets things up right.”
What was your parents’ reaction when they heard you wanted to become a pilot?
My folks, they were proud, really proud. My mother was a little scared, one of us took to the seas, another to the air. My father, a navigator; myself, a pilot. But she got used to it.
Aha, so you may be taking the adventurous nature after your father…
Well, I don’t know exactly how, because I never had anything to do with aviation. No grandparents or great-grandparents to have invented the rotor, the wing, the plane… It was odd for everyone that I went to flight school. I didn’t even know any pilots, someone that might have inspired me or tell me how wonderful it is to fly. It was something that I just felt like doing. I’ll grant you, I’m the type that would try anything foolish in this world. I did bungee jumping, parachuting, diving, I like riding a motorbike… I’d do all kinds of foolish things.
So you just set out to do something and do it?
Yes. The tough part was that when I graduated from high school there was no admission at the flight school. They organized admissions only when the ministry funded them, and that was only when there was a need for pilots. So I had to go and sit admissions at the school of aerospace engineering, I figured I might as well stay within the same area.
Aerospace engineering sounds impressive!
Yeah, it has a ring to it, it’s a really difficult school. Back in my day you had to go through admissions, now you just apply for it, so there’s lots of people getting in but less than 50% actually graduate. I spent three years there, which didn’t help me too much.
I managed to apply for admission with the Superior School for Civil Aviation – as it was called at the time, in 2005, where out of 200 – 300 people that applied I managed to be among the 24 that were admitted.
My big disappointment was that I got in for the helicopter track, not the one for airplanes. Cries, screams, ”no, I want the plane, I want the plane!”. The theory classes were the same and the first 22 flight hours, at the Strejnic airfield, near Ploiești, were plane-based for everyone.
The great joy came when I got into the helicopter and said ”I’m not getting off this thing. I don’t need a plane, you go fly a plane”. Yes… it’s wonderful!
Is that because you have more control? What’s the feeling like?
You are in control and you do everything that needs doing in the helicopter, it’s not like a plane. A plane is a sort of bus that is floating out there somewhere, whereas the helicopter is like a motorbike that can take you anywhere, in tight areas, to seek out, to discover. The flight instructor used to say he’d kill himself after every teaching hour. He said, ”if they don’t find me hanged in my room tomorrow, maybe I’ll manage to turn you people into pilots”.
Were there other female students?
I was the only woman in the helicopter cohort. There were two or three girls in the years before me, but they switched over to airplanes.
Because it’s a more convenient industry, right?
Yes, and because the rewards, at least the financial ones, are much higher than with helicopters. Not to mention that there are more jobs in aviation. So female helicopter pilots there’s just me and another girl, a year older, who now flies in Africa.
Really? Africa? Can you go that far on a helicopter? (You can’t, doh!)
No, she lives in Africa, she flies to oil rigs there.
What’s the flight range, by the way?
Depending on the chopper’s fuel consumption, from 3 to 5, maximum 6 hours of flight.
And who is hiring over here in Romania? Companies that require such services? Private individuals?
Business people. That’s how I got to work in Sibiu, for someone who had construction projects in various areas around the country and needed to get from Sibiu to Cluj, Alba Iulia and Focșani in just one day. You can’t do that by car. So, really, it’s the people that actually need a helicopter. You don’t get many snobs that go ”I wanna take my girlfriend to a mountaintop and have a glass of wine there”. That does happen, but not very often.
At the company level, things don’t really work out here. People have tried, they’re still trying to do air-taxi services but demand is really slim, the market is very small because helicopters have pretty high running costs. To be honest, in my opinion, people are asking too high of a price per hour of flight, but that’s our national character, we go into business and we try to regain the money in the first month. Nobody’s up for paying around 3000 euro to get from Bucharest to Constanta. The trip might take 40 minutes, true, but I’m taking you there and I have to get back, so you’ll pay for the return trip.
And whoever owns a helicopter will be cruising in it. In general, that’s Romanian millionaires. There a lot of helicopters in Romania. And a lot of millionaires that we don’t know about.
Is getting hired more difficult for a woman pilot?
I’ve met people that prefer men, yes. They would call me up for an interview and then say that they prefer men. You could tell by my name that I’m a woman, you don’t have to have me over for an interview to realize that.
Why is that? Do they think it involves more risks?
Just like what they say about women driving cars… male prejudice toward women.
When you’re not flying, what do you do in your spare time? Do you read magazines? (*wink*)
I read Playboy. I really like Playboy articles, their writing is fun. I read men’s magazines, in general. I also buy women’s mags that I browse to see what’s new with dresses or shoes, but I don’t really read the articles in women’s magazines. I also started going to the gym recently and I read men’s mags and articles about gym and nutrition even more avidly.
I’m a sort of little boy, actually. I think the fact that my mother wanted a girl and my father a boy made me turn out a girl with boyish behaviours. With scraped knees and all that… I don’t know if they ever got me dolls when I was little but I do know for sure that I had tanks and cars. I like shooting a rifle, going fishing, you know, the usual girly stuff… I also like putting on nail polish, from time to time, and I do my hair, too. But my behaviour tends to be that of a boy, in general. If I could wear sneakers all the time and slide through the traffic here on Magheru with my car, that’s what I’d do.
Awesome! Do you think you will change? Some people become more blasé after turning 30.
I could hardly wait to turn 30. For me, it was something like a barrier because I had several years in a row where nothing good was happening, or, at least, when things were not going that well. The minute I started something, it suddenly stopped. I told myself ”this can’t continue like this, something has to give. When can things change? After 30!”
Great attitude! I’ve noticed that this age is a cause of panic to many. I’m approaching 28 myself and I’m starting to feel a slight fear, and I don’t know where it’s coming from exactly.
I know, women tend to get scared by this age. I don’t. I feel younger, smarter, livelier, more of a kid, more beautiful… When I turned 30, it was as if I was reborn. I didn’t go ”oh, I’m 30, here’s a couple of extra wrinkles”. So what? I was checking myself in the mirror, I do have wrinkles, but they’re not a problem.
And that whole stereotype about being 30 and unmarried, “don’t you have any kids already?” No, I don’t, I’m still a kid at 30, that’s actually how I feel. I’d like to have them, yes. I suppose I’d keep doing the same foolish things with my kid by the hand. I won’t tell myself something like “I’m a mother now, I can’t trip on the street running after such and such.” Yes I would, and holding my son’s hand while I’m at it! What’s the problem with that?
I met some friends the other day that said the same thing: ”man, we’re going on 30, we’re old”. You’re old because you want to be that, not because you can’t do the things you did when you were 22 anymore.
So 30 is the new 20?
Yeah, exactly. And, in the words of Mihaela Rădulescu, 40 is the new 30.
What are your girlfriends like?
I don’t have as many girl friends as I’d like to because, according to my best friend, many people feel intimidated, I don’t know why. I have few girl friends, but I like to think they are trustworthy and I can rely on them when I need them.
This intimidation probably comes from the fact that you’re strong and you give that off right from the beginning.
Yeah, but I don’t brag about what I do, I don’t look down on people –like some of my former colleagues do, I won’t give names. I think I am more than a normal human being.
Do they have a similar temperament, your girlfriends?
My best friend is just like me, we can jump into an abyss together, hand in hand. We also work in the same field, in aviation. Same people, same stories… We got to be friends in a weird way. We were dating the same guy, but at different times in our lives. He was mouthing me off to her, and her to me. The minute we saw each other we bonded and we asked ourselves ”what was that moron on about?” Now we’re like sisters.
Now that you mention dating the same guy I imagined a sort of Grey’s Anatomy of the aviation world, with everything that goes on backstage in this industry.
This is what we were thinking, too. I told you, I’m not a good writer, but I actually told her earlier I’d be coming to see you and she went: ”alright, you just find someone who knows what to write after we’ve had three bottles of champagne”. You’d have a lot to write down…
Oh no, why didn’t we meet for champagne, instead?!
We can do that one night, next time I’m in Bucharest we can get together, have champagne and chat (ed. the plan worked, I made friends with a cool gal!)
Please do. By the way, tonight we’re going out for a fashion photoshoot. We’ll go clubbing, have fun and take pictures. Care to join us?
If you put it like that… I’ve got some stuff to do early in the morning in Constanța and I don’t have a car, that’s the thing. There will be other chances. But you know, I’m afraid of cameras, cam recorders, any recording device. That’s because I never felt good about myself.
Seriously? I actually wanted to ask you how you get along with your body, that’s the topic for the first issue of Hey Mărie!
I don’t like the way I look, I never did. I think I’m either too skinny, or that my hips are too wide, my hands are too large, my feet are too big, or my nose… Well, I actually started liking my body a little, recently. But yes, I’ve always felt like the ugly duckling.
I’m positive that people around have told you that it isn’t so. I told you, I was admiring you from afar, thinking you were a model. Talk about how others see you in a completely different light from the way you do yourself…
Yes, that’s right. But I don’t know, I’m of the idea that I’ve got a mirror at home and I know how to use it. I don’t like what I see. I didn’t like it for a long time. I told you, I don’t know whether it’s that whole woman-in-her-30’s thing, when I should be aware of what I am and how I feel, but I’m slowly starting to like myself, one step at a time.
They say looks don’t matter. Looks matter a great deal, after all, that’s who we are until we get to talk.
A lot of people have issues with the way they look, a lot more than I would’ve thought before we started preparing this issue about shapes and bodies.
Yes, I think so too, and I’ve also noticed that there are more and more people going to the gym. I said I’m gonna give aviation a chance until fall and, if nothing happens, I’ll go for fitness instructor classes (going to the gym really suits me, I spend 3 hours almost daily at the gym, I go to aerobics classes). I really enjoy working with people, I think it’s great that you get to talk to them, see what their problems are, what their wants are, where they want to go, motivate them…
You never considered switching to planes?
I don’t want to. Everyone kept telling me ”you got it into your head to stick with helicopters, when you could have easily switched over to airplanes, lead a comfortable life, make good money”.
Why won’t you?
Because you don’t get the same satisfaction. I might as well get an economics degree and get hired in some office somewhere and just sit there, calculating loans. It’s exactly the same thing. You don’t get that delight from the trembling helicopter when you land it in some little opening in a forest, or on a river shore, or when you go see the Danube flow into the sea, or the black goats up on the mountaintops.
You can’t do these things in an airplane. Sure, I’m convinced there’s also a huge satisfaction involved in knowing you took 200 people safely from A to B. But there you take a seat, glass pane in front of you, browse some papers, type in seven coordinates in your computer and you just sit there for 3 hours, from Bucharest to Barcelona. That’s why I said that although it pains me not to fly, although I feel I’m not myself… no, I won’t do planes.
I chose this job out of passion, I can’t switch over for money. I’d rather bake cupcakes, or crochet, or write for Hey Mărie!
Cristina doesn’t seem like the type that thinks they know better what other people should do with their lives, so I didn’t ask her for any life advice. But I can share some of the ”morals” that I got out of her story and the mood that I was left with after meeting her: no matter how hard, different or unexplainable it might be for others, it’s still worth doing what you like doing. She gives off courage and the understanding that this does not mean being spared the vulnerability – that’s part of being a human being, after all.
There is no guarantee of success, doing something different will require constant work, and obstacles will always take you by surprise, no matter how many scenarios you’ve anticipated.
Why would so much effort be worth it? Because trusting your own choice will give you the power to overcome every obstacle, the satisfaction of small victories will justify the hard work and in comparing yourself to those around you, you’ll be convinced that nobody gets any guarantee of success.
And because you just might make it.
In the time it took us to have this first edition of the online living room ready, Cristina has already become a fitness instructor. Again she chose to do what she enjoys, not what might have been perhaps more convenient, but without satisfactions. Adaptable, adventurous and stubbornly optimistic, Cristina can be an inspiration to those of us that are contemplating making a daring choice and are waiting for a jolt, which we fool ourselves into thinking it comes from outside.
Do you know what you want to become?
Interview by Alexandra Ștef
Photos courtesy of Cristina Ciufu