Meet the Coffs Coast Women Training to be Pilots

Most of us are happy enough to hop on a plane to get to our work or holiday destinations. But sitting in the pilot’s seat? We’ll gladly leave that to the professionals! But for Shari Genoli, Grace Rich and Kamla Webb being a passenger didn’t quite cut it. Under the guidance of chief flying instructor Mark White, the three Coffs Coast women are taking to the skies…and loving it. 

Cb: How did you end up in the pointy end of the plane?

Shari: I used to watch pilots walk through the airport and think they were so cool. I thought, “I want to be one of them, I CAN be one of them!” Aerobatic flights go over my parents’ place in the Hunter Valley and when I saw them doing all of their tricks I knew I wanted to be up there.

Grace: When I was younger, I wanted to be an air hostess. But after a trial flight here I decided I didn’t want to be an air hostess; I wanted to fly the thing! Flying is a combination of everything I love: It’s hands on, it’s learning about aero physics and meteorology…so many things I’ve always been passionate about all in one. It’s never the same. The conditions, the amount of air traffic, it’s always something new and it’s just so thrilling every time.

Kamla: My family came to Australia when I was a baby so I’ve always travelled and loved everything about planes.Mum even made me little plane dinners at home! When I was 13, my brother and I started at Aviation Futures. I got all my hours up but I was a year too young to go for my solo license. I started working at Coopers Surf and that was my weekends gone so I stopped flying. I got into Aviation Technology at uni but I wasn’t ready to move to Sydney, so I stayed here and studied business. It wasn’t until 2018 after I got married and had my daughter that I was able to come back. I’d ripped Mark’s ad out of a magazine and put it in the back of my diary. When I was ready, I pulled that ad out and called him.

Cb: Can you describe the feeling of flying a plane? 

Grace: It’s so thrilling. The take offs especially. You just go full throttle over five seconds. I think once you understand how much control you have over the plane and how responsive it is to your own controls, from there you realise it is quite safe. 

Kamla: I don’t know about you guys but I love turbulence! It’s like a pothole in the road when you’re driving a car.

Shari: One of the first things Mark said to me was, “Bumps will come, and bumps will go”. It’s just going to rock you around; nothing is going to happen.

Grace: He says if it kicks you, you kick it back! It’s Mark’s humour that gets me through. Once we were on final turn, which is really important. You have to make sure you’re at your correct height and descending nicely. You’re coming in at the right speed then all of a sudden, the wind will just kick a wing down and Mark’s like, just kick it back! When there’s high danger, it seems I’m enjoying myself the most. I can’t stop giggling! 

Cb: Does it take a certain type of person, or could anyone do this? 

Kamla: I think everyone has their own little hurdles and things they get stuck on. For me it was landing. I would come here six weeks in a row, three days in a row and practice but I would never get it. But then Rod (principal of Christian Community School, who established the flying school) told me he had the same problem years ago. I was looking down and the ground was coming up really fast and everything in me said NO. Rob told me I needed to train my eyes and look straight down the runway, just see the ground in my peripheral vision. Now it makes sense but sometimes I still catch myself doing it. 

Grace: Landing the plane when you’re travelling at more than 130 kilometres an hour goes against everything that feels right! We also do this thing called flaring which is where we point the nose of the plane up to land the back wheels first. You can’t really see the runway anymore, so you just have to trust that you’ve lined everything up straight.

Cb: What are your future aspirations? 

Grace: I’d like to get my commercial license eventually. And it takes a lot of hours, a lot of training and a lot of experience but I’d eventually love to work for Air Ambulance or Flying Doctors. I think it would be incredible to use aviation to support people all over the country. 

Shari: I just want to have fun! I want to fly down and see my family for the weekend. I would love to do rescuing and support in some way but whether that’s a reality for me…I don’t have great eyesight and that is important to fly. I’ll stick with the little fun flights around Australia. I would love to learn aerobatics too. 

Kamla: I would like to do what Mark does, be an instructor. I think that’s a future I can have without leaving Coffs Harbour. I would like to do my general aviation so I can fly a bigger plane, too.

Cb: Aviation is a male-dominated industry. Should more women become pilots? 

Shari: I’m a primary school teacher and I’m finding that the girls coming through realise they can do whatever they want which is probably a different mindset to the generation before. I’m hoping girls will see that this is not just a man’s thing. Especially as they start to see more women out there. 

Grace: I’ve definitely had a few comments, even from people I’ve met in passing. I think the worst was, “Don’t you have to be really smart to be a pilot?” But within this school itself, the support from absolutely everyone has been amazing. It’s a really uplifting experience.

Kamla: This is the one place I can come to, and no one really knows who I am or what I do. don’t think Mark even knows what I do for a job. You’re just you, it’s not about who you’re related to or what you do for work. I worked in my dad’s business and now I work in my husband’s business. People say, “You’re so and so’s daughter, you’re so and so’s wife”. But when I’m here I’m just ‘Kamla the pilot’.

Mark White (Chief Flying Instructor): I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, and I’ve had a lot of students come through, mainly guys. A lot of guys get a big head, or think they know more than you or they blame everything but themselves. The girls take it on board, they get on with it and away they go. There should be more women and girls come through flying. They think it’s just a guy thing. But they can do it and they can do it better. That’s my view as an instructor of more than 25 years.  

Women Pilots Coffs Coast
Shari, Grace and Kamla with Chief Flying Instructor Mark White