Pioneering female pilot takes to the air with pride

Huang He (center), a pilot at Air China, coaches trainees in a simulator. [Photo/China Daily]

Life is filled with pivotal moments, each capable of steering a person onto a completely different path.

For Huang He, one such moment arrived when her school’s dean informed her about a female pilot recruitment advertisement in a newspaper in 2003. Seizing this opportunity, she embarked on a journey that would change her life forever.

“I entered this industry (to become a pilot) by accident. At the time, I was a sophomore at Tianjin Normal University, majoring in computer science. One day, my dean mentioned that he thought I fit all the requirements listed in the newspaper for hiring a pilot and encouraged me to give it a try. I applied, passed all the tests, and have been a pilot ever since. I completely stumbled into this career,” the 42-year-old said.

In 2003, Air China, one of China’s largest airline companies and the national flag carrier, began recruiting pilots from among college students, breaking gender barriers by hiring male as well as female candidates.

The selection process was highly competitive, involving physical examinations, written tests and multiple rounds of interviews. Huang remembered sitting in a vast auditorium filled with hundreds of dreamers aspiring to soar through the skies.

Out of over 500 female applicants in 2003, only three successfully navigated the rigorous tests and secured the opportunity to become pilot trainees.

Huang transferred to Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin to begin her pilot training, a customary process in China by which airline companies collaborate with universities to train and nurture aspiring pilots.

Joining Air China as a trainee pilot in 2005, she became one of the company’s first female pilots and achieved the rank of captain by 2011.

As of the end of last year, only 843 female pilots held commercial flight licenses, according to the Annual Report of Chinese Civil Aviation Pilot Development 2023. This figure pales in comparison with the total number of pilots in China’s airline companies, which stood at 57,854 by the end of 2022.

Chinese woman referee makes history

Illustration:Liu Xiangya/GT

Illustration:Liu Xiangya/GT

Chinese soccer marked a historic moment during the sixth round of the 2024 season of the Chinese Super League on Sunday.

In the match between Shanghai Port and Shandong Taishan, international assistant referee Xie Lijun served as the second assistant referee, becoming the first woman in the Chinese mainland to officiate in the country’s top flight men’s soccer league. 

Shanghai outgunned Shandong 4-3 in a seven-goal thriller while Xie’s calm performance ensured the smooth progress of the game. 

The 34-year-old Xie said after the match that she was a little nervous before the start of the match. “But when the whistle blew, all my attention and focus were on the game, and the nervousness disappeared. I believe I’ve also reached a new starting point,” Xie said. 

The pace of men’s matches is faster, attracting more attention, and thus the pressure is higher. The physical demands are also higher, Xie noted. 

When asked to rate her officiating from 1 to 10, Xie gave it 7.5 points. “There is a difference in physicality and intensity between men’s and women’s soccer matches. In situations like ruling fouls and making technical judgments, it’s actually clearer in men’s matches than in women’s matches,” she said. 

Following her debut in the men’s league, she has now set her sights on officiating at the men’s World Cup in the future and mentioned that her past experiences have helped her develop excellent physical fitness. 

This milestone moment is sure to get more women and girls interested in soccer and sports officiating while setting a powerful example for fellow female referees, encouraging them to aspire to greater heights in their soccer careers. It will undoubtedly serve as inspiration for future generations of female referees, motivating them to excel in major international competitions.

In addition, having women involved in refereeing brings diverse perspectives and experiences to the game. This can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the sport and potentially contribute to fairer and more balanced officiating.

The impact of this milestone on the development of soccer lies in its potential to foster a more inclusive and diverse sporting culture. Breaking gender barriers and promoting equal opportunities can attract more talent to the sport, both on and off the field. Additionally, it sends a message to fans, players, and officials alike that soccer is a sport for everyone.

In recent years, more woman referees have made their mark in the men’s competitions. 

In the match between Costa Rica and Germany during the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Stephanie Frappart of France became the first woman to referee a men’s World Cup match. 

Frappart was also the first woman to referee a French top-flight league and UEFA Champions League game.

Rebecca Welch became the first female referee to take charge of an English Premier League match when she officiated Burnley’s 2-0 win against Fulham in November.

Selecting outstanding female referees to officiate men’s professional league matches is also one of the measures announced by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) before the start of this season to enhance the professional competence of domestic league referees, as well as improving the management and supervision of referees. 

Efforts to promote female referees’ presence at men’s matches has received not only support from the CFA but also backing from international male referees. 

During a conference for national women’s soccer referees in December, renowned referee Ma Ning expressed his support for capable female referees officiating in men’s leagues. 

It was Ma who took charge of Sunday’s game and helped Xie realize her dream.

As an elite assistant referee under the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Xie has officiated in previous FIFA events and was the only Chinese referee at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. 

Currently working as a teacher of yoga, soccer, and volleyball courses at the Sichuan University Jinjiang College, Xie began her officiating journey in December 2009 when she first raised a sideline flag at a high school event in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. In 2019, after ascending to the ranks of accredited international referees, she stepped onto the stage of the Women’s World Cup in France.

“Nowadays, it’s becoming a trend for female referees to officiate in men’s matches. It’s already common for female referees in the English Premier League to officiate men’s matches. Currently, there is still a gap between Chinese referees and European counterparts. I believe that the CFA has a clear plan for nurturing female referees, and in the future, we will see more female referees participating in men’s matches,” said Xie.

Xie’s impressive performance will encourage more female referees.

It signifies modernization in the world of soccer and sports in general. Embracing diversity and providing equal opportunities for women in all aspects of the game reflects a progressive step for the Chinese league and the sport as a whole.

Xie said she hopes that more women referees can take part in the Women’s World Cup and men’s competitions in the years ahead. 

“My suggestion is to watch more men’s matches and feel the atmosphere of the games. I believe more female referees will be present at men’s matches and stepping onto the World Cup stage,” she said. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. [email protected]