Managing the skies is a tricky job – especially when voice calls and data transmission are your only means of communication.
At Volocopter we employ many women engineers in crucial functions across the company. One of these functions is air traffic management (ATM), and we are proud to have women like Aycan on board. Her international experience not only adds another dimension to our work, it also makes her journey as a woman in aviation all the more valuable. We sat down with Aycan to get a view of our skies – and of gender equality in the industry – through her eyes.
Aycan, can you briefly summarize your role at Volocopter?
Sure. Well, my official title is Airspace Expert – let me explain what that means in practice. Before joining Volocopter, I spent 11 years working as an Air Traffic Controller (ATCO). Around two-and-a-half years ago, I worked my way up to a position as Türkiye’s (the new official designation for “Turkey”) first woman airspace designer, in a field that is very male dominated in many countries around the world.
Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs, organizations that manage aircraft when in flight or in an airfield maneuvering area) vary from country to country, and I ensure I’m in touch with as many of them as possible. That’s because what I’m trying to do is integrate our aircraft into overall airspace operations – and airspace design methodology is the tool I use to do that. It helps me to understand and plan how to integrate our aircraft into arrival and departure traffic streams, and busy airspaces. As an airspace designer, I’m responsible for sketching out and supporting the implementation of the routes. And since we will have limited airspace, I need to ensure a safe distance between our aircraft and anything that shares the sky alongside it.
The challenge lies in how everything an ATCO does is live: contact with aircraft is only possible via communication systems, and you need to act fast so you don’t end up wasting anyone’s time. But that’s precisely why I like it. At the end of the day, seeing all of the different parts of your job come to life – especially the safety and efficiency aspects – is tangible proof that you’ve achieved a great deal.
My work focuses specifically on ensuring safe and efficient airspace integration for our aircraft that relate back to Volocopter’s needs, local airspace requirements, and air traffic control considerations. It’s exciting and rewarding in equal measure. One aspect of the job I enjoy in particular is using a flight simulator to try out new routes, and then validating these results to convince the authorities that our technology does exactly what it claims to do. In turn, this will allow us to fly the aircraft for real by our scheduled commercial launch in 2024.
Exciting stuff! So tell us, Aycan, when did the aviation industry bug bite, and what excites you about our branch of it (UAM)?
Well, it all happened back in my native Ankara, and stayed with me in Istanbul. During a class trip as a teenager, I spied a person in the control tower and wanted to find out what exactly they do and how they do it. That was the start of an incredible career journey.
I subsequently learned all about aspects like the day-to-day duties of air traffic controllers (i.e., issuing takeoff and landing instructions for safe operations) and the role of the many others who work there. As I mentioned, my fascination was born at a young age, when I saw ACTOs at work with my own eyes. I was so enthused that I pursued a Management Engineering degree. I followed this with a master’s degree in Economics and for two years I attended theoretical and later simulator classes.
After further on-the-job training, I became an Air Traffic Controller. The job definitely required a good dose of perseverance, but that was right up my alley. And honestly, it’s a wonderful feeling to have gone through an intensive process like that and now be in a position where I can achieve even more at a future-forward company like Volocopter.
Sounds like a real challenge! But despite the difficulties, do you think more women are finding routes into aviation – and if not, why is it such a tough sell?
If you look at the ratio of women air traffic controllers in EUROCONTROL countries (European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, aka EUROCONTROL), I believe it hasn’t changed very much in the last 10 or 15 years. We’re still a far cry from ensuring gender equality. Added to that is the fact that once women hit 40, glass ceilings start appearing, and they either leave the world of work or build in a career break to raise families. As things stand, a very small number of women hold ATC management positions. This is a classic case of underrepresentation – as in most fields of aviation – and it’s a real shame as women have plenty to offer in such roles.
But then I look at women like myself, a mother of two who’s also pursuing a career full-time! I guess I’m fortunate enough to have a husband who’s happy to share the responsibility and workload while bringing up our two children. So maybe conventional attitudes are starting to change, as traditional gender roles are questioned and people become more flexible in their thinking.
Did you ever feel like you’ve had to work harder than male colleagues to advance your career?
I’d definitely say that’s the case in my line of work as an airspace designer. People are so used to seeing men filling this kind of role. So, when a woman suddenly appears on the scene they’re surprised at first – take the photo below as a case in point. When I was 7 months pregnant and turned up at the Safety forum 2016 in Brussels, only to be referred to as “Mr. Mutlu.” It was more amusing than offensive, but it was still rather ridiculous!
I was also the only woman on my flight procedural design course at Switzerland’s Air Navigation Institute and at France’s Helicopter Point-in-Space Procedures course at ENAC (Ecole Nationale de l’Aviation Civile).
In terms of my work ethic, I have been known to ask a lot of questions – and this even surprised my former (male) lecturers. However, slowly but surely, they grew accustomed to my questions and started explaining concepts in greater detail. For one group project I worked with both men and women, and the collaborative spirit was just so inspiring! It’s much the same story at Volocopter, with some of my male colleagues: initially they were not sure of my expertise in and knowledge of airspace design. But, over time they began trusting and learned to appreciate the effort I put in. I believe we should all go after what we want, seizing the opportunities that inspire passion in us.
Have you drawn professional inspiration from other women working in aviation?
Back in Türkiye, a number of female senior ATCOs gained quite a lot of respect in their job by not just accepting things at face value. Instead, they consistently questioned them. In practice, that meant sending emails, publishing letters, and raising the issues that needed to be addressed.
Gradually, their persistence in putting forward logical suggestions and insights prompted remarkable change, albeit small, in the global aviation industry. But, while they did have the freedom to ask whatever they wanted, their requests tended to fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, little progress is better than no progress, right?
Now, we’re putting our questions and proposals to the competent authorities ourselves. For example, our partners assume we need to fly on existing helicopter routes for our operations. But when we explain the operations and characteristics of our aircraft, especially regarding the low noise signature and the higher safety standards, we can open the discussion to introduce more options for flight paths and agree on mutually acceptable routes.
What’s the most motivating professional advice you’ve ever received?
Let me start with the least motivating piece of advice, which showed little respect for my achievements. A man once told me to “just to do my job and not worry about anything else.” That was disheartening to say the least.
But then, in 2019, I gave a presentation in Athens, Greece (titled “An Assessment on The Safety and Complexity of The Innovative Design of Istanbul’s New TMA” at SESAR Innovation Days). I went into it thinking “Don’t lose hope, Aycan – do your best and tell people your story so that perhaps they, too, can be inspired.” Afterwards, I was asked a lot of questions about it, and they told me not to give up on my goals. That was a welcome breath of fresh air! In the end, it evolved into a new article that was published in the Journal of Air Transport Management, for which I used my academic experience from my Ph.D. in Business Administration and Management.
Any pearls of wisdom for young women joining the industry?
Unfortunately, men and women alike are warning us against “pushing the boundaries” of this profession. But I think that’s exactly what we should be doing. I’d say the rules actually need to be changed and that none of us should be afraid to break the mold.
I’d tell women wanting to join this industry not to be afraid of going above and beyond. Like the time I went to the conference in Brussels 7 months into my pregnancy: if we can make it work with our partners at home, then the sky is our only limit. I don’t make excuses for myself, and I think that’s a valuable piece of advice to pass on. At the end of the day, you should go after what you want and not let personal priorities like being a mother stop you. I believe women can find ways to do both, and do them well. Plus, it makes you a role model for your own kids – mine are always saying “Look at mom, she’s doing it all!” And I think that’s a beautiful value to pass on to the next generation.
What makes your work at Volocopter so worthwhile? And what appeals to you about the company culture?
I work with women on each of my projects, and on a daily basis. At the same time, I don’t see a colleague’s gender as an issue at work. What I love about working at Volocopter is the field – this isn’t an opportunity you come across every day. I enjoy what I do, and I believe there’s a real need for our collective work in modern society.
I appreciate all of my colleagues, and I look beyond their gender and instead to their different areas of expertise. This gives us a fantastic opportunity to brainstorm. We’re an airline and airport operator in one, and everyone is friendly to and respectful of others. That definitely gets out of bed in the morning!
Aycan’s story is an inspirational one: she climbed the career ladder despite all the potential setbacks along the way. And we are delighted to call her our colleague.
Interested in finding out about more of our high-performing women in aviation? Futher inspirational stories can be found here and here.