There’s an emerging group of young women across the globe and internet getting high. For all intents and purposes, it seems fair to call this fleet the Fly Girls of Instagram.
Sweden's 24-year-old Maria Fagerström (@mariathepilot) started training about seven years ago after getting accepted into a government-funded program. She didn’t sink too much trouble into capturing her airborne experiences via social media till linking up with two fellow IG-savvy pilots.
“I have met my two best friends through Instagram, @pilotmaria and @flymalin, both Maria [Pettersson] and Malin [Rydqvist] are pilots working for the same company as I do and they were the ones that inspired me to start documenting my airborne experiences on Instagram,” Fagerström says. “Together we are each others’ cheerleading squad, always lifting each other up whenever we think that the world is too dark.” She says they call their trio “the Swedish Flight Mafia.” Fagerström, Pettersson, and Rydqvist have 198K, 376K, and 142K followers, respectfully.
Their accounts capture zigzagging, exotic locations, and incredible views (most of the pilots I spoke with said they shot in the sky only when their partners took over steering or if they have a GoPro previously set up). Surfing in Spain’s Canary Islands, city views at sunset, and lounging on a Jerusalem balcony are all examples of casual content followers can expect from the industrious women. It’s no mystery why so many Instagram users find their careers worth following.
And then there's the fact that breaking into flying—especially as a woman—is tough. Though Amelia Earhart and her airborne achievements from almost a century ago are forever immortalized, aviation is still a largely male-dominated industry.
That’s where Instagram provides a platform for Fagerström and others to inspire young women to pursue flying or whatever else. “I want to show that with the right mindset and hard work you’re able to do exactly what you want in life, no matter what gender you are,” she says.
The key, it seems, is committed hustling. Certification requirements vary by country, companies, and vehicle, but the hours remain fairly strenuous across the board.
Rachel Bahr (@rachelicopter, 1.2K followers), is a 23-year-old helicopter pilot who commutes about two hours into Atlanta from Anderson, South Carolina, several times a week. Bahr largely spends her air time giving tours through Atlanta Helicopters, and eventually aims for a career as an EMS pilot. In the meantime, flying isn’t exactly lucrative. “What I'm doing [giving tour], we basically just work off of tips, which I don't think people understand or realize, at least,” Bahr says.
Similarly, flight school and other training can create a financial barrier. Pilot Lindy* (@pilot_lindy, 41.6K followers) did not have a government-funded option like Fagerström did. “I've always loved flying, but I never thought it was possible for me to fly for a living,” Lindy, a 23-year-old Dutch pilot, says. “Pilot schools are expensive, and it's very difficult to get accepted.” At 17, she started the two-year training process at a school in Madrid and is currently based in Italy, flying mostly to Mediterranean destinations.
After nabbing her private license, Bahr needed an additional 20 hours booked flying before graduating to a commercial license. So she took a Robinson R22 (two-seater helicopter) from Atlanta to Key West, Florida, with her boyfriend riding shotgun. The trip was nine hours each way. For financial context, the four-seater R44 Bahr flies for tours costs “$500 to $550 an hour” to operate. That’s mostly because of gas, but then there’s the cost of maintenance and ramp and hangar fees, to name a few. Though Bahr is careful to point out she’s still fairly new to the field and paying dues. “It depends on the company you work for, but I know people that make over 100 grand a year doing it,” she says. “This isn’t a permanent job. This is just a time-builder until I get my first real job flying.”
Of the Fly Girls of Instagram, helicopter pilots make up a smaller portion than those steering jets. Though women like @pilotbailey and @heli.autumn are Bahr’s digital and professional peers, many of the female helicopter pilots I found on Instagram have private accounts—most likely because of their employers, who are often hospitals.
Fagerström says setting her Instagram to public was a game-changer, as far as community is involved. “I’ve had a love for aviation and photography as long as I can remember,” she says, noting her pilot father, “and with Instagram, I'm able to combine my two favorite hobbies, sharing all my adventures with the rest of the world. When I decided to change my Instagram profile from private to an open profile in January last year, I had no idea what kind of response I would get. I never thought I would get so many supportive and positive people following me... Together we have created this little community with positive vibes only, and it gives me so much joy!”
Positive vibes definitely seem to abound with this crew of women. “In 2014, I got in touch with @susythepilot as she was looking for female pilots to be featured in the Aviatrix Calendar, a charity project where all proceeds are donated for cancer research,” Lindy says. “Through this project, I met 12 amazing female pilots. I'm still in touch with them often.”
Fagerström says the Swedish Flight Mafia has spring plans to fly fighter jets together in formation for MiGFlug.
This network of female pilots makes mentorship easier, too. “I have asked people advice, mostly [from] older, more experienced female pilots [on Instagram],” Bahr says. “Just how they got started, how they got to where they are because some of them are flying helicopters in Dubai right now.”
Many of these pilots’ followers follow them because of the of the airborne element, sure, but also because of everything else attached to the lifestyle of someone with a mobile office. Eva Claire Marseille (@flywitheva, 31.1K followers), 31-year-old Dutch pilot, says, “I love to inspire other people through my account, in aviation, and also to inspire [others] to get out there and do a lot of things; my account is also about traveling and outdoor experiences.” She’s right. Kayaking around Caserío Cañet de Mar and sauntering around Mediterranean beaches have little to do with flying, though they are no less fun to vicariously experience.
But for the Fly Girls, flying—and the perspective only thousands of feet in the air can bring—is still everything. Or, as Marseille says, “The best part of flying is the views and the fact that the world that [once seemed] so incredibly big, has become a manageable size."
*Some women prefer to not include their last name or company name in their online presence or this interview.