First Officer Chris Higgins understands the importance of building the pipeline for future pilots with people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and he has made it a personal mission to bring more women to the field.
Chris, who is from Australia, lends his voice and talent to encourage more young women to pursue their dreams in aviation and to advocate for them once they enter the field.
Aviation has been a lifelong passion for Chris. In 1988, at the age of 21, he became the youngest pilot to fly from New Zealand to Australia. An accomplished aerobatic pilot, Chris moved to the U.S. in 1990, flying an air ambulance until 1995, when he joined Trans States Airlines to fly Jetstream 41 and ATR 42/72 turboprop airliners. He went on to serve as Flight Crew Training Instructor at US Airways for Boeing 757/767s and began piloting corporate jets in 2000. Since December 2021, he has been flying 747s for Atlas, a move he wishes he’d made 10 years sooner.
In his down time, Chris shares his passion for flight with young hopeful pilots as a private flight instructor. He said he recognizes the need to go further in providing opportunities for young women, who historically do not see themselves well represented among the pilot ranks. To help remove some of the financial barriers to entering the field, he has been known to offer flight lessons to beginners free of charge.
“I feel very passionately about teaching the next generation of pilots to fly. It’s almost a civic duty – or patriotic duty,” said Chris, who is married with three adult sons. “We need inclusion. We need more pilots, and we need pilots who can bring different perspectives.”
Growing up in Australia as the son of a single mother trying to hold on to their family farm, Chris saw the injustices she faced simply because she was a woman. Throughout his career, he has worked to right those injustices through efforts grand and small – whether it be financing his female flight students’ trips to attend Women in Aviation conferences or amplifying a social media post that celebrates the accomplishments of the first Emirati female captain.
“Please believe in humanity,” he wrote, sharing a LinkedIn post about Captain Aisha Al Mansoori by Aviation Business Middle East. “If we all work together, we can make things better for many generations to come. #womeninaviation #equalrights #pilotshortage #courage #leadership #tolerance.”
Chris said advocating for women in aviation takes many forms – from outreach to encourage young women to envision themselves in a cockpit to ensuring they are empowered to lead when they get there.
“Everyone has a lot of hopes and a lot of dreams, and I really want people to succeed,” he said.
“When you help them develop their confidence, their communication style improves, they have the courage.”
Chris’ success as an instructor has been well-document in his local media outlets. One of his stand-out students, a then-17-year-old pilot-in-training from the Pittsburgh area, was featured on the city’s local news broadcast for her aerobatic flying – skills she learned from Chris – and her ambition to pursue a career as an airline pilot. She is now working toward that goal on a full-ride scholarship at the Ohio State University. Another of his former female students is training to be a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force.
Chris said he only takes on students who aspire to pursue a career as a professional pilot or in the military, and he incorporates aerobatic training instruction with all of them.
“Aerobatic training brings a lot of flying fundamentals that may be lacking in modern training,” said Chris, who test pilots’ airplanes and experimental aircraft. He is known by his neighbors as the pilot occasionally seen flying aerobatic maneuvers in the sky above their hometown of Ligonier, Pa. “It builds confidence and builds a skill I call mechanical aptitude. When automation fails, and all that is left is a good pilot, they are not left wanting.”
Alynn Copely, one of Chris’ current students, is only a few solo flights away from her check ride to earn her private pilot license. The 17-year-old said she feels ready to make that leap – and to follow the path to become an airline pilot – because of the strength and skill she’s gained through training with Chris.
“Chris helped me build confidence in myself,” Alynn said. “He has taught me valuable lessons, not just about flying but about reaching inside myself and finding dedication to flying. He is an advocate for female pilots. He gives females the same respect and opportunities as any male student. I can’t say that about all instructors. He is very encouraging. He has given me a lot of advice about the corporate world, about what you may face being a female aviator.”
Chris said he is counting on well-trained, self-assured young women like Alynn to be role models for future generations of female pilots.
“We need more female pilots who are seen and widely known,” he said. “The Air Force is doing a good job with that; they have a lot of women who fly now. It is improving, but I think it will take some time. We aren’t there yet.”