In this Interview with an Aviator, get to know Jet Linx Director of Safety & Security, Sheryl Clarke. With her unique blend of experience in the military and in commercial aviation, Clarke brings a vigor to enhance an industry-best safety program, creating doubt as to whether any other operators will ever catch up to the high standards set by Jet Linx.
Clarke served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly a decade before her retirement at the end of the first Gulf War. In 1998, she joined Continental Express as a First Officer on the ATR and over the course of 17.5 years served as an EMB-145 Captain and Check Airman, the Manager of Flight Standards, the Director of Safety and then the Managing Director of Safety & Quality. She was the FAA accountable representative for the carrier with regards to safety for three years. Before being recruited by United Airlines, she helped manage Continental Express’ growth from an 800 pilot carrier to over 3,500 when they merged with Atlantic Southeast Airlines in 2010. Her efforts included proactively improving multiple safety related programs including ASAP, HAZMAT, Emergency Response, and internal evaluations. She has a total of 8,000 hours of flight time and is typed on the B-707, B-720 and the EMB-145.
What was your calling into aviation?
I always wanted to be a pilot – I was drawing rockets when I was four and I was launching Estes model rockets starting at the age of eight. I desperately wanted to be an astronaut but I just wasn’t smart enough in math and science and since women were not allowed to fly fighters when I was in the service, I couldn’t get to NASA through the test pilot path like many did. When I realized that an astronaut wasn’t an option I thought about marine biology. I loved the ocean growing up, but I also loved the sky. Another potential career for me was coaching because I loved sports and teaching other people.
But I do have one great story for when I knew that I wanted to be a pilot. It’s a little cliche. but I promise you that it’s the truth. I was 15 years old and I was out fishing in California. While I was on the water, I saw these two T-38s fly over. I don’t know why they were there or where they were going, but I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. I was just in high school at that time – I knew I would be able to fly those planes, but I’d have to get into the Air Force Academy. The only way women were guaranteed a pilot training slot at that time was to graduate from the Air Force Academy. Luckily, I had a high enough GPA and I was really good at sports, a team leader, and I was selected by Senator Goldwater to become a cadet.
Does your family have a background in aviation?
My father flew a little before I was born but stopped when my mother asked him. He was raising a family, so flying at that time wasn’t the best thing to do. However, in high school my father bought a plane and began flying a little bit again. I flew in it a few times and that solidified my interest and showed me that I did have an aptitude for flight. Even my mother caught the bug after flying a little. She ended up getting her commercial license and became a flight instructor out in California. However, when I was young, neither of my parents were involved in aviation and they didn’t influence my decision to become a pilot.
What were some highlights of your military career?
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, I went to Pilot Training in Del Rio, Texas. Back then, women were not allowed to be fighter pilots. I was a First Assignment Instructor Pilot, which was just below a fighter pilot on the pecking order. I was teaching pilots with about 35 hours of flight time, instructing them how to do acrobatics and formation flying on T-37s and T-38s. I wanted to take new jet pilots and teach them basically everything they needed to know.
In 1987, I decided it was time to move on, so I began flying the KC135 Stratotanker. That was an aerial refueler, so I was up in the sky refueling fighters. I flew that tanker for about four to five years, including the first Gulf War. I flew those planes overseas to Europe, Germany, Spain, Egypt, and Greece. For the Gulf War, I flew in a lot of equipment during the first 100-day buildup of the war. I didn’t fly in the theater, I was working as a scheduler at that time helping to make sure all the KC135 assets that were in-country were all up to date on inspections and maintenance.
I also had the privilege of flying soldiers home near the end of the first Gulf War. I carried about 80 ground troops back to the states, and we made about five stops in one day to get them home to their families. It was so cool to see them reunited with their loved ones after being away for months in a foreign combat zone. We would pull in to the bases and see families with their children waving flags. That’s something I’ll never forget.
Something a little less glamorous was that I just enjoyed training pilots as an instructor. I had the opportunity to teach a lot of people that went on to become very successful military pilots. I also worked as an instructor during my commercial career. It’s a small world and I still run into people that I trained, and they let me know they’re better pilots because of the lessons I was able to teach them. To have an impact on someone like that, I think that’s pretty validating and rewarding.
What about some highlights from your time at the Air Force Academy?
The first summer was Boot Camp at the Academy and the goal everyone had was to achieve the highest rank – ‘Big Bad Basic.’ You had to excel at all things military – marching and drilling, Doolie knowledge, pugil stick combat, survival course times, etc. I was in good shape and somehow was selected for that honor.
I was also on the women’s varsity volleyball team, I played women’s rugby and I was in the Wings of Blue parachuting team. I competed as a skydiver in the Air Force, and I was the U.S. Novice Collegiate Champion for skydiving in 1980. That was pretty cool. You had to do various maneuvers in an assigned sequence in minimum time – we called it Style sets that included 360-degree precision turns, flips, and after all of that, you had to land on a target the size of a beer can. I had 310 jumps at the Academy, all freefall. I gained another 226 jumps from 2010 to 2013 when I was competing with a team in Texas. I was also the 2nd Squadron Cadet Commander my senior year and I graduated on the Commandant’s list for military achievement.
What was it like to be a female in the military when you joined?
I was in the 3rd class of women accepted into the Air Force Academy. We were breaking tradition, for sure. When I was a freshman, the senior class was the last class that was composed entirely of men. Because of that, their mission was to make all of the freshmen females miserable. There was a spotlight on us, but we held our own, and we actually lost very few female cadets from then up until graduation.
Flying in the military was also a different challenge. Back in those days, when a woman succeeded it was thought that she had only done so because she had been gifted that success, or because a superior was needing to fill some sort of quota. This forced females to work way harder than the men in order to establish credibility for doing the exact same work. Instead of starting at zero, women started below zero. But this all made me a stronger person in the end, and I have faith and I believe that nobody is given more than they can handle.
Did you realize that you were blazing a trail for others to follow at the time?
At the time I didn’t realize it, but we laid the foundation upon which future decisions were made. For example, my own actions and the actions of other women were shown as examples to Congress when the decision was made to allow female pilots to become fighter pilots after the first Gulf War. It was me and other women that proved we could be calm and collected in high-stress situations and make the correct choices. But again – that was not our ultimate goal – we were all simply trying to do our jobs at the highest possible level.
It’s also important to understand that back then, women were also struggling to become recognized as doctors or architects or business leaders. It was an entirely different era – women were resigned to being nurses and teachers. A lot of women in many different fields shared the same experience that I did, so I don’t think I’m particularly special or important in that regard, although I’m still proud of what I did.
What did you do after leaving the military?
In 1998, I got my Multi-Engine Instructor Rating, completed my Air Transport Pilot written, went to a job fair, and found myself working at Continental Express for the next 17.5 years. Continental Express eventually became Express Jet, and after my position there I went to United.
However, I held multiple positions at Continental, beginning with First Officer on the ATR, I was a Jet Captain, a SIM Instructor, a Check Airmen, the Manager of Flight Standards, then the Director of Safety. In that role, I worked closely with Maintenance and we had a number of issues with our reliability and airworthiness programs. The VP of Maintenance asked me to come over and become the Director of Quality. That was a learning lesson for me as I didn’t know much about Maintenance at the time. I really applied myself to the job and had some great Maintenance Directors I was working with, so what I learned there I started to bridge into the Flight Operations and the Company as a whole. In that capacity, I became the Managing Director of Safety and Quality.
You love flying, so what made you want to leave the cockpit and get on the safety side?
I always loved teaching, giving back, and protecting people. As a Check Airmen, you are teaching and helping people, and the same goes as a SIM Instructor. I had a desire to influence change in the spirit of flight safety on a broader basis to help as many people as possible. Over time, my positions had me flying less and focusing more on leading teams and managing risks. I felt maintaining safe operations was important just because it contributed at a broader level. I still love flying to this day, but I am more drawn to Safety Management Systems (SMS) and leading a safety culture than being on the flight deck.
What is your philosophy on safety?
I love the challenge of solving a problem in a systematic manner that’s going to have a long-term impact. Traditional safety is a reactive culture: when you break a rule, you get punished. But now, safety culture is proactive. If you blame human error for an accident, you’re likely leaving out 90% of what actually caused an event. A human is an extension of the culture they live in. This is the way they’re trained, how their superiors act, and how an organization addresses deficiencies. Proactive safety management searches for deep, underlying causes. You have to look at all the elements that contribute to an event. It’s not just pilots, it’s about the surrounding culture they operate in.
How are you going to improve the world-class safety culture at Jet Linx?
There is a great foundation, so it will be a joy and an honor to be part of taking our SMS to a fully integrated, risk management business philosophy where we proactively manage change, measure whether the changes are effective and generate what we hoped for (whether it be operating efficiency or safety efficiency), and where team members are owning and managing risk every day as a part of our DNA. A responsive safety culture requires everyone to become fluent and adept at assessing the risks associated with changing programs, adding new ones, writing policies and procedures, or correcting quality escapes. That is system safety.
What do you love more: aviation or safety?
Good question. I think the two are intertwined. You can’t have successful aviation without great safety. A professional aviator is someone that practices safety in flight to ensure passenger safety. The art of being a good pilot means that you have a philosophy of keeping everything within a safe realm of operation. Safety and aviation go hand in hand.
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