Ayla Holdom Is The Only Female Helicopter Pilot On The UK Police Force, But She's Used To Breaking Barriers
Ayla served as a helicopter pilot in the Royal Air Force for 13 years and for seven of those years was an extremely proud member of the RAF Search and Rescue team (along with Prince William). Ayla now flies for the National Police Air Service. She lives in Dorset with her wife, Wren (an ITU doctor), their three cats, and numerous chickens.
Waking up, it could be either day or night. Mornings don’t really exist when you work 12-hour day or night shifts, on-and-off. Sometimes my wife’s next to me, but as she also works shifts (as an intensive care doctor and frequently at different times), it’s often one or all of our three cats by my side taking any remaining space in the bed. I very rarely have a standard day as I’m regularly recovering from or going on to night shifts. Most of the time, I get up at half past 5 in order to get in for a 7 (a.m. or p.m.) handover. My commute is to the airport where I currently work as a helicopter pilot for the police. Our primary job is to respond and assist police officers on the ground, using our selection of daylight and thermal cameras — whether missing people who may be vulnerable or people wanted or suspected of crimes. It’s difficult to predict what my day will look like, we just have to be prepared to respond to whatever comes over the phone. Previously, I served in the Royal Air Force for 13 years, mainly in Search and Rescue, but I’ve been doing this job for two years now — and as it stands I’m currently the only female pilot flying for the U.K. police.
In fact, when you tally all the pilots across both Europe and the U.S., only 6 percent of us are female. It’s a dismal number and it’s been that low for about 15 years now, even though women have been deeply embedded within aviation since its earliest days — such as Amelia Earhart and the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary who flew aircraft in World War II. And because women have always been a part of aviation, it’s strange to see this number so low; I can only imagine it’s because too often, young girls have not grown up expecting to be anything they want to be. Young girls often don’t expect to grow up and become pilots. And they absolutely should.
I often wonder whether I would still have grown up thinking ‘Yes, I could try to be a pilot’ if I had been socialised as myself, as a young girl.
My perspective on this situation is a little unique. As a trans woman, I only came out to myself as female in my late 20s, which means I grew up differently. I was socialised as a male because that’s how the world saw me and I’m fairly pragmatic about that fact. I grew up with few gendered cultural restraints. When I decided to pursue being a pilot, I didn’t have any doubts that I could at least try. I just said ‘Of course, I can’, tried and got selected. My sister, by comparison, who’s 10 years older and far more intelligent than I am, became a maths teacher. I don’t know if she ever considered being an engineer for example, but I often wonder whether I would still have grown up thinking ‘Yes, I could try to be a pilot’ if I had been socialised as myself, as a young girl.
Trans was the butt of a joke… It made it so hard for someone like myself coming out because it highlighted that there was no baseline of understanding for anyone you met.
When I joined the Royal Air Force, I was just out of university, and had not yet transitioned… I hadn’t even come out to myself yet. It was before I was married, but I was already dating my future wife. We’ve been married for 10 years now (this month) and we were together for seven years before that. Wren’s always been my biggest ally. Having such a deeply supportive partner was wonderful given how many years I was afraid to speak about it, afraid to even think about it. It was especially important when I made the decision to transition while I was still in the military…
My colleagues were so genuinely supportive, and they rallied behind me during a sometimes difficult and nerve-racking time. Coming out as an openly transgender pilot in the RAF was difficult (and rare) enough, but doing so was doubly-concerning when the media were already paying close attention to our squadron, as Prince William was due to join our unit.
Literally, within the first couple of weeks, I was publicly outed by The Sun and Daily Mail. The media back then — and they have got better in some ways — really didn’t have the language or maturity to understand or articulate at all what being trans means. It was a caricature; trans was the butt of a joke… something to be laughed at. It made it so hard for someone like myself coming out because it highlighted that there was no baseline of understanding for anyone you met.
My coming out largely coincided with my getting onto the internet — learning about things and speaking to people — because up until that point I’d never really known that trans people existed outside of comedy sketches or parodies.
One of the realities of being trans (that is slowly improving) is not having sufficient language to describe to others how you perceive yourself. When I was younger, I remember bursting into tears while my grandad and brother bantered me. They weren’t being nasty, but I couldn’t explain why I felt so out of place in the situation. With a sharp focus, everything felt unbelievably wrong to the point of being agonizing. When I tried to put it into words later, I could only come up with, ‘I’m not as muscly as other boys.’ It didn’t even come close to describing what was wrong or how I felt, but I literally had no language to talk about gender or why I felt so discordant with myself and the world. When you don’t grow up with the internet, you don’t have the same frames of reference or terminology that thankfully people today more often do. In fact, my coming out largely coincided with my getting onto the internet — learning about things and speaking to people — because up until that point I’d never really known that trans people existed outside of comedy sketches or parodies.
It was obviously demoralising when the media started writing about me in the manner they did, but it wasn’t shocking — which is itself wrong in so many ways. It was a different era and thankfully some of the more inappropriate and offensive headlines have since been deleted. My whole life I had only heard of people speaking about being trans in a derogatory way, and after I had gathered the courage to be honest with myself, my friends, and my family, the media pressure only worked to maintain the caricature I was trying to prevent. The media have improved, slowly of course, as we are beginning to see actual trans writers discussing trans issues and wonderful cis allies who really work to understand and bridge the very human nature of being trans. But it isn’t perfect by any means and the more recent backlash against that pride and visibility has been shocking all over again.
So much of our identities are determined by things other than ourselves — by a society that pares us into roles we aren’t meant to stray from.
One of my hopes is that these changes in narrative, as well as having access to the internet and shared experience at a much earlier age, will provide younger children with the tools and vocabulary to be able to understand and vocalise who they are and how they feel, not based on any stereotype, but based on how they truly feel — especially given the statistics around self-harm and suicide in trans communities. A comprehensive 4-year study in the U.K. from 2014 found that 48 percent of trans people under the age of 26 had attempted suicide. By contrast, a study from the University of Washington demonstrates that the unusually high percentages of trans children with anxiety and depression fall to the national average when their environments are supportive, they’re socially accepted, and their parents listen to and love them as they are — something anyone who’s spent time with trans children and their loving parents will know instinctively. It just goes to show how the halo of mental health that sometimes surround trans identities are, by and large, there not because you’re trans, but because of the way society perceives and ‘others’ you.
Most nights, I try to leave my phone downstairs.
I think this idea complements my earlier point about how young girls are socialised differently than young boys. So much of our identities are determined by things other than ourselves — by a society that pares us into roles we aren’t meant to stray from. But things are changing, and it is my hope that this will mean young people will shake off the confines that have plagued past generations and forge new paths that don’t necessarily conform to traditional standards. For trans people, that means recognising, accepting, and living who you are without feeling like you have to change for others; for young girls, that means being taught to live without the doubt that might prevent you from pursuing careers that don’t fit a stereotype.
The internet can be a beautiful place; it can introduce you to people who talk, think, act, and feel just like you do. It can also be a draining place, with social media trolls and anonymous bullying. Most nights, I try to leave my phone downstairs. I used to cap off my days with Facebook and the news, but it was terrible ritual, and every time I go to bed without my phone I sleep much better.
It’s a lesson in appreciating the simple things that surround you, like cats and a wife! It’s knowing that even if the world is much bigger than you are, the love and environment you cultivate yourself can be so much more important. There is an endless amount of positive change needed in this world, but I am confident we’re getting there… slowly but surely.