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News > Bradfieldian Stories > The confidence to take to the skies

The confidence to take to the skies

Jo Segebarth nee Tait (I 93-95) shares her story

“I’m certainly no glass ceiling smasher”, reflects Commercial Airline Pilot Jo Segebarth (neé Tait), referencing the fact that there have been female pilots on British Airways flightdecks since the late 1980s, two decades before she first entered a commercial cockpit. “It’s just sadly there aren’t many of us, so you do tend to stand out a bit. I remember walking through the Departure Lounge at Terminal 5 and a little girl turned to her mother and said, ‘look Mum there’s the pilot’! It was so sweet and such a cool moment to break those stereotypes, to not be seen as a female pilot.”

Only 9% of commercial pilots are females and Jo has been one of them for almost twenty years since entering the cockpit with BMed in 2005. She joins me for a coffee and a walk down memory lane in sunny Hungerford, just a short countryside drive away from the school in which she spent her Sixth Form years. Warm, funny and incredibly personable, the Old Bradfieldian is still full of enthusiasm for her former stomping ground. “I had some of my happiest times at Bradfield. Even now when I drive through the village I get a nice warm feeling.”

Joining the College in 1993 from an all-girls school, Jo relays how lucky she felt to attend for two years which would fly by in the blink of an eye. Despite some early trepidation knowing that she would walk into rooms already filled with pupils who had forged friendships and alliances, she quickly found that Bradfield was the kind of school where being embraced as a new pupil was made so easy because the opportunities were endless. “It felt like a friendly, gentle school and it wasn’t like you had to go looking for things to do; those opportunities were everywhere!”

Her love of music led her to join the Chamber Choir while she threw herself into most sports including netball, tennis, lacrosse and even squash. “Before I knew it, I was nose deep in mud with a rifle”, laughs Jo as she recalls stories from her time in the Combined Cadet Force.

She also thrived academically, studying Chemistry, Biology and English, and she waxes lyrical about her inspirational teachers including Hailz-Emily Osborne who she was delighted to hear had returned to watch this summer’s Greek Play. All of these experiences instilled a skillset in Jo which she still leans on in life to this day. “What I took from Bradfield, in a humble way, was this reassuring internal confidence. It helps you contribute as part of a team and gives you the confidence to apply yourself when necessary and make a difference. It helped me to understand humility and to have the patience to let something play out while being part of the bigger picture.”

I’m curious as to whether a career in flying had entered her mind by this point; her father, after all, was a commercial pilot. It wasn’t completely off her radar, excuse the pun, but she had other aspirations with one eye on a potential career in Medicine. So, combining her academic subjects with her sporting passions, she headed off to the University of Bristol to study Anatomy and Physiology. It wasn’t long before the opportunity to fly arose for Jo.

“If you asked me where I spent my happiest times at university it would be flying”, she says explaining she’d noticed a stall for the University Air Squadron while representing the netball team at a Freshers Fair. The RAF affiliated programme gave her access to 100 flying hours, essentially the elementary flying training syllabus for becoming a pilot within either the Royal Navy or the RAF. “I always had the idea that if I was going to fly, I’d rather take people on holiday than drop bombs”, she says as I ask if she’d considered a career in the military before she adds: “I’m also not good at ironing so I don’t think I’d have made it.”

That career in flying would have to wait a little longer thanks to some advice from her Dad who told her she should go and explore the world. She soon landed a job in the City working for a full service advertising agency, where Jo, rather modestly, states she was “basically Head of Photocopying”, a job she thinks she was terrible at.

However, utilising her Bradfield skillset, Jo networked her way around several faculties within the agency including media, artwork and design before being invited to go client side, eventually joining investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald. “It was quite a bizarre place to find myself in. We had a huge marketing budget, sponsoring Grand Prix balls and placing big adverts in the Financial Times. It was a great feeling seeing all this artwork knowing I had been a part of it.”

Career-wise, the turning point was 9/11, an event which had a massive impact on so many people, not least those at her company.

Cantor Fitzgerald had offices on multiple floors of the North Tower and Jo’s office was just off the London trading floor. “It still haunts me to this day”, Jo says as she becomes visibly emotional at the memory. “We heard the employees over there shouting through the phones asking what was happening because the floors were hot and they were standing on their desks.”

It fell to Jo’s department to set up the centre for elements of the business to call and find out if they had any information about who was in the Twin Towers building at the time. For Jo it was a really pivotal moment and her outlook on life changed that day. “It sounds counter intuitive because after that who would want to get in a plane but part of me felt it was my duty.”

She packed everything she owned into her little Renault Clio and drove up the M40 to embark upon a training course at Oxford Aviation. In 2005 she earned her first jet job flying out of Heathrow with BMed. Looking back now she says it was “some of the most fun flying I’ve ever done.” At the time the airline flew small Airbus planes to places to which you wouldn’t normally go on your holidays; destinations like Damascus, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Beirut, Aleppo, some quite incredible places, but after a couple of years the company went bust and were bought by BMI. Suddenly she found herself piloting four flights a day to Dublin and, looking to do more long-haul flights than those on offer, she jumped at the chance to join British Airways in 2011 where she still works today, flying 777s and following in her Dad’s footsteps.

“It’s a fantastic job. I’m in the right-hand seat of a 777, I’ve got the flexibility having worked my way up and I would recommend it to anyone. You just have to have a passion and a drive to learn but you are rewarded with a job in which no two days at work are the same. Every time you fly you have different people, different passengers, different flight crews, different weather, different destinations. It is truly wonderful.”

To read the article with more photographs see the Bradfieldian magazine online here

To share your story after Bradfield, please contact the Bradfield Society office

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