Bristow's Maria Johannessen: For the love of flying and the outdoors

Maria flying at work
In honor of Women's History Month, Bristow features Senior First Officer Maria Johannessen from our base in Stavanger, Norway. On March 8, we also celebrated International Women's Day.

Tell me about your family. Where did you grow up and where have you lived? What are the things you enjoyed doing in your youth?

I live in Stavanger, Norway together with my three kids, Aksel, 8, Anton, 6, daughter Erle (soon to be 2), and my dog Wilma. I was born in Oslo and lived there together with my family. I have two sisters and two brothers. 

My family has always enjoyed the outdoors, so almost every weekend was spent at our cabin in the mountains. In the winter we went cross-country skiing and snowboarding. In the summer we spent the holidays up on an island in the northern part of Norway, where my mother is from.

My mother, sisters and I love fishing, so we spent every possible minute out in the boat and enjoyed the adventure of fishing and whale watching.

Maria holding a large halibut

As a pilot, would you share your background and the path that brought you to Bristow? Was there anything unique about your journey?

I started my flight career in Norway in 2004. Right after flight school I applied for a freelance job in Denmark. I knew that the chances to get a job as a new pilot were small and I always thought it was better to show your face than just replying to an email, so I took a chance and booked a flight to Denmark a couple of days later. Fortunately, I got the job and moved into a caravan behind the hangar. So there my first job started.

I have always been curious, so after some time in Denmark hearing about other colleagues’ experiences, I decided to travel to Greenland to see how their operation worked. Visiting Greenland in the winter was magical! I learned about their operation, joining them on mountain flying, transporting people from village to village and ambulance flying. That was really a cool experience. 

After a couple of years on the move in Denmark, I decided to take my IR-H (Instrument Rating-Helicopter) at Bristow Academy in Florida. That was my first meeting with the Bristow Company. In Florida I met a lot of nice and interesting people who shared their thoughts and dreams. Many of them dreamed of an offshore career, and hearing their experiences really got me thinking that it sounded like an interesting job. 

But I hadn’t yet completed my goal of flying in Norway, so I moved back home and got a job at an inland company. There I gained experience in mountain flying, power-line inspections, sling-load operations, and much more. I really enjoyed it and stayed there for a couple of years before I started flying for Bristow. 

Looking back on my career today as a female helicopter pilot, I am very proud and pleased that I got to do all the things I did before I started my offshore career. It has really made me appreciate my previous experience and also the job I have today.

How do you think being a female pilot has affected your career?

When you just finish flight school, it’s hard for everyone to get their first job. Some people start as a flight instructor, or as many do in Norway, they begin as a loadmaster for an inland company. For me, I was lucky to get a freelance job in Denmark. There I got the flight hours I needed to progress in my career. 

I have never believed that being a female pilot was any different from being a male pilot. I have always thought that all of us face different challenges no matter if we are men or women. But I have met people along my journey that don't share my view on the subject.  

I do remember times early in my career when I worked freelance, I would meet a customer and begin briefing them about the helicopter, mission, and safety, only to have them ask me as we were about to start up, ‘So where is the pilot?’  

What was the greatest lesson you have learned from a colleague or mentor? 

I think that the greatest lesson I have learned is to always be openminded and curious about what we do. Never be afraid to ask questions and always trust your gut feeling. There is value in sharing our experiences, good or bad, since we learn a lot from both.

How many different types of aircraft have you flown?

I have been type-rated on the HU269, R44, AS355, and S-92. Besides that I have had the pleasure of flying HU369, AS350, AS365 N2, EC120, EC130, Bo 105, Bell 205, Bell 214, Bell 222, and Super Puma AS332 L1. 

What's a typical day like?

A typical day for me starts with getting my two boys ready for school and my daughter ready for kindergarten. After taking them to school, I go for a walk with my dog, go grocery shopping and then off to work.

At work we meet up an hour before departure to plan the flight. At Stavanger where I am based, a typical flight is around three hours, and we usually have two flights a day.

When finished we log the flights, debrief if necessary and then return home. Depending on my work schedule, sometimes I finish early enough to pick up the kids or I just go home and spend time with them. The work schedule is very flexible with both early and late starts so during my roster, I can choose to spend time with my kids in the morning or in the afternoon.

What advice do you have for women that want to become pilots? 

I remember when I was thinking about becoming a helicopter pilot, the advice I got was to reach out to people who were already working as pilots. I didn't know anyone at the time, but I got a number from a friend, and I called.

The guy I spoke to told me how he found his way, some of the opportunities he thought were good and, of course, all the challenges he had faced. He also told me that this is not just a job, it's a lifestyle. You need to be prepared for that, especially before you get a real job flying. The journey can be long and sometimes bumpy, and as a girl you may face different challenges. But if you are willing to go all the way, you will have the best job in the world!

When we ended the call, I had never been more convinced that this was what I wanted to do. So, my advice is to do exactly what I did. Reach out to people that are already in the business, ask questions and listen to their experiences so that you can be prepared.

I have never regretted the choice I made, even though the road has sometimes been hard. Currently Bristow Norway has about 150 pilots, but only five of them are women. I think we all share the same belief that being a pilot is a great job. We definitely need more girls in aviation, so I hope they will reach out if they are considering this profession.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I spend all my free time together with my kids. On holidays we usually go to Oslo to visit my family. Summer holidays are always spent up in northern Norway in the family cabin. We love to fish, take mountain hikes, and enjoy outdoor life.

I have worked for Bristow for over 10 years, have three wonderful kids and a dog, and I am very proud and happy that I get to live the life that I have always dreamt of.