© Collection Air France


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At the time Air France was created in 1933, piloting a plane was no longer just the domain of adventurers.

Last adventurers, first pilots

The Aéropostale, with Mermoz and Guillaumet, had replaced a culture of adventure with one of faith in the postal service. The new airline – which absorbed the company that year – was happy to take this principle for itself, extending it to passenger transport. Pilots and chief pilots (of which there were 93 in 1936) had to demonstrate reliability and a spirit of responsibility. All this despite sometimes unpredictable planes, and cockpits over-encumbered with control sticks, throttles, dials, levels, and all sorts of devices.


From pilot to crew

During the 1930s, the idea of a crew started to take more shape. The pilot's first assistant was the radio telegraph operator– the "radioman" (163 in 1936) – the essential link between aircraft and the ground, in close contact with services on the ground. With headphones on, they would transcribe messages to the pilot on pieces of paper. Then, increased distances led to the arrival of a specialist who would draw out the plane's route: the navigator (3 in 1936). A mechanic was often part of the crew (39 in 1936). Finally, with travel legs becoming longer, a second pilot had to be able to replace the first in case of fatigue.

  • A pilot and a barman in front of the Air Union LéO H-213 Golden Ray © Collection Air France
  • Général De Gaulle's Caravelle III crew in London - 1960 © Collection Air France
  • A crew wearing the uniform created by Carven © Collection Air France

Increasingly automated tasks

The growth of air travel stimulated innovation, which considerably modified the practice of technical professions. Pilots increasingly had assistance from on-board instruments such as autopilot, then from other equipment, such as hydraulic systems – the "muscles" of planes – which let them handle aircraft weighing more than 50 tonnes. Automation became widespread, and the work of people was recentred on piloting. The development of inertial measurement units, followed by satellite geopositioning systems, led to air navigators becoming obsolete. Radiotelephony led to the disappearance of "radiomen"; pilots were now in direct contact with regional centers. The increased reliability of engines meant the presence of a mechanic on board was no longer essential.


A profession that welcomed (a few) more women

This didn't stop flight crews from growing significantly in employee numbers: 190 in 1945, 765 in 1950, 2,053 in 1975, and more than 4,000 today! Assisted by increasingly refined tools, pilots now have more responsibilities: piloting, navigation, telecommunications, and mechanical oversight of the flight. Now all technical crews have a Captain, who has authority over all the crew and passengers, and one First Officer (or co-pilot). Flight crews gradually welcomed more women. It took until 1975 to see a woman – Danièle Décuré – at the controls of an Air France plane. Today, around 7% of Air France pilots are women.

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