Poet in the cockpit

Alumna Hélène Dubois-Nicholson combines her two passions
| Thu, 07/18/19
Hélène Dubois-Nicholson - Portrait

"Pirouetting over pink lakes and baobab forests, soaking in the dry sun of New Mexico. It’s a long meditation and contemplation about the incredible beauty of this planet. Flying provides an escape, a reset from the daily chaos that we sometimes encounter when living too close to the ground.”

With lyrical style, Florida State University alumna Hélène Dubois- Nicholson (M.A., French language and literature, 1997) paints a vivid picture of her experiences as a commercial pilot while also indulging in her other great love, writing poetry.

In her formative years, Dubois-Nichol- son drew inspiration from others whose dual passions mirrored her own. Beryl Markham - a British-born Kenyan aviator who was the first woman to fly solo, nonstop across the Atlantic from east to west - and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - a French poet and pioneering aviator - were among her favorites.

“Years after I had read and memorized so many of their stories, I was surfing the exact same skies in West Africa,” she said.

In early 2018, Dubois-Nicholson debuted her own poetry in “Les pages du ciel” [The Pages of the Sky]. Written in her native French, the book offers a bird’s-eye view of her journeys through the clouds and the publication brings her full circle, with her two passions now entwined.

A new home abroad

Years before she became both accomplished poet and pilot, Dubois-Nicholson flourished as a graduate student in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. William Cloonan, a French professor emeritus at FSU, met Dubois-Nicholson when she first came to Tallahassee from Senegal.

“I was struck not only by the breadth of her reading but also by the precision and thought- fulness of her comments,” Cloonan said. “For such a young person, it seemed literature was an essential part of her life. That impression has not changed.”

Dubois-Nicholson was encouraged to publish her work, attend conferences and participate in myriad extracurricular activities. Before graduating summa cum laude in 1997, she was named the department’s Student of the Year.

“Departments usually have to work hard to recruit excellent graduate students,” Cloonan said. “Occasionally, one just wanders into our building. Hélène was one such occasion.”

Soaring over barriers

Emboldened by academic success, and having been taught to fly as a teenager by her father, Dubois-Nicholson concentrated her determined and creative spirit into pursuing a career in aviation.

The commercial aviation industry has been traditionally dominated by men. According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, there were 7,409 female airline pilots worldwide in 2018, and women comprised 5.18 percent of the pilots across 34 major airlines. To break into the industry and rise to her current position at American Airlines, Dubois-Nicholson studied hard.

“I knew I had to prove myself as a pilot,” she said. “My father certainly was instrumental in pushing me to be the best I could be. In the end, it is about being professional and staying on top of your skills, no matter your gender. Nevertheless, women do need representation. More often than not, I meet little girls who have no idea that women can be pilots ... and I am ready to see a change.”

Dubois-Nicholson is also passionate about eliminating unnecessary waste and making personal changes to live conscientiously, and she believes airlines can do more to protect the environment. Her employer, American Airlines, has long been a leader when it comes to implementing social change in aviation. American hired the first female pilot at a major U.S. commercial airline in 1973 and today is home to one of the industry’s most comprehensive corporate sustainability programs.

Hélène Dubois-Nicholson - Les pages du ciel

Hélène Dubois- Nicholson published
her book of poetry, “Les pages du ciel,”
in 2018. Photos courtesy Hélène Dubois-Nicholson.

“Airlines are powerful and can do amazing things,” she said. “They raise millions for charities. I think there are many ways to reduce, from having more efficient airplanes to reorganizing catering that could recycle, reduce or reuse.”

Andrew Simonds, American Airlines’ chief pilot for Boston, says Dubois-Nicholson is the kind of pilot who knows why you are in her airplane and understands the challenges involved in making everyone feel at ease.

“She brings a great level of enthusiasm, intellect and sensitivity to a job that requires more than just technical expertise,” Simonds said. “Our pilots are sensitive to the nature of air travel and how we impact the environment. We all try to save fuel and reduce the carbon footprint in the safest and most timely manner. Clearly, she sees and understands the big picture and is part of the process that leads to the best decisions.”

Dubois-Nicholson practices minimalism, eco-friendly habits and writes every day. She is eager to become a part of a green project with American Airlines and make an even bigger impact.

Gabriella Paez graduated from FSU in May with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in editing, writing and media.