Beating Men at Their Own Game; It's Not Unusual to Find Women at the Top of Most Professions, but There Are Still Some Careers Where It Is Considered Extraordinary. Sarah Moolla Talks to a British Airways Pilot, an AA Patrol Mechanic and a Top Football Referee to Discover What It Really Takes to Be Successful in a Man's World

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Louise Skinner, 22, is a First Officer with British Airways working out of Gatwick Airport as a short haul pilot. She is single and lives in Warlingham, Surrey. This is Louise's story:

Being a pilot has been my dream since I was a little girl. Every year when we went on holiday I would be totally absorbed watching the planes take off and land.

I couldn't work out how something so large could get up in the sky. My parents could have left me there for the entire two weeks and I would have been delighted. I remember when I was about ten I went into the cockpit of a plane and announced that when I grew up I was going to fly aircraft.

At 12 I wrote to British Airways and they sent an information pack telling me the basic requirements, which were seven GCSE passes and two A-levels which had to be maths and a science. No one was really negative about me wanting to be a pilot but some people thought I was strange, mainly because I was so single-minded in my ambition.

The headmistress at my school in Croydon, Surrey, was a great help and gave me the phone number of a female commercial pilot who advised me to get my private pilot's licence while I was doing my A-levels. This meant that even though it wasn't necessary to have flown before applying, my application would stand out.

My parents were very supportive because they knew this was all I had dreamed of but I found, just before they took me for my first lesson, they had asked the instructor to see if he could put me off because the lessons were so expensive. He did a few acrobatics in the air but, sadly for them, I was more hooked than ever.

I also did history and general studies A-levels just to give me something else to fall back on. I did ten weeks at Southampton University studying history before I found out my initial application to get on a sponsorship course had been successful.

First I had a medical, then a day of written and computer-based aptitude tests, then two interviews, one with a retired captain and the other with a personnel officer. You have to pass each stage before you move on to the next. One of the final stages, which I found the most difficult, was the group exercise.

I was overjoyed when I was selected. My university tutor was a bit discouraging - he thought I should get my degree first but he had no idea that this was all I had ever wanted.

There were over 60,000 applicants for less than 200 places on the course, but that was only the beginning. The cadetships take 18 months, 13 of which are spent training intensively in Oxford, and there is no guarantee of a job at the end of it.

Out of 16 students on my course three were female, which was a high ratio considering there are only 100 women out of a total of 3,500 BA pilots.

The course consists of numerous elements including air law, meteorology, hydraulics, engines and, of course, flying. We had just one week off and 16 exams to sit. Our accommodation and food were paid for, and we got an allowance of pounds 30 a week which we spent on takeaways because the food was so bad.

Not everyone passed which meant they couldn't take the jet orientation course or the type rating course. This is where you really start to feel you are getting somewhere.

After 120 hours of dummy run flights in a simulator, you get to take out a Boeing 737 which seats 140 people. Previously I'd only flown a two- seater. It's like taking your driving test in an articulated lorry after only having driven a Mini.

A training captain and a safety pilot sit with you and my journey was to an airfield near Paris. Initially it was overwhelming, putting everything into practice after what felt like a lifetime of theory. I had to circle the airfield a few times before landing, which was particularly appalling that first time.

My first commercial flight came a few months later from Manchester to Dusseldorf in Germany. …