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Did you know that Desta Michelle Murray is the only female airworthiness inspector employed with the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA)? St. Lucia News Online (SNO) had a one-to-one with the outspoken Michelle.
SNO: When did you have a fascination with aircraft and who or what inspired you?
Michelle: Honestly, I cannot pinpoint exactly what inspired me, I remember that my grandmother worked with S.L.B.G.A (St. Lucia Banana Growers Association) and at times we went to the S.L.B.G.A hangar after school. I suspect that’s what whetted my appetite for aviation, then at about 14 years old, I told my parents I wanted to fix planes and they simply gave me the nod of approval.
SNO — What school did you attend and what extra-curricular activities did you participate in?
Michelle — I attended the St. Joseph’s Convent and I was a member of the school’s Red Cross group, Save the Environment Club and the quadrille group.
SNO: Upon completion of your studies at St. Joseph’s Convent, what was your next move towards your aircraft maintenance career?
Michelle: From 1994 to 1996, I attended the Department of Arts, Science and General Studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. Then in summer of 1995, at 17, my mom got me an apprenticeship at HelenAir, and that’s how I literally got my feet wet – my favorite sneakers got soaked with engine oil one day.
SNO: Tell me about your experience on the job, was it is what you expected?
Michelle: I spent my days at the hangar, learning the trade and learning more about the requirements of the industry. I also realized that I learn by doing and all my years of physics were finally making sense. The staff was very supportive and encouraged me to pursue my dream career. After the summer, I returned to school for my final year, after which it was my intention to resume my work in maintenance
SNO: What was the reaction of your family and friends after you survived the apprenticeship?
Michelle: Everyone supported me although they thought I would have a change of heart. However, after a year of odd jobs, I got a job in the Customer Service Department of HelenAir. I was not overjoyed but I knew I had to make the best of the opportunity. In July 1998, I was accepted into Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, affectionately called “The Harvard of the Skies”.
SNO: After 2 years at university what was your next goal?
Michelle: I returned home with an associate degree in aircraft maintenance technology and a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Airframe and Powerplant license and started sending out applications. The response was
always “sorry not enough experience”. Job-hunting outside the industry was also a challenge, the very specific nature of my training told prospective employers that I probably wouldn’t stay with them. In July 2001, I got a
call from LIAT, they wanted to fly me to Antigua for an interview. I had what I thought was a successful interview and then I returned home to wait. Unfortunately, two months later, 9/11 [the terrorists attacks in New York] occurred and the industry took a nose dive.
SNO: At that point what was going through your mind?
Michelle: Honestly, I was not about to give up. In July 2003 I got a call from a handling company to do customer service for Caribbean Star airline. When offered the job, I was told that usually when they hire people, these people had a tendency to be called to the career of choice. Surely enough, in September 2003, I got the call. After a long morning shift the phone rang, LIAT wanted to fly me up again to make an offer.
SNO: You were made an offer, did you accept it?
Michelle: The offer was favorable, therefore I accepted it, and on October 13, 2003, I started my journey at LIAT. In December 2007, after four years of studying, exams and gaining experience, I obtained my ECCAA Aircraft Maintenance Technician (AMT) license in Aeroplanes 2. I was promoted to senior mechanic, and started my next quest – company approval. In July of 2008, I obtained LIAT maintenance approval to return air-frame maintenance to service. Next mission set: ECCAA turbines license, and LIAT engines approval, then LIAT maintenance engineer. In 2010, I obtained my ECCAA turbines license but due to a few stumbling blocks I did not get LIAT engines approval when I wanted to.
SNO: Since you did not get the LIAT engines approval, you must have been disappointed. What was your next move?
Michelle: In summer of 2012, I noticed a vacancy for technical services engineer, no clue what that meant but I saw engineer so I applied. A few of months later, I got a call to schedule an interview. I had what I thought was an OK interview, and I returned home to rest for my shift. On December 22, 2012, while in St. Lucia, my phone rings, it was a LIAT human resource personnel who advised me that they would like to offer me the position. I told her I would let her know, but one week later I saw several missed calls from Mr. Errol Hodge, executive manager maintenance and engineering.
SNO: Were you nervous, excited or anxious when you saw the missed calls?
Michelle: I was anxious so I quickly returned the call. Mr. Hodge told me there was an aircraft on the ground in St. Lucia and he needed me to have a look at it. My mom, my sister and I headed to the disabled aircraft. I had no tools or equipment, just my pen and my stamp. When I got to the airport, I saw a guy I had known from my HelenAir days, and was able to get hold of another old colleague who provided me with the tools needed to do the job. On my way to the aircraft, Mr. Hodge calls back and said, Michelle, congrats are in order. I told him I hadn’t decided, we chatted briefly and I went to tend to my patient. My next call was to the Antigua maintenance team. I called my mom and told her that I had completed my task. She had just taken the 10-minute drive home and was shocked that I was ready.
SNO: Your mission was accomplished in spite of a few challenges and the aircraft landed safely in Antigua. What was going through your mind after you were put to the test?
Michelle: That was the proudest moment of my life since it was the first time that anyone in my family had seen me at work. When I returned to work, I told my team that it was my last night with them.
SNO: You said goodbye to your team, you started another chapter in your career, how challenging was it?
Michelle: I was assigned to the Production Planning Department where I was briefed about my responsibilities. My first task was to compile the maintenance schedule for the new fleet of ATRs. After plenty of hard work ECCAA approved my manual. In April 2015, while preparing for the first ATR’s first heavy maintenance, the director wanted me to accompany the aircraft to Quebec. While in Quebec, another big challenge was thrown at me – to act as the maintenance planning coordinator for three to six weeks. Once again I felt proud of my achievements.
SNO: Michelle, you have taken your goals to another level every time a challenge is thrown at you, are you expecting more difficult tasks along the way?
Michelle: Honestly, once I realised the way my path was changing, I decided that I must always be prepared when duty calls, so I decided to do a management course. In 2016, I applied and was granted admission into the executive diploma in management at UWI. Shortly thereafter after I submitted an application to the ECCAA. In early January 2017 I was was called for an interview, then on January 23, 2017, ECCAA offered me a job.
SNO: What was the feeling like knowing you had to leave your LIAT family?
Michelle: Leaving LIAT was a tough decision. I was excited to step up my game but was sad to depart from LIAT. The LIAT staff and my family encouraged me to grab the opportunity because they realize that I was determined to up my game at every opportunity that came my way.
SNO: Michelle commenced her new job on March 1, 2017 at ECCAA as the first female airworthiness inspector in the OECS. What were your expectations?
Michelle: I knew that there would be many challenges at all levels. However, with my knowledge and experience I was constantly challenged by my new peers as well as industry members with whom I previously worked,
but my years at LIAT had prepared me for these tasks. In my short time with the ECCAA, I have had the pleasure of seeing my colleagues within the organization and the regional industry grow to accept and respect my input. I always remember my father’s words – “Do not ever be afraid to ask a question, if you are not sure ask, don’t ever look stupid because you are afraid to ask.” Everyday, I ask questions of my colleagues, I sit with them, I pick their brains to learn everything possible.
SNO: You are making sure that we are safe in the sky, what advice would you give to someone who would like to take on that career path?
Michelle: Perseverance is the key. Aviation is a highly regulated industry and as such, it is not easy to break into and move up. Allow your self to be humbled by the challenges you will face along the way and to keep growing. At times, things will seem futile, but don’t ever give up. One of the best things you will have to hold on to is knowing that you can sleep well at night having done everything required to ensure the safety of both the flying and no-flying public.
SNO: Final thoughts from you Michelle.
Michelle: I am eternally grateful for all the challenges, positive and negative criticisms, and the opportunities that have contributed to my progress within the industry. I am also grateful for opportunities such as this in which I can share my experiences and help inspire other young people to pursue their dreams.
SNO – Merci Beaucoup Desta Mchelle Murray.
This feature runs every Thursday. It is compiled by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]