“Being the first and only black female investigator, it was not easy; I had to be ten times better than everyone. I worked hard and was respected for my persistence, determination and talent.”
By Nigel McKenzie
It was quite a pleasant experience for me this week when I conducted a fairly in-depth interview with a confident, charming, intelligent and highly accomplished United States-based Guyanese woman, whose achievements are thoroughly deserving of being recognized in this widely-read weekly column.
For starters, she has over 37 years of aviation experience; has served as pilot-in-command for a commercial air carrier (Guyana Airways Corporation), and even more impressive, has been investigator-in-charge of over 300 small and large-scale investigations.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science/Safety and Master’s in Aeronautical Science/Management/Safety/Operations, both obtained at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Before that there were courses in Accident Investigation at the University of California.
Aviator, analyst and administrator Beverley Drake’s journey to such remarkable heights has been among the more interesting that I have been privileged to learn about.
The gregarious Gemini effortlessly relates an inspiring life story, particularly for young women, which speaks of her emergence from modest environs in Georgetown and reaching the hallways of the prestigious National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a world-renowned independent Federal agency in the U.S.
Beverley currently resides in Montclair, a residential community, located in the state of Virginia. However, as earlier indicated, it all began in our capital city, on June 20, 1956, when the second of their two daughters, was born to Clive and Elaine Drakes.
The following exchanges provide a detailed depiction of how this ‘Special Person’ succeeded in her ‘flight to the top’.
Nigel McKenzie (NM): How often do you reflect on the journey from whence you came to where you’ve been and are today?
Beverley Drake (BD): Quite often! Honestly, I never thought that a young girl from Costello Housing Scheme – ‘The Scheme’ as we fondly referred to it – would achieve all the things that I have been able to. I am currently in my third career: First as a pilot; second as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Wall Street, and third, a Senior Aviation Accident Investigator/Analyst; Federal Women’s Program Manager at the NTSB.
It has been quite a difficult journey and I worked really hard to be where I am today. It was persistence and the many mentors in my life that helped me to be where I am today.
NM: I’m curious about your younger days. Surely there would be more than your fair share of interesting experiences. What was it like?
BD: My memories of youth in beautiful Guyana are those I spent with my dad at the airport, cooking with my mom, and playing cricket with the neighbourhood boys.
Working at a crash site
I never gravitated to dolls; I was always a “tomboy” as we say in Guyanese parlance, so aviation was an easy adjustment for me. I lived my father’s dream and he was proud to see me takeoff on my first flight when I became a pilot.
We lived in Costello Housing Scheme, La Penitence. I have one older sister Paula… no brothers. My dad was very strict, my Mom was the neighbourhood Mom; everyone came to her for advice. I then became a neighbourhood Mom just like my mother, when my kids Kevin and Kurt Johnson were at home and during their teenage years. They are now 35 and 31 respectively.
My dad always dreamed of being a pilot. He would take me frequently to the airport, have lots of model airplanes and aviation magazines at home; he had a subscription for airplanes and he graciously passed it on to me before he died in October 2008. I knew and loved his passion for aviation; so in essence, it was thoroughly fulfilling to live my dad’s dream.
I went to St. Pius Primary School in La Penitence near to my home, and then went on to attend St. Rose’s High School after I passed Common Entrance.
I have vivid memories from those days…some not so nice. For instance, Mrs. Haynes, my primary school teacher at St Pius, used to beat us with a wild cane and I hated that.
Sister Anthony was always taking down my uniform hem as I defied her. I wore pants when we were only allowed to wear skirts and dresses.
I smile when I tell people how defiant I was, because my older son Kevin did the same thing at school. He was the class clown just like me and always got into trouble. I would go to Tang’s Bakery for lunch when we were not supposed to leave the school compound. I was always a trouble maker. All my friends knew I loved to get in trouble, but I did my work at school and got good grades.
My chemistry professor, Ulric Trotz, was a great instructor, and he took his time to make us understand all the difficult things in his chemistry class. And I remember my neighbour, Mr. Joseph used to show movies from his home and project it onto our house, it was fun for the neighbourhood kids.
I subsequently attended the University of Guyana (UG) from 1975 to 1976. While at UG, I heard of an opportunity to become a pilot, I applied and I left January 28, 1976 to pursue an aviation diploma.
Ten days after I left, my mother passed away and I was unable to return for her funeral. This was devastating being a 19-year-old kid in a strange country. It was the support of the rest of the team that helped me through this difficult time of my life. I still cry many nights when I remember my last visit to see my mother as I headed to the airport on my way to Daytona Beach, Florida.
NM: You say you ‘heard of an opportunity to become a pilot’, and it’s obvious that there was an immediate response. What were you pursuing at UG and was it difficult to make the decision at the time?
BD: No. it wasn’t difficult to make the decision. I can’t remember how I learned of the opportunity, but I applied and was interviewed by a panel of aviators, one being the personal pilot of Forbes Burnham. His name is Larry Gillespie, and I am still in touch with Mr. Gillespie, who is a two-star General and lives in the USA.
In most familiar surroundings – the cockpit of a jet
He still remembers the interview and he said he never regretted selecting me for the Guyana Scholarship to attend Embry Riddle. He said he had the confidence that I would be successful. I send him and Mr. Zulficar Mohammed, the Director of Civil Aviation Authority, Daily Flight Safety Updates, which is a document of all incidents and flight decisions that are made throughout the world.
With respect to UG, my first choice was to be a doctor, so I was pursuing Chemistry and Biology degrees at the University of Guyana. I was a Science major at St Rose’s High School, so it was easy for me to pursue science at UG. I always loved Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.
The love of sciences is right up my alley now, as I am encouraging kids to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees. This is one of the areas I am heavily involved in at the NTSB. I am also the first Federal Women’s Program Manager (FWPM) at the NTSB, and my focus is to ensure that my agency meets the requirements of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines.
My responsibilities include ensuring the status and progress of the program and addressing the concerns of women in the agency. As the FWPM, I represent all women within the organization, regardless of their grade level. It is a pretty important job and I am already making a difference by collaborating with other agencies like the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and Department of Energy to encourage girls to pursue STEM.
One of my goals is to establish a foundation in Guyana and help the girls to pursue their dreams and encourage them to pursue STEM as well.
NM: When your mom passed away you were supported by the ‘rest of the team’. I assume it was fellow aviation aspirants. Am I right?
BD: Yes. Twelve of us were selected to attend Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
I was given a lot of support from the other 11 members of the group including my uncle, Tony Austin (who passed away three weeks ago from Lou Gehrig’s disease), Gerald Gouveia and Cheryl Pickering-Moore.
When my mother died it was the worst time of my life as I wanted to live my father’s dream and take my parents for a ride when I returned. Unfortunately, I was not able to take my mother, but I took my dad, and he came to the airport to see me take off for the first time after becoming a pilot. He was the proudest dad!
NM: How did the diploma set you on course? How in-depth was it?
BD: It was a program that the Guyana Government had done in the past. Other pilots had attended Embry Riddle and completed flight training there. It was not a degree program. All of us who were successful – eight of the 12 – completed our private pilot, commercial pilot, instrument and crew resource management course, at Embry Riddle.
Although we completed our pilot course, we still had to attend flight school in Wallerfield, Trinidad, and complete a course called “Performance A” and then we were issued a Guyana Commercial Licence. I am also type rated on the Twin Otter and Hawker Siddeley 748 (both twin turboprop airplanes).
NM: And when you returned, how did it all unfold in terms of opportunities?
BD: I had a brief tenure with the Guyana Defence Force. I was only there about six months after I got back from Embry Riddle in February 1977.
I started flying the Britten Norman Islander in the army and then four of the group out of the eight successful candidates (Gerald Fredericks, Hanley Sam, another person and myself) were seconded to Guyana Airways Corporation (GAC). I was the first female at GAC and the first woman to fly the Twin Otter and Hawker Siddeley 748
I was the first female pilot locally to fly for a major airline.
Volunteering at the National Air and Space Museum
At GAC, I flew both locally and internationally – to Trinidad, Barbados and Dominica.
My best years involved flying passengers to Trinidad and Barbados… I think they never expected to see a woman in the cockpit, so there were many strange faces after they boarded and saw me in the cockpit.
Captain Malcolm Chan-a-Sue was a tough Chief Pilot and I did not like flying with him, but he taught me a lot. It was tough love, which helped me to become who I am today.
Initially, the pilots at GAC refused to fly with the four of us as it was going to affect their pay (we were paid by the army while they were paid by GAC) and they resented us. It was very hard for me to break down the good old boy network.
NM: Could you expand a little on Captain Chan-a-Sue’s impact on you as a pilot? How did he test your skill level and competency?
BD: Captain Chan-a-Sue drove fear into everyone who flew with him. He was very meticulous and tested your knowledge continuously. Every time that I was scheduled to fly with him, I used to hate it. However, he taught me a lot, kept my skills current and made me into a safe and careful pilot. He took no chances, did not cut any corners, and always expected me to be at my best.
I loved flying to Trinidad and Barbados…I enjoyed the flights, but it was not that easy. Captain Chan-a-Sue would have you continuously give him updates on our next check point, duration, fuel consumption, wind speed, and of course, ensure that you were proficient in performing instrument approaches.
NM: Any others you want to give credit to with respect to your career?
BD: Captain Fields, Captain Marshall, Captain Crawford and Captain Baker were great pilots who I learned a lot from.
One of my mentors when I joined the NTSB was Dennis Jones, and he is still my mentor. I tell kids that they must have a mentor. My first mentor was my dad.
NM: Do you recall any close calls, dangerous experiences/encounters as a pilot?
BD: I never had any close calls when I became a pilot, but when I was learning I got lost and I was so scared, that I saw a huge airport and without calling anyone, I entered the traffic pattern and landed (at Orlando Jetport).
I was immediately summoned to the tower and I was told that the controllers had to divert many jets because of me. I was flying a Cessna 172, which is a single-engine airplane, and is not allowed to land without calling and getting the permission from the tower.
When I think of the way things are nowadays, I am sure they would have scrambled fighter jets and escorted me. After 9/11, things have changed and I sometimes shiver just thinking of the chaos I must have created for those air traffic controllers.
NM: Going back briefly to the ‘good old boy network’. How intimidating was it to join such a highly regarded entity as the NTSB?
BD: Yes, there was the good old boy network there as well. I was scared when I was being introduced to the NTSB staff the first day on the job – July 9, 1991 – a black woman in a white male-dominated system. They were not interested in knowing my name; they wanted to know what my background was. I heard one of them make a remark that I came over on a “banana boat.”
After they learned of the airplanes I flew in the jungles of Guyana, they realized I knew what I was about and I was duly accepted!
I grew up in a house where my dad was the only male; my sister Paula and I were protected by our dad, so it was not easy working with a bunch of guys who did not like you being there.
I had to prove myself. At the first accident site I responded to in Louisville, Kentucky, the policeman who was guarding the wreckage would not allow me to enter the site. I was surprised when I got to the yellow tape and he said to me, “Miss, get back behind that line!”
I tried to establish conversation with him and he informed me that the investigators were on their way and that I was to stay behind the line. I waited a few minutes and then I showed him my ID and identified myself as ‘the investigator’. He apologized, but this was not the first time that I had experienced this type of behaviour.
Being the first and only black female investigator, it was not easy; I had to be ten times better than everyone. I worked hard and was respected for my persistence, determination and talent.
NM: As an obviously ambitious woman and a mother, how did the children, if at all, affect your pursuit of excellence? How did you balance it?
BD: I was fortunate to get help from my neighbours/babysitters when I lived in New York. My first son came to America when he was one year old and my younger son was born here. I was not fortunate to have a mother or relative to help me babysit, I had to pay babysitters when I worked late at Goldman Sachs from 1984 to 1991, and when I moved to Washington in 1991, I got help from neighbours and my kids friends’ parents. They would spend many nights at their friends’ homes when I got launched on accidents. I think they liked when I had to respond to crash sites so they could spend the night with their friends.
I am sorry that I exposed my kids to some of the horrible stories when I responded to crash sites. Because of the stories I shared with them, my older son is now scared to fly unless I fly with him. My younger son is okay with flying. They were 13 and 9 when I got the job at the NTSB. Prior to that, I would take them flying when we lived in Long Island and they loved it, but that was the end of their flying once I started working for the NTSB.
When I look back, I have absolutely no regrets. If I had to do it over, I would do exactly as I did. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to go to Embry Riddle as most of the guys and gals at the NTSB are Embry Riddle graduates. Embry Riddle is the Harvard of Aviation and a well respected school, so I fit in with my colleagues.
NM: Fortunate and opportunities…those are two words that often appear in the same sentence. In closing, given your varied experiences, what’s your advice to young people…particularly girls, in Guyana?
BD: Pursue your dreams and find a mentor with the same interests. I think that kids are sometimes not encouraged to pursue certain fields because of not being able to afford it, and some of them need extra help in order to overcome challenges. It is not easy and you have to work hard toward achieving your goal. If you’re focused on the task at hand, you can do it.