Interview with pioneer aviator Beverley Drake

Guyanese pioneer aviator, Beverley Drake, agreed to an interview with following her recent promotion to the post of Program Manager at the USA’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Beverley was one of Guyana’s first female military pilots in the 1970s and went on to become the first female commercial pilot to fly for Guyana Airways Corporation. Together with other female pilots, Guyana stamps were unveiled in her honor as World Post day was observed in 2013.

Here are our questions and Beverley’s responses:

  1. What does the position of program manager at the NTSB entail and how has your previous experiences prepared you for it?

    I just started this position, so it is too soon to comment. However, my professional career in aviation spans almost 4 decades, dedicating 23 of those years to the NTSB. I was the first and only black woman to serve as a Senior Aviation Accident Investigator/Analyst for the NTSB. I have investigated over 300 small, large-scale and high-profile accidents. I also served as the Witness Group Chairman for US Air Flight 427, and worked on the reconstruction of TWA 800, a 747 that exploded shortly after takeoff in New York 1996.

  2. You have had a long career in aviation, what was your inspiration to join it?

    That is correct, almost 4 decades. My dad always wanted to be a pilot, but being a black man in the 1940s and not being rich, he never had an opportunity. I think he really wanted one of his daughter’s to pursue his dream, and as I was the “tomboy” in the family and not scared of heights, I lived his dream! You should have seen his face when he showed up at the airport to see his baby girl “Bevy” take off on her first flight after becoming one of Guyana’s first female military pilots. 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 Aircraft World 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.

  3. Who was your role model and what was the greatest lesson you learned from him/her?

    I had several role models! My first mentor was my dad then I selected mentors along the way in my career path. In the army some of the captains were my role models including Captain Fields and Captain Baker; when I joined the airline, Guyana Airways Corporation my mentors there were, Captain Malcolm Chan-a-Sue, Captain Marshall and Captain Crawford. They were all great pilots who I learned a lot from. When I was hired at the NTSB, Dennis Jones who was my supervisor initially, was my mentor and is still my mentor. I tell kids that they must have a mentor or several mentors who can work with them throughout their career.

  4. What was your greatest challenge in the profession and how did you overcome it?

    Although we were certificated in the United States, we still had to obtain a Guyana Civil Aviation License. I had to go to Trinidad to study to get my Guyana Commercial Pilot’s license and go through another round of exams. These were really tough engineering courses that related to the turbine airplanes I was going to fly. I had to study hard and being 20 years old at that time was no fun; I wanted to hang out with my friends, but I could not. I got my type rating on the Twin Otter and Hawker Siddeley 748; there are times when we have to forget about the fun, it comes later and I am happy that I devoted my younger years to pursue my aviation career.

  5. What is your opinion on air safety given the recent spate of accidents worldwide?

    Traveling by air is still one of the safest forms of transportation; there are many more fatal road accidents. I still like to fly!

  6. There has been an increase in aviation activities in Guyana, what advice would you give to aviation leaders there to make the industry safer?

    I read about the accidents and incidents there, but I have not read any of the reports that determined the probable cause of the accidents, so I cannot comment on that. I think the aviation leaders would have a better idea of what the situation is and how they can lessen the incidents.

  7. How important is it to develop an agency in Guyana similar to the NTSB, separate from the Civil Aviation Authority, in light of the recent accidents?

    There is an organization, under the umbrella of Caricom (CASSOS) that is working on that. I would like to offer my assistance if they decide to develop such an agency, having worked at NTSB for over 23 years; the NTSB is a great agency and we have a group of committed employees who do a great job investigating the accidents and submitting recommendations to the Board for approval.

  8. In light of your participation in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program, what advice do you have for youths in Guyana to become part of the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP), and for aviation leaders to create a program to help them achieve this?

    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. I am a tireless advocate for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for young women and minorities. I will continue to use my STEM Brand which I have worked on at the NTSB to help others live their dreams and fulfill their passion. I think the aviation leaders need to introduce STEM in the schools, so that kids are exposed at an early age. I go to Elementary, Middle and High Schools and talk to the kids; they need to see role models, and this will encourage them to pursue Science as a career choice.

  9. You may not be resident in Guyana, but I am sure you have a vision for aviation proliferation there, would you like to share that vision?

    Sure, I have visited Guyana many times and I have facilitated many workshops with the CAA and Private Aircraft Owners. I would like if they do have a safety forum, to participate and share with them some of the lessons I learned during my accident investigation and analyst experience at the NTSB. Also, one of my goals is to establish a foundation in Guyana and help the girls to pursue their dreams and encourage them to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as well.

  10. You are obviously a trail blazer for aviation professionals of Guyanese origin, moving to the higher echelons of the NTSB, what is your advice for other Guyanese wanting to follow your lead?

    I feel you should follow your dream and passion! I try to give back also, that is why I go to Elementary, Middle and High Schools to talk to the kids so that they can see that a young girl from the Caribbean can come to America as a young woman, pursue an aviation career, fly as a pilot under scary conditions and still achieve my love and passion. I would encourage young women to seek out a mentor who has the same love and passion and ask them to help you live your dream. I had always maintained my flight currency by joining the flight club Negro Airmen International, which then became Black Pilots of New York.

  11. Would you like to add any parting comments or advice to aviation professionals everywhere?

    Aviation is a male-dominated field, but I feel that with exposure and mentors, girls can break into it as well. I am pleased that the NTSB does have a few female pilots, some who are in key positions in the Office of Aviation Safety and Research and Engineering. But, there is room for many more female pilots. Also, I have a mentor, Dennis Jones, a senior aviation investigator at the Safety Board, who often at the State Department’s request, spends a great deal of time in Africa investigating plane crashes throughout the continent. He is also an aerospace engineer, a former flight instructor, aviation mechanic and also a graduate of Embry Riddle. I admire Dennis and I was glad to meet him at one of the safety meetings at the clubhouse. He was very impressive and I admired him. He has been my mentor since I joined the NTSB and he spent a lot of time sharing his experiences with me. He is a very dedicated employee and he was always supportive of my career and kept encouraging me to pursue additional aviation courses.

The team at is grateful to Beverley and the NTSB for allowing us this opportunity. We congratulate Beverley and wish her every success in her new position.