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Aviation history Pioneering female pilot now runs her own airline

Helene Niedhart im Cockpit

Nothing could put Helene Niedhart off the idea of flying

(Helene Niedhart)

Helene Niedhart created headlines in the 1980s when, because no Swiss airline would employ her as a pilot, she founded her own airline. As Switzerland celebrates 100 years of scheduled flight, Niedhart looks back over her high-flying career. 

“Not possible, never,” Niedhart says and laughs. She’s looking up at old aircraft and helicopters hanging on wires in the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne, where a new exhibition, “Switzerland in the air!external link”, is marking various aviation anniversaries throughout 2018. 

Switzerland in the air!

The Swiss Museum of Transport is devoting 2018 and 2019 to aviation and space travel. A number of anniversaries are looming, including 50 years of Aerosuisse, 100 years of scheduled flight in Switzerland, and the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing. 

The new exhibition “Switzerland in the air!” explores the fascination of flight in the reorganised Aviation Hall, which covers every aspect of flying, including passenger and cargo air transport activities, light aviation, air sports, air rescue services and the vocational opportunities related to aeronautics and aviation.

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Hardly any women worked in Swiss cockpits in the 1980s, so the trained pilot founded her own airline. “My passion for flying grew every day,” she says. 

Nothing could put her off the idea of flying. She bought a Cessna C421 and became the pilot of her own airline. Three years later she owned her first jet; six years later her first medium-distance plane. Today she employs 70 people, runs seven business jets and the company has an annual turnover of CHF55 million ($57 million). 

Business plan 

In 1987, Niedhart founded Cat Aviationexternal link. She is the first and only female owner of an airline in Switzerland. She is the CEO, president and majority shareholder of the Zurich-based company, which specialises in charter flights. 

She didn’t want to become a businesswoman, “but I’m good at counting”, she said to herself. Originally she qualified as a banker. When she wanted to found her airline, she spent days on her business plan. “And it never worked out,” she said. She played around with it – and afterwards worked all the harder to successfully implement the plan. 

For 15 years she didn’t pay herself a salary. She was able to do all the work herself – “apart from maintaining the aircraft,” she says. 

She has now been in the highly competitive airline market – “a really tough business” – for 30 years and says the potential of the branch is underestimated. 

“The economic output in Switzerland amounts to more than CHF15 billion a year and involves 34,000 jobs,” she says. 

Niedhart is vice-president of the Swiss Business Aviation Associationexternal link and represents the branch – she also sits on the board of the European Business Aviation Associationexternal link and lobbies in Brussels on behalf of Swiss interests. 

Man’s world 

Niedhart has notched up more than 11,000 hours in the air. She has often heard the surprised question “Where’s the pilot?” – in all possible languages of course. 

Aviation remains a male domain and airplanes are firmly in men’s hands. As a child, she got to know Zurich airport only thanks to her brothers, whom she accompanied. 

It was her younger brother who motivated her to train as a pilot after she caught the flying bug in the Grand Canyon. Niedhart continues to take off today – thanks to her creative powers and energy.


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