Hidden Figures: Halli Sparks

Halli in Stone grey Alice Hamilton Antimicrobial gloves

AmorSui’s “Hidden Figures” series features frontline workers who, throughout the pandemic, have worked fiercely behind the scenes. In this interview series, we introduce you to the people who turn up every day to keep things running, often without acknowledgment, during these unprecedented times.

We are so excited to kick off our first feature in celebration of international women’s day with Captain Halli Sparks, a pilot with a major US airline who has been flying commercially for 30 years. Among her notable flights: transporting Oscar statuettes to the ceremony in Los Angeles, flying relief missions to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and more recently, carrying medical staff and supplies around the country to combat the pandemic. She is also a staunch advocate for fair working conditions, serving previously as a spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association branch at one of the US major airlines.

We caught up with Halli to ask her about her work, how things have changed since the pandemic started, her inspirations, and what she does in her spare time.

Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me a little about your background, like where you grew up and what made you decide to be a pilot?

Halli: I grew up in Arizona, and my stepfather had an airplane when I was growing up… so there really wasn’t any mystery. Even though this was the 80s and women weren’t flying, it was all I knew that people that worked did. They flew airplanes. You either had an airplane or you flew commercial. And it never dawned on me that women couldn’t do it. It wasn’t in my mind. And at the time, when I got hired at a major airline, less than 3% of the pilots were women. My new hire class at the major airline – and I’ve been flying commercially now for 30 years – my new hire class had the lead guy from the Thunderbirds, an SR71 test pilot, all kinds of fighter pilots, and me! So yeah, I just didn’t think we couldn’t do something like this. It never dawned on me.

That’s great! It makes sense, you want to do it, so you do.

Halli: You just do it! So about two or three years ago, I was at DC at the airport, and I was standing there with my copilot, who was another woman. A lady comes up who was probably my age, didn’t realize I was close to her age, and told us that we needed to thank the women who came before us. You mean me!

How would you say the pandemic has changed your role as a pilot?

Halli: We wear masks, and that’s mandatory on the airline. How does it change… The actual job itself is exactly the same for us, whether there’s a mask on or not. Our physical job has not changed. How we see the passengers, and the nervousness of the passengers, I would say is the biggest change. You can tell they’re still uneasy about what’s going on and the safety protocols. There are a few people who flout it, but that’s such a small percentage. Most people are doing what they’ve gotta do to keep flying. We all know you have to wear a mask on the airplane, or we’re not going. We cannot risk something on an airplane.

Have you found that the trips you’re flying, have those changed?

Halli: I would say that the airplanes are shifting around. So typically I would fly to St. Maarten and Puerto Vallarta in the winter – and layover. [laughs] Not really doing that now. Different routes, yes, and it really is dependent on what’s going on in the city and how the cities are handling it. For instance, Denver is still a very popular destination, so that one is doing well. The difference really for us is that when we get to hotels, we’re not able to get out and get food and stuff like that. We’re not as active as we once were on our layovers.

Has your role enabled you to be a part of the pandemic relief efforts in any way, or is it something you’re conscious of when you’re flying?

Halli: Not conscious of it. I mean... different flights will fly vaccine supplies, we end up flying a lot of medical staff, we have new directives because sometimes people are bringing their own samples for sports teams and things like that. We’re carrying a lot of medical supplies. And I know for a fact that we have brought in millions of doses of the vaccine from overseas.

Does it feel like you have more knowledge, perhaps, than your average person of what’s going on because you see what’s happening?

Halli: I think we see upfront how different areas of the country are handling it, and it’s vastly different. And I’m not talking about the government regulations or local regulations. I’m talking about the people’s approach to it -- your average person on the street, how seriously they take it. Everybody is taking the approach differently is the problem. That’s all there is to it. Yeah, I guess we do get to see a lot of that.

Hopefully on the plus side, you also get to see places where it’s a little bit smoother and perhaps something to aspire to.

Halli: Yeah, some places. I was in New York this summer, and I felt completely confident in Manhattan. I really did.

Taking a higher-altitude approach, are there people or practices or things that inspire you, whether it’s in your work or in your daily life?

Halli: You know what is inspiring, honestly, is to see the small children embrace the masks and have great sayings on it. Like it’s today’s lunchbox! It’s so convenient, and they’re so excited about it… as long as you can get them excited about it, they’re all in.

I love it! I mean, the kids are leading on that. Now, they still come up to the flight deck beforehand, the kids, and they peek around. It’s almost a post-9/11 thing. “Can we come up and peek?” If we’re all wearing masks, and we have the filtration system…

The HEPA filters are the same as the ER, and the way the air flows through the airplane is that it’s pushed from top to bottom, so you’re not recycling it back and forth. Once you’re on the airplane, it’s safe with everyone wearing the masks. You’re better on the airplane than you are at the airport or the grocery store as far as ventilation goes. So I have no problem with them coming up if everybody’s still masking up. They’re so cute when they come up. “Can we still look?”

So when you’re not flying, what are some of the things you like to do to relax and unwind?

Halli: I like to play tennis. I play a lot of tennis. Run, sometimes golf. What else do I do? I study wine, not just drink it, but study it, study the soils, the slopes, the varietals, study all of it. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Halli at her home in Texas, wearing S Dorothy Hodgkin top 2.0 and S Rosalind Franklin pant 2.0

Nice balance there, and the sommelier, wine expertise element, there’s a lot that goes into it.

Halli: Right, well, before this, I would go once a year to a different location and study the soils, the climate, the drainage, the taste, go in-depth. Obviously, this year I haven’t been able to do that. My boyfriend is from Switzerland, so he gets wine shipped over to me from Switzerland. I’m very much into the Petite Arvine right now from the Valois area. He’s always correcting my French.

You know what, I really do like Slovenian white wines. And Hungarian wines. See? I love them all. I like everything that’s unique and different.

Do you have any book recommendations or show recommendations for people looking to relax?

Halli: My favorite book of all time is Wine and War, and it’s a true story of the French Resistance in Burgundy and hiding the Burgundy from the Nazis. It’s about 123 pages, it’s off-the-charts great. It has the history, the wine… It’s yeah, my favorite.

If you could ask readers to do one thing to do their part to mitigate the pandemic, what, from your perspective, would be the most helpful?

Halli: I mean, we all say masks. Wear a mask. It’s just the easiest thing. That’s it. Probably listen to the doctors. I’ll follow the recommendations; I am willing to do whatever the medical field recommends for us to get through it. If that’s one mask, or two masks, or whatever it is, I’m willing to do that to get us through it, get us back to flying…

I want us all being able to travel again because honestly, everything I’ve learned of value in this world, other than the tools to do my job, I’ve learned from travel. It’s where you become a more aware person, you become more culturally rich. I think if everybody traveled, we would have fewer problems in this world because we wouldn’t fear other cultures. It’s just different! It’s not better or worse.

Even coming back home, you see things a little differently.

Halli: It makes people kinder towards other people.

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