The Sky that belongs to Radar Woman

8 mins read
Rome, 1979 - Stefania looking up at the sky.

My name is Stefania and my story begins with my childhood. My dad used to fly a lot for work. I remember him coming back home from his long journeys when I was a child. He used to bring a bag full of candies, sweets that didn’t exist in Italy, and strange objects he got back from Africa. Those things always captured my interest; it seemed like a different world to me. As I knew he was always traveling on a plane, the airplane became a sort of a magical medium to bring me such things. 

Ciampino, January 6 1982
For us, the Befana (Italian holiday) did not fly on a broom, but landed in a helicopter full of toys. The photo shows my interest was not in dolls, but I chose a small piano.

That’s how I got more and more passionate about flying. When my dad wasn’t home, I was always looking at the sky, and every plane seemed to be carrying him. And that’s how an incredible passion for flight grew inside me. 

At that time, the aeronautical world, both civil and military, was for men only. Women did not have access to any related professions. It seemed impossible to get in. But what’s impossible becomes magical for a little girl; I felt an even greater excitement and desire to achieve the impossible. 

As time went on, women were allowed to enter the aviation field. And that’s when I step into this story. I used to have a different job, but my passion for the sky and flight was always there inside me. 

In those days, I discovered I could apply to what became my dream profession: the air traffic controller. That role would allow me to talk to the sky, and be in contact with that magical world that I felt so close to home. For me, it was the right balance between what I liked to do and what I wanted to be: a woman fulfilling her dreams. 

I applied, and I passed the first round of selection. A long and challenging journey began from there. I faced a year and a half of studying, and then the training course. If you have the chance to make your dream come true, you give it all. 

I had a chance. I applied. I worked hard. I won! My dream came true! 

Control Tower of Venice, 2004 Stefania at work.

At this point, I just had to choose the destination, and I chose Venice. Venice is such a beautiful and romantic city. I picked Venice, the air traffic control tower, and a stronghold of men I would have as colleagues without hesitation.

When I got there, I realized that there were no proper facilities for women. The only bathroom was shared with men; the window had no curtains, so anyone could see you. They had prepared nothing; they had done nothing to accommodate a woman.  

They didn’t want women because, in their opinion, they would have debased the profession. They didn’t want women until then. 

I was 23 years old, and I was welcomed by my colleagues like a princess. I was happy, but there was always a kind of reticence towards me. Then I understood. They treated me as a guest. The guest is never the master of the house. 

I was living as a double-figure, but I wanted to assert myself. 

It wasn’t easy to keep my femininity and, in the meantime, prove to be “man-worthy” in the workplace. 

I lived in Venice for six years. Many years that became beautiful years, because after a while, eventually, they put aside their fears and their reticence. All in all, we became a family. 

Two years later, another unforgettable day came: I became the first woman ever at Venice’s radar control

Stefania making the news.

I remember that day very well. It was my first day as a qualified member, which means I had finished my training. I was in charge of the sky routes without any superior. I was both excited and scared. 

A call for climb clearance arrived. That was my very first responsibility as a radar controller. 

Suddenly, the pilot called. He said he had one of the two engines out due to a flock of birds. “Mayday mayday mayday we are requesting re-entry on landing.” 

I was as pale as terrified. All my colleagues’ eyes were on me, staring at me silently. No words or advice; those few seconds were endless to me. 

I took control of the situation, tried to reassure the pilot, gave him instructions, and brought the plane down to landing. Everyone was safe and sound. 

Rome ACC (Area Control Center), 2015
Stefania at the airway radar control (upper Italian airspace)

Life events took me back to Rome. Six years in Venice had passed, and since then, the Air Force opened its doors to women. My relations with colleagues, both male, and female, became easier. 

I still feel I have to fight for myself and other women to become equal to men. But I’m grateful. I’m grateful to my parents because they gave me all that I have today and – most importantly, all I am. I’m thankful to my friends, too.  

I’m grateful for this interview, as it opens to an introspective journey that gives you something, puts you there, makes you stop, lets you think. 

I’m grateful for my past because there’s so much history in it. 

We must keep our past with us, but we have to look to the future, too. We must keep an eye on what we want to be. We must try to be today what we want to be tomorrow. We must always strive, if possible, with the utmost transparency, goodness of heart, and consideration for others. 

With a look to the sky. Because, like me, each one of us has our own sky. 

Stefania Urriano’s story was written by Francesca Di Meo and translated by Carlo Marongiu.

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