Remember GayIceland’s article on TF-GAY, the one that went viral? Well, meet the man who came up with the plane’s registration code: Ögmundur Gíslason, a gay pilot working for WOW air, who says that he was totally surprised that WOW air decided to roll with it and even more shocked by the attention it got.
“Skúli Mogensen is a very intelligent individual. He listens to his staff and their arguments and one of his many attributes is that he can change his mind. To me that has always been a sign of a strong character. So, on a whim I decided to send him an email one night and asked him if it wasn’t a splendid idea to register the aircraft flying the inaugural flight to San Francisco – one of our new Airbus A330 – as TF-GAY! I of course included in the email that I’d pilot it to ‘the gay capital’,” says Ögmundur Gíslason, a pilot for the Icelandic airline WOW air, recalling how the idea came up.
Ögmundur had no idea how Skúli Mogensen, owner and CEO of WOW air, would react to his proposal. “Skúli is bold and he’s brave and I thought this was a very risky move for the airline. I even talked to the people in the marketing department and told them that some might take offense; that people wouldn’t want to fly with WOW air because of this. But they had already thought that through and just said that the company policy was to travel with positive, fun and open-minded people, not narrow-minded ones,” he says and adds that no one had dreamed that TF-GAY would gain so much attention.
“It is definitely helping that the aircraft is purple from nose to tail. I even met two friends who live in Canada the other day and they had seen the GayIceland’s piece re-posted number of times on Facebook. This really blew up on social media. Other news media also picked up on this and in every
“When I presented the idea in the email to Skúli I said that I would be the pilot on the virgin flight – in drag!”
one of them they quoted Skúli saying that a pilot within the company came up with the idea. Again it made me feel so proud to be a part of the WOW air-team, many other bosses would just have stolen the idea and said it was theirs.”
But there was one part of the TF-GAY plan that wasn’t followed through with.
“When I presented the idea in the email to Skúli I said that I would be the pilot on the virgin flight – in drag! But two things happened. First, TF-GAY didn’t arrive in time to Iceland so the flight had to be flown by another aircraft in the fleet. And secondly, Skúli wasn’t too keen on the drag idea. He pointed out that being gay doesn’t mean you have to dress up in drag and he was exactly right. So we thought it was best not to cause any kind of misunderstanding, misunderstanding that might offend someone. That’s not what WOW air is about.”
The “only gay” in the cockpit
Ögmundur is gay and he says that he has never experienced prejudice at WOW air because of his sexuality. “It’s not like I announce “I’M GAY!” when I meet people and as far as the WOW air crews are concerned my sexuality doesn’t matter. The girls kiss me and hug me when I show up for work and we talk about boyfriends, dating and more intimate stuff, like they’re talking to the other girls. As for the pilots, they have this chauvinistic image but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They give me a hug, kiss on the cheek or even pinch me on the buttock when we meet, it’s maybe only those who joined recently that are more reserved. I fully understand that,” says Ögmundur and recalls a memorable night he had in the UK.
“A couple of years ago a few of us were in training in London; three captains and two soon to be captains, and me, a first officer. The guys wanted to treat me to a nice time on Valentine’s day so they took me out to dinner and then to a gay club. We watched a drag show and other entertainers and had a great evening,” he says.
But what about when he travels to countries where homosexuality isn’t accepted? “I worked for Air Atlanta, flying the Boeing 747 classic, before I joined WOW air. During that time I traveled the whole world. I was a lot in the Middle East and Asia, flew to Australia, northern parts of Africa, Europe and over to North America and I even got to go a couple of times to South America and once to South Africa. During those travels I’ve seen different cultures and their approach to homosexuality. I can promise you that in many countries things are not always as they seem. For example some are not as liberal and free as you might think. While others, where you’d expect homosexuality to be frowned up on at every level, are way more gay than you could ever imagine.”
Ögmundur has also lived in different places of the world and admits that he sometimes has had to “adapt” to different cultures. “I lived in Malaysia for a year, in Brussels for a year, and also spent quite some time in Saudi Arabia. Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are both Muslim countries. Of course you have to adapt to those countries and respect their culture, that’s very important. It was however interesting to see that in Saudi Arabia men hold hands, but that’s to indicate their brotherly friendship, not gay love like it would mean in Europe.”
The most beautiful office view
Being a pilot was Ögmundur’s life long dream but he didn’t get his commercial pilot’s license until he was 30 years old. “I knew I wanted to be a pilot just as I always knew I was gay. But it took some time to study to be a pilot. I paid for everything myself and becoming a pilot is extremely costly,” he explains, but can’t quite put his finger on why the skies have always fascinated him so much.
“The plane is such an amazing apparatus. You go into this machine in one place and some hours later you’re in a totally different place. To me it was fascinating that I could do this myself, just hop on a plane and fly it from one country to another, or even across continents. And it’s the most beautiful office view you could imagine. Even when landing in Keflavík, Iceland, in a crazy winter storm, where the plane shakes and rattles, it’s still unbelievable.”
“Some [cultures] are not as liberal as you might think. While others… are way more gay than you could ever imagine.”
Ögmundur usually flies to Europe and back in the same day, heading out in the middle of the night and returning late in the afternoon. When flying to the US or Canada he usually spends one or two nights there before flying back. He has a boyfriend and says it’s sometimes difficult to combine his personal life and work.
“We live together, go to the gym together and take cooking classes together. So it’s not always fun when he’s home alone while I’m out for dinner with the crew in Boston,” says Ögmundur. “He is Russian so he can’t get a VISA neither to the US or Canada since they don’t believe he will return to Iceland. We applied for both VISAs for him but got rejected so fast our heads spun! I think Americans and Canadians believe their boys are more attractive than Icelandic boys, but that is not so,” he states with a snigger. “It sucks I can’t show him that part of the world but I can show him around other parts of the world. We have traveled a bit of Europe together, Toulouse in France being next on our schedule.”
Meeting the royals
Since we’re on the topic of traveling, I must ask Ögmundur what is the most amazing place he has traveled to, seeing that he’s visited over 60 countries and has flown to all the continents except Antarctica. “I’ve been to so many countries but I think I’ll always love Asia the most. Maybe
it is because it is so exotic to me? I once spent six weeks in India where I learnt yoga on a roof top at sunrise, overlooking New Delhi. It was like a scene out of a movie, it was so surreal. I also visited South Africa where I got to see the extremely poor. I’ve also been to Bangladesh and that was even drearier. There I saw people begging all day long with crying babies in their arms. It saddens me so much and sometimes puts me into a melancholic state so see things like that. So during my travels I’ve experienced everything from this to meeting royalty,” he says and I gasp: “What royalty? Tell me more!”
Ögmundur grins and continues: “Well, one day I was at the hotel lobby of my hotel in Penang with the captain of my next flight, where we were waiting to be picked up. We saw a red carpet on the floor and were wondering what it was for when all of a sudden we saw the king and queen walk into the lobby. They walked the carpet and came up to us, chatted a little bit, asked us what we doing there and then thanked us for our contribution to their country. They were very nice and so polite, but what I remember the most was how stunningly beautiful the queen was. Every move she made, every gesture, it all looked so perfect.”
As the interview draws to a close, Ögmundur reveals to my surprise that he is not only a pilot but also has a master’s degree in aviation management. So I find fit to ask if he’s already reached the top in the aviation world – or does he want more?
“I hope I will manage to become a captain later this year. I just love my job here at WOW air. I work with awesome people and I never wake up and think: Oh, I can’t be bothered to go to work. It’s almost like it’s a hobby mixed with my social life and some one just thought it was a good idea to pay me for it. Can it get any better?”