As a young girl, Fiorenza De Bernardi could often be found keeping watch on her father Mario De Bernardi’s plane when he made appearances around Italy. A legendary pilot in the Italian Air Force, world speed record holder, and winner of the Schneider Cup in 1926, Mario De Bernardi was in high demand at aerobatic championships following his service in World War I, and his daughter almost always came along with him. So, it was only natural that Fiorenza followed in her father’s slipstream. She was born to fly.
Now 91 and fully retired from flying, Fiorenza looks back on her years as a premier female pilot with satisfaction. She learned to fly at age 23 in 1951 and soon set about breaking boundaries in her own right: Italy’s first female airline pilot at Aeralpi, first Italian woman to earn a pilot certificate for mountains and glaciers, first female airline captain, and more than 7,000 flight hours. “Only if you do transoceanic flights do your hours go up,” she says. “Of course, I have made demonstration flights in Australia, India, Afghanistan, Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Timor. But my job was mainly that of taxi flights, one of the most complete activities because it means changing routes and flying new routes at any time.”
For someone who blazed a trail for women in aviation, Fiorenza takes a fairly dispassionate view of her contributions. Flying was something she loved doing, so why shouldn’t she pursue it? Still, her eyes flash with pride when she recounts that when Samantha Cristoforetti, the Italian astronaut who spent 199 days onboard the International Space Station in 2014 and 2015 as a flight engineer, presented her with a copy of her recent autobiography, Cristoforetti dedicated it “to Fiorenza, who paved the way.”
When asked if she has any advice for young girls today, Fiorenza does not hesitate. “If you really want something, do it,” she says. “Don’t stop until you have got it. When I was hired by Aeralpi, I was transparent to my colleagues. I faced them and said: ‘Look, I’m here and I’m staying.’ From that moment on, everything settled down.” She also notes that when she attended courses at the Italian military base in Alghero, she made sure to wear her skirted uniform “so you could see from afar that I am a woman.”
Of course, she doesn’t deny that some choices at times exclude others. “I’ve never had children because you have to spend time with children and I wanted to fly, to see the world,” she says. “But being free to choose what you want to do is the greatest gift you can receive from a parent, regardless of whether you are male or female. I owe everything to my parents, and I will always be grateful to them for the freedom of my choices. Since I was a young girl, I have been able to go camping, rock climbing and skiing in the mountains with friends. At the time, it was not usual to let the girls be so free, especially if they were only-daughters—not to mention being able to fly, in a different and special way.”
Fiorenza has no regrets and is still involved in many active projects. The Italian Women Pilots Association, which she founded in 1979, has now become the Women’s Air Association and continues to hold conferences and meetings to support the presence of women in international aviation, at all levels.
And she remains as refreshingly unpretentious, candid and engaging as ever—the essence of a no-nonsense air pioneer. She remains a huge animal lover, driving herself each week up the coast from Rome, where she lives, to lend a hand at an animal shelter called Rifugio San Francesco. “I can no longer keep animals at home because of my age,” she says, “but I still take care of them and they repay me with affection and loyalty, virtues which you rarely find in people nowadays.”
So if you happen to spy a sophisticated woman sitting outside the Panamino café in the Villa Ada park in Rome, sipping a cup of coffee or a glass of prosecco, it may not seem out of the ordinary. But know this: Fiorenza De Bernardi is extraordinary.