When The Sky Is Not The Limit

Have wings, will travel—this is the adage of the amazing women within the aviation industry

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While still predominantly a boys club, more and more women are viewing this industry as one filled with possibilities, and possess an undaunted spirit to achieve their dreams. While women in the aviation field, today, aren’t complaining because they don’t have equal rights or face a large amount of resistance, there is the desire for a more encouraging and supportive environment to be created, and these women are working hard to get the word out to younger women that there are opportunities for them in aviation. One such woman is Refilwe Ledwaba, social entrepreneur, scientist, qualified helicopter and fixed-wing pilot who is passionate about youth development and women empowerment in Africa.

Ledwaba grew up in a small township called Lenyenye, in the Limpopo province as one of seven siblings in a single-parent household—her parents divorced and she and her siblings were raised by their mother.

“I was never exposed to a lot of careers. I wanted to become a Doctor and was content with the idea. I went on to complete a Bachelor of Science Degree majoring in Microbiology and Biochemistry with the plan of going to medical school until I was exposed to the aviation industry. My initial exposure to aviation was when I flew as a passenger during my years at university and later on, I worked for both British Airways/Comair and South African Airways (SAA) as a cabin crew member. It was during this initial exposure that I became interested in aviation,” she says.

It was when she worked as a Cabin Attendant for British Airways/Comair that she decided this was the path she would take. She says the first step was researching the industry and speaking to the pilots that she worked with to try to get as much information as possible. Her first major hurdle was financing, as she needed to get a commercial pilot license (CPL) with a minimum of 200 hours of flight time to be able to one day fly for an airline. The cost of a CPL, today, is almost half-a-million rand.

“I started taking private lessons and with the salary I was earning, I could only afford two hours a month as I was still paying my student loans. Once I realised it was going to take me a couple of years to obtain a CPL, I approached a number of companies for assistance. I was invited to go through the South African Police Service (SAPS) selections and as they say, the rest is history. I went on to complete an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) for helicopters, the highest civilian helicopter license, and worked for SAPS for 10 years. I also obtained a commercial pilot license for aeroplanes and I am currently flying as a flight instructor on aeroplanes at a local flight school. I give flight instruction for the initial issue of private pilot license (PPL) and ground school theory phase,” Ledwaba explains.

The general challenges she faced when wanting to enter the industry were a lack of information and finance, major challenges that are still problematic to learners who want to pursue aviation as a career choice.

As a woman in the field, another challenge she faced was a lack of female role models and mentorship, and she had no choice but to pave the way for herself.

“Other challenges I faced were perceived physical limitations. During flight training, I was too short to reach the pedal of the aircraft and too light to fly helicopters solo. I used cushions in order to reach the pedals and rudders. I also used sandbags or concrete blocks to add on to my weight when flying solo. Of course, as a woman, I was not trusted to carry out certain operations. It took a few years to truly be trusted to fly and be given the same operation assignments as my male counterpart—especially when I flew helicopters operationally,” she reflects.

In 2005, Ledwaba became the first black woman to earn a helicopter pilot license in South Africa, and the first African person (male or female) to fly operationally for SAPS, accomplishments she could never have imagined achieving.

“Being the first comes with a lot of responsibilities and challenges. I had no one paving the way for me. I had to navigate the path on my own. It also meant that I had the responsibility to pave way for those that came after me.

“As a woman, generally, it is amazing working in this industry. I have had the privilege to meet and interact with amazing men and women in the industry. I have also had the privilege of being mentored and supported by a man in the industry. However, the industry is still very much a ‘boys club’, so it can be difficult for women to navigate because of unspoken rules. And if you don’t know those unspoken rules, you can be in for a bumpy ride,” she says.

While personally not content with the progression of women in the field, believing that in some cases, there is a deliberate act to slow the progression, she is happy that women have made significant strides in the industry from both a technical and managerial perspective.

“We have women now heading big organisations such as the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). We have women in executive positions and women owning aviation companies. However, there is still lack of women represented on aviation boards, women are not represented in critical positions, for example, we have yet to have a female chief pilot for any of the African airlines. During my tenure in the industry, in terms of women empowerment, I have seen women starting to raise their hands and make themselves available to assume leadership positions. I have also seen men in higher positions within companies deliberately empowering and mentoring women to assume more leadership positions,” she says.

“Airlines such as Ethiopian and Kenya Airways are leading the way in terms of women empowerment in Africa. It will be good to see more airlines following that approach. In the next 10 years, I would like us to be at a point where women in aviation is a non-event, and where equal opportunities are given to all. I would like to see women heading airlines and women chief pilots,” she adds.

Female leaders whom she admires include the Captian at BA/Comair, Margaret Viljoen, who was the first female pilot and Captain at BA/Comair, and was the first female pilot whom Ledwaba met and who inspired her to become one; Sibongile Sambo and Sheryl Sandberg.

Ledwaba believes more needs to be done in terms of STEM skills development in South Africa, especially with regard to girls, as most of the technical fields in the aviation and space industry require Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), women represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study in higher education globally. Looking at Africa, currently, college graduates with a STEM degree represent a mere 2% of the continent’s total university-age population and of that 2%, only 17% of students perusing STEM education in Kenya are women, 24% in Tanzania, 18% in Uganda and 27% in Rwanda and South Africa. While she does not have the exact percentage, anecdotal evidence shows that the percentage is lower than the global average and lower than most countries in Africa.

“Looking at high schools, anecdotal evidence also shows that girls are reluctant to follow careers in the STEM field in South Africa, which they need for a possible career in the aviation and space industry. This is also supported by UNESCO, and they assert that ‘gender differences in STEM education participation at the expense of girls are already visible in early childhood care and education (ECCE) and become more visible at higher levels of education. Girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects with age, and lower levels of participation are already seen in advanced studies at secondary level’. My observation is that while there are a few programmes directed at girl’s development, the environment at the moment, especially the training environment, is such that girls are not given a fair chance,” says Ledwaba.

It was this desire to change the learning environment to a more supportive one that led to the establishment of the Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry (SAWIA). The idea to start SAWIA came when she attended the Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference in Atlanta, USA. While it was challenging to get SAWIA off the ground, there was a need to have such an organisation looking at where we were as a country in terms of women empowerment in the aviation industry. From the onset, we had support from the major organisations, not only in South Africa but in countries such as the USA.

One of SAWIA’s signature programmes is the Girl Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) foundation. The GFPA foundation was first started under SAWIA and now, is part of the Women and Aviation (W&A) hybrid structure. The GFPA foundation is an information and skills development STEM education programme for school and post-school learners who have an interest in the aviation and space industry or any other STEM-related field. The education programme is designed to expose young women (and the public) to a world of opportunities while highlighting the achievements of women in aviation and space. The programme includes the use of design thinking, technology, and innovation to inform, connect, motivate and inspire the next generation of makers and problem-solvers in the aviation and space industry in Africa. The organisation is currently operating in Botswana and South Africa.

Her advice to young women who want to pursue a career in aviation is do a lot of research about careers that are available in the industry, to get a mentor in the industry, try to do job shadowing during the holidays and, of course, if you are aiming for the technical part of the industry, make sure that you do well in pure Maths and Science.

“For the young women who are beginning their careers in the industry, the aviation industry is still very much traditional with unsaid rules. I would advise them to get a mentor who will guide them through their journey. Sometimes the journey can be so difficult and challenging that we forget to have fun. I would also advise them to embrace and enjoy it,” says Ledwaba.

“I have had an amazing journey but I had to work incredibly hard to get to where I am today. My journey was characterised by obstacles but it was through these obstacles that opportunities came about. It was through these challenges that I discovered what I am capable of. I wanted to give up so many times but I would not change any part of it,” she concludes.

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