It was an offbeat love affair at dizzying heights, when a young woman from the northern parts of South Africa stumbled on an opportunity that led to her becoming the first black woman to pilot a helicopter in the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Refilwe Ledwaba, born and bred in Lenyenye, a semi-rural township in the Limpopo province of South Africa, found herself at her wits’ end when she could not pursue a career in science due to outstanding university fees.
Today, as she soars the African skies as a contract flyer for various charter companies on the continent, her distant past keeps her grounded.
By turning challenges to opportunities, this University of Cape Town and Bachelor of Science candidate, ended up at an interview for a position in an industry she knew nothing about.
“I think that it was one of my down moments because I am thinking that I worked so hard. I did well at university. I am supposed to go to medical school but I can’t go now and now I have to become an air hostess. You think life dealt you another blow, but that is when everything changed,” she says.
Honesty, determination and the $7,260 outstanding fees secured her a position as a cabin attendant at the lowest point of her life.
Her unique passion for aviation grew over time; she gave in to the persuasion from instructors at the Comair training center and eventually trained as a pilot.
Today, the 39-year-old is ready to open this world for generations to come.
Ledwaba credits the journey, which started in the early 2000s, a time when the country was still going through political transition, to the strong women in her community.
“The environment shaped who I am today. I was surrounded by strong women. I was exposed to academic women. My mother was a school principal and my sisters went to university. The women in the community were mostly teachers and doctors,” she says.
Despite the absence of a single mother who worked seven days a week, Ledwaba always had a strong support system from her community which filled the void; there was always someone around to take care of her.
Using her life-story as a backdrop, the founder of the Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry created the non-profit organization in 2009 with the core purpose of addressing the challenges she faced when entering the industry.
By breaking cultural and social barriers in aviation at the grassroot level, Ledwaba aspires to make aviation a norm for women through the Girls Fly Programme in Africa foundation.
This, she believes, can be achieved by exposing young girls to the industry at a young age, with hands-on training courses and life skills in aviation.
“Limitations are not imposed by the community, they are created structurally. There are limitations imposed as to what you can be, you become what you see. If you are surrounded by teachers and doctors, that will be the limit in terms of what you will be,” she says.
Ledwaba is currently working on a documentary project that traces the history of South African women in aviation.
By documenting the untold stories of African women in aviation, she hopes to highlight the fact that women have proven themselves capable in male-dominated industries for years.
“It is almost as if have we regressed. We no longer have women’s flying clubs. You hardly hear that women are competing now. But they did it back in the 1940s, that is why I feel it is important to touch that history. It needs to be in the museums, we need to go to museums and read these stories about the women so that it is no longer an event that women are flying,” she says.
The former Comair trainee is qualified to fly both helicopters and aeroplanes.
Jacky Fisha, CEO of FlyFofa, a South African-based aviation company, says women and men need to work together to ensure that transformation in the industry provides opportunities, from management to the cockpit.
“I see women taking over; if we work together, it will happen. We are trying to bring ideas that will not only benefit us as small private companies but things that will benefit the country. We are trying to reduce the unemployment rate, we are training girls as well,” she says.
A process that will take time but with adequate education and training, “there will be more women than men in the cockpit”.
Ledwaba discovered the industry in her late teens and was forced to learn on the go.
“Every pilot has a story and it is usually from a very young age. They will tell you that as far back as four-years-old they used to watch aircraft or build model aircraft … In Tzaneen [in Limpopo], we didn’t have any airport and there was no aircraft flying over us. I had never seen one, or been in on one until university. It was my first time being up close and flying in one,” she says.
The people who believed in her played a crucial role.
Pilot training pamphlets left in her locker and hints that she should be in a pilot class instead of training to be cabin crew gave her the impetus to step out of her comfort zone.
The hardest part of her training was flying a helicopter solo during her time with SAPS.
She was ready to quit.
“I used to weigh 49kgs and for you to fly a helicopter solo, at minimum, you need to weight 70 kgs because of the center of gravity, otherwise the helicopter will just hang. You need to balance it,” says Ledwaba. Ready to leave SAPS, her paperwork was signed but her heart was not closed to the idea completely.
Dressed in shorts and t-shirt, instead of her uniform, she made her way to what was going to be her last flight. However, it turned out to be the first of the 2,500 hours she would clock during the course of her career as a pilot.
“After hovering the helicopter a few meters above ground a couple of times, the instructor realized that it was not in the gravitational center. He got off and calculated everything. He knew I needed extra weight so he took a brick and put it in. He got off and on the radio he told me to take off, and here I am today,” she says.
Working in the SAPS not only exposed her to the most dangerous parts of the country, but it also developed her skills as a pilot and a woman.
“My instructor always told me ‘Refilwe, open your legs’. Now imagine a man saying to you ‘open your legs’, what comes into your head? But he is saying ‘open your legs’ so that you can control. Those are some of the cultural differences. So imagine a little black girl sitting there and the instructor keeps saying ‘open your legs’ and the more he said ‘open your legs’, the more I closed them. The more I did this, the more I controlled the aircraft with my legs [instead of my hands] and that is why I could not take-off properly,” she says.
With a sandbag adding weight and a little more confidence, she adapted to an environment created with men in mind. She gradually learned on the job.
The helicopters responded to crime-call outs ranging from murders to lengthy surveillance operations. “It is not for the faint-hearted. You get shot at while flying,” she recalls the times she recovered dead bodies in remote areas.
Now in the commercial airline industry, worlds apart from chasing the bad guys above the ground, her flights are more structured and regulated.
Ledwaba had a hard time adapting to the cleaner side of flying. From take-off to the final landing, procedures are followed thoroughly.
She now uses her experiences from both worlds to provide a multi-faceted education to her students. The future for women in aviation is positive, she affirms.
With adjustable cockpits in airlines that are suited for all shapes and sizes, Ledwaba says it’s a misconception that men are natural flyers and that it will change in time.
“I never got to be a captain but in the airlines, I used to listen to the captain welcoming the passengers when we land and you could hear the pride in his voice. ‘We carried you safely and we landed.’ I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says.
The industry is not what it was 10 years ago and this pilot is ready to do whatever it takes to come out on top.