Women’s Day 2021: SA’s first black female helicopter pilot breaks barriers
South Africa’s first black female helicopter pilot, Refilwe Ledwaba, has some advice for anyone who fears discrimination is preventing them from achieving their dreams.
Instead of focusing on those looking to bring you down, find a few of the many people who would be happy to see you do what you love and join forces with them.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa with six siblings and a single working mother, Ledwaba was very close to his local community but had no illusions about the outside world.
“When you’re a woman and a black person, it’s a double whammy,” she said. “If you don’t have the right people, you could be (Albert) Einstein, but you’ll never get there.”
It was while training as a cabin crew to help pay off her student loan that she felt more comfortable in the cockpit. Her white colleagues encouraged her to become a pilot and one of them, himself a pilot, offered to train her for free if she covered the cost of fuel.
In 2005, she was fortunate enough to learn to fly helicopters at a public school outside of Durban, where she struggled with nerves and the idea that women should always sit with their legs together, this which you cannot do by operating the controls.
Once again, it was a white man who encouraged her not to give up, she said. The moment she flew solo, she realized that she had broken racial and sexual barriers in one fell swoop.
“(Flying) solo is one of the best times of your life,” she told Reuters.
A few months later, she became the first black female helicopter pilot to join the South African Police Service.
Now a certified flight instructor, she has run her foundation, Girls Fly Program in Africa (GFPA), for more than a decade, training hundreds of young women in aerospace and aviation. It now operates in four African countries and Ledwaba is looking at others.
Reflecting on her career, she said she always preferred optimists over cynics. The “number of people who are not happy to see you there is much less than those who want you to be,” she said. “Partner with them.”
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