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Female pilots blaze a trail in aviation

Published Sep 8, 2008


The aviation industry is increasingly diverse, offering many opportunities for a promising career.

Nevertheless, the dearth of skills is a worry in the industry.

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To address the shortage of pilots in the country, South African Express (Sax) has launched its own cadet pilot training programme.

The regional feeder airline selected eight cadets, three of them black women, for the programme.

They started their training recently.

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The eight are Dennis Maposa, Tshepho Sello, Thozamile Wakaba, Mandlelandile Nodada, Shainil Giyapersad, Cebile Mndawe, Nonhlanhla Radebe and Lerato Mantambo.

The three women - Mantambo, Mndawe and Radebe - will become the first black female pilots to fly jet aircraft in January. They currently fly the smaller turboprop aircraft.

SAX chief executive Siza Mzimela said the three women were trailblazers and would help women gain a foothold in the male-dominated profession.

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"Given the severe pilot shortages in the country, their qualification is even more welcome."

The three were asked several questions:

- How and why did you join the aviation industry?

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Mantambo: My love for flying started when my parents took me to the Mafikeng Air Show. I was dumbstruck. When I finished high school, I knew what I wanted to do. I joined the Cape Flying Services in George. When I finished, I joined the Falcon Programme for the SA Air Force.

Mndawe: Passion and curiosity drove me into the aviation industry. At first I was curious to know what kept these big machines in the sky and what kind of people flew them. I applied for a job as an air hostess. While I was working as an air hostess, I studied for a private pilot's licence.

Radebe: I lived in Lamontville, a township near Durban International Airport. I saw planes taking off and landing and I wondered what was going on in the cockpit.

Even though I wanted to study actuarial science, aviation was my first choice. I just didn't know how to get in. After conducting some research, I came across the 43 Air School at Port Alfred.

My parents had no money. My father said if that was what I wanted to do, he would take a loan against our house so that I could realise my dream.

From there the sky was the limit.

- What did you know about pilot training before you joined the programme?

Mantambo: I knew that to become a pilot, one had to undergo intensive training, take flight lessons and fly a certain number of hours, first with an instructor and then alone. After that, more training was required.

Eventually you move to the first officer's seat and then the captain's seat.

- How is your training structured?

Mantambo: SAX presents interested pilots with two options - the Cadet Mach 1 programme and the Cadet Mach 2 programme.

Mach 1 is a course for the cadets who have few or no flying hours.

Mach 2 is for previously disadvantaged individuals who are fully qualified commercial pilots but can't find employment. We are in the Mach 2 programme.

- Why are more women not considering flying as a career?

Mantambo: The main problem is that few women consider the profession. People still find women a novelty in the male-dominated world of aviation. I tell people I'm a pilot and they say: "Oh, really?" like I'm kidding.

Mndawe: The media image of flying is another deterrent. I think there tends to be the Tom Cruise thing, where flying a plane is seen as being a macho thing to do. I encourage any woman to consider flying planes - it is a brilliant and fulfiling career.

- What do you like most about aviation?

Mantambo: Aviation is a lifestyle. It's not a career. Every day is different, and more importantly, you are always closer to the Creator.

- What advice do you have for young girls who might want to fly?

Mantambo: If you decide you want to fly for a living, do it for the passion of flying.

Radebe: If you have that drive and passion, then nothing will stop you.

Mndawe: If it's in your heart, you will know it and you'll be able to realise your dreams.

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