Johannesburg - Asnath Mahapa can't hide her excitement when she's asked about being part of one of South Africa's most historic flights.
Mahapa, the country's first black female pilot, was part of South African Airways' (SAA) first all-female flight crew, which embarked on an 11-hour international flight, from OR Tambo International Airport to São Paulo, Brazil, in honour of Women's Month last month.
“People say women can't work together but, to be honest, this was the smoothest flight I've ever had as a pilot,” Mahapa says giggling.
The flight, on one of SAA's Airbus A320s, included an all-female flight deck and cabin as well as ops crew.
Apart from Mahapa, the crew included Captain Jane Trembath, the first female airline captain in South Africa to command overseas flights, and Annemarie Smit, who completed the flight deck crew in the role of Senior First Officer.
“It was actually a very nice flight. Everyone was in a great mood, and the passengers were really happy,” says Mahapa.
The 38-year-old pilot and mother of two understands the true importance of a historic flight like this. “Throughout my life, and even now, people who meet me cannot believe that I'm a pilot. They think it's not possible.
“People still have that mindset that women can't do certain jobs, and I think when people think of flying a plane, they think there is no way a woman can handle such a big machine in the sky. This flight has proven that women can do anything that men can do, and that is why it's so important that this feat was recognised.”
Female pilots in the country have been underestimated, she says. “When I worked as a pilot at SAA Express in the late 2000s, I noticed how concerned some passengers were when I introduced myself as a pilot. I would always get questions like, are you the one flying us? And are we going to arrive safely at our destination?”
Slowly, things are changing. “These days I get many people coming up to me at the airport and complimenting me.”
She tells how she was raised in Rosenkrantz in Ga-Matlala. “We didn't have running water, neither did we have electricity, so we had to study under candlelight.
The dream of becoming a pilot was very far-fetched when I was a young girl. I saw pilots as these elite group of people. When I told a few people of my dream, I was laughed at and dismissed.”
Having spent some time at the Air Force, as well as having flown contract planes for organisations such as the Red Cross and UN Food Aid, Mahapa is now recognised as one of the country's most accomplished female pilots and has flown to almost every corner of the world.
Apart from being South Africa's first black female pilot, Mahapa was also recognised as one of the 100 greatest women in aviation in the world, in a book published in 2016.
But she had to fight against all odds to get to where she is today.
“When I tried enrolling at the Air Force, * was told I was too short to fly. But I fought for my dream and others did too, which I'm very grateful for. I ended up changing the history in the Air Force. I was the first to get in with my height.
“When I got into the Air Force, after fighting this battle of bringing down the height (requirement), I was told that they didn't recognise my qualifications, so I had to start from scratch again and do my qualifications again.
“When I left the Air Force and wanted to start flying elsewhere, I was told that I can't fly, and haven't reached the standard, so I was grounded immediately.
“I've been knocked down constantly, but I keep going. Today I am where I am because of my persistence.”
The Saturday Star