SA wing women take to the skies
Both Lethabo Vacu and Ruth Ngomane have been at the airport for more than an hour already.
Vacu has been at work since 6am. The two get stuck into the paperwork for this morning’s flights so that when their captains arrive, everything’s ready.
Sign-in at OR Tambo International Airport is at 8am.
“If the captain’s got questions, I’ve got answers,” says Vacu.
Ngomane, 29, and Vacu, 26, are two of the four cadet pilots currently making their way through FlySafair’s Cadet Pilot Training Programme. The programme aims to help qualified commercial pilots like Ngomane and Vacu reach the required number of hours and level of experience to fly for an airline full time.
But their journey to take off started long before FlySafair.
Vacu is from Soweto. She was the kind of child who would change her career often before the flying bug bit. During visits to her aunt’s house, she was mesmerised by the aircraft that would fly low level overhead. Vacu caught herself daydreaming about becoming a pilot. During a career day in her Grade 11 year when she met black female pilot Amanda Kandawire-Khoza that pushed her to pursue her dream.
“My mom’s always been very supportive. I remember us going to a couple of flight schools,” says Vacu, “We went to Lanseria, Rand, Grand Central, trying to look for flight schools.” Vacu went to cabin crew school in the hopes of networking with people in the travel industry and kept her ear to the ground for bursaries and scholarships.
Ngomane took a slight detour on her way to becoming a pilot. “I think the only time I thought about anything aviation related was when an aircraft flew past the roof of my house and I thought it was making so much noise.”
She grew up just outside of Nelspruit and had her heart set on becoming a doctor. With a BSC degree in hand from the University of Limpopo, Ngomane was at the beginning of her honours year when she realised that this was just not for her.
Under the watchful eye of her mom, Ngomane went through newspapers and job sites. “She told me to apply for everything, even if it only required a Matric. I think she was trying to get rid of me,” she says with a laugh.
It was during this time that they both spotted an advert for a bursary from Bongani Aviation. They applied, were successful and went on to study for their Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) at the South African Flight Training Academy in 2013.
“During my first flight, I thought I’d made a mistake. I started to think that I should maybe go home, this was not for me.
I would say that first solo flight is the biggest achievement in your career,” says Ngomane.
Vacu adds: “It’s a mix of emotions. You’re scared of getting lost, but then you’re glad you’re by yourself. I loved the level of independence.”
With their PPLs under their belt, it was onto the Commercial Pilot’s Licence – a certification that allows you to fly for the airlines as per the Civil Aviation Authority’s rules, but is unfortunately not enough for the airlines themselves. To qualify for this licence, you need 200 hours flight time logged, but the airlines need more experience in the air than this and in most cases have set a minimum of 1 500 hours. This is where many qualified pilots get stuck and where cadet programmes like that of FlySafair’s step in to help.
With sign-on complete, cadets Vacu and Ngomane join their respective flight crews for FlySafair’s different daily services. Sitting in the cockpit, they are joined by a captain and a first officer. Racking up hours has been a bit slow due to the national lockdown’s restrictions on local travel, but Vacu and Ngomane are now flying at least twice a week.
Ngomane and Vacu hope that the cadet programme can continue and give opportunities to pilots in South Africa.