South Africa’s first black woman helicopter pilot teaches others to shatter the glass ceiling


South Africa’s first black woman helicopter pilot Refilwe Ledwaba has some words of advice for anyone who fears that discrimination will prevent them from achieving their dreams

Ledwaba said instead of them focusing on those who sought to pull you down, women should find some of the many people who would be happy to see them doing what they love and join forces with them.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa with six siblings and raised by a single, working mother, Ledwaba was very close to her local community in Lenyenye in Greater Tzaneen Municipality but she was under no illusions about the outside world.

When you are a woman and a black person [to achieve something rare], it is a double whammy,” she said. “If you don’t have the right people [around you], you could be [Albert] Einstein, but you will never make it.”

It was while training as a cabin crew member to help pay off her student loan that she felt more at home in the cockpit. Her white colleagues encouraged her to become a pilot and one, a pilot himself, offered to train her for free if she covered the fuel cost.

Flying solo is one of the best moments in your life helicopter pilot Refilwe Ledwaba

In 2005, she got a chance to learn to fly helicopters at a government school outside Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. There she struggled with nerves and the idea that “women must always sit with legs together, something you cannot do while operating the aircraft controls”.

Again it was a white man who encouraged her not to give up, she said. The moment she flew solo, it dawned on her that she had broken the race and gender barriers in one fell swoop.

“Flying solo is one of the best moments in your life,” Ledwaba told Reuters.

Months later she became the first black woman helicopter pilot to join the SA Police Service.

Now a certified flight instructor, she has run her foundation Girls Fly Programme in Africa for more than a decade, training hundreds of young women in aerospace and aviation. It now operates in four African countries and Ledwaba has her eye on others.

Reflecting on her career, Ledwaba said she had always favoured optimists over cynics.

“The number of people who are not happy to see you there are far less than those who want you to be,” she said. “Partner with them.”

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