Refilwe Ledwaba- A woman in Aviation, making waves

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refilwe ledwaba 2She grew up in a small township called Lenyenye in the Limpopo Province, South Africa. Being a pilot was off the radar. Young girls were trained to be teachers, police officers, nurses etc. Never in her life had she seen a pilot before, it was only in her first year of University when she was a passenger to Cape Town, her passion ignited from that moment on… 

This is the story of Refilwe Ledwaba!

Nunn: Who is Refilwe Ledwaba?

R: I am a social entrepreneur, an academic, and a qualified fixed wing pilot (Commercial Pilot License (CPL) holder) and helicopter pilot (Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) holder). I am currently studying towards an MBA (graduating in 2016) at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science.

I am passionate about entrepreneurship, education, gender equality, human rights, community-building and flying. I am committed to youth development, particularly working with girls in high school, exposing and encouraging them to focus on STEM education: science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and then to pursue careers in aviation and aerospace.

Nunn: Travelling really inspires me: I love visiting other countries and experiencing different cultures.As a woman, a career in such a technical field can be a bit hard to break into, there are challenges that young ladies would face if they decide to go into aviation. The fears of being looked down on etc. What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced as a woman in this field and how hard was it for you to make your breakthrough?

R: Financial challenges and growing up in a single parent household with seven children, meant I understood early that my road ahead would require hard work, courage, focus, and above all, perseverance to achieve my dreams and goals.

When I decided that I wanted to be a pilot, I set about finding out what I needed to do to achieve my dream of flying. I asked questions, sought out aviation professionals and pilots; learning more about the aviation industry I loved, and the route I would need to take to become a pilot. I was rewarded and blessed to receive free flying lessons from a Comair pilot that further ignited my passion for flying. I wrote letters to every company I could think of asking for support and help to become a pilot. Within days the South African Police Service (SAPS) called me, and after selections, offered to pay for my studies to become a helicopter pilot.

During my training, I found there was a lack of mentorship, encouragement and support which made my life as an aspiring pilot difficult, and a conspicuous lack of female role models in the aviation industry. I am 5’3 with a slight build, and found there were many physical challenges to overcome as well. I solved my height and weight challenges by using extra ballast and a cushion to meet the physical requirements of flying a helicopter; and I proactively searched for female pilots and aviation professionals to mentor and guide me in the industry.

The unique challenges I faced inspired me to found the non-profit/public benefit organization, Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace (SAWIA) in 2009, to provide a platform for information, education and networking opportunities for females in general, as well as financial support to aspiring aviators in South Africa. SAWIA helps girls and women learn about the career opportunities in the aviation and aerospace sector and contribute to its reform. The organization is able to offer young fliers the support, networks, mentorship and access to funding that I never had.

There are still major gender challenges for women in the aviation and aerospace industry, women in technical fields are not trusted to be as competent as men – this stereotypical thinking will be overcome by focusing on excellence, competence, and hard work.

Nunn: If you were not a pilot, what career would you be in?

R: My first career choice was to become a medical doctor. I completed a Bachelor of Science degree at UCT as a foundation to apply to medical school.images

Nunn: What was the driving force behind you starting SAWIA?

In 2005, I became the first black woman to earn a helicopter pilot license in South Africa, and the first black person (male or female) to fly operationally for the SAPS. Qualifying as one of the first females to fly in the country gave me a unique platform to interact with the youth, and women in the aviation and aerospace industry – noting the many challenges they face. The unique challenges in this industry that I and other women faced, as well as my passion for youth development, inspired me to start SAWIA, with the hope that I could help other girls and women in the industry, and share the lessons of my experience with them. The aim of the organization is to empower women and establish a forum that creates access to more experienced industry professionals, affording aspiring aviatrix the chance to exchange ideas, network and develop relationships crucial to career success. SAWIA aspires to be the primary network for established and aspiring female aviation professionals in the SADC region.

Nunn: How did you manage to get SAWIA off the ground? Where did it all begin, and where do you plan to take it?

In 2009, after attending a few international aviation conferences, and being invited as one of the panellists at the International Women Fly Programme in the USA, I met a Kenyan woman and we established Women Aviators in Africa (WAFRIC). We faced the challenge of distance and where the organisation should be based, registered, and operate – we decided it was important to focus on our own regions first, so I went on to establish SAWIA for the SADC region.

Building a non-profit organisation from its foundation is very tough. SAWIA was fortunate to get buy-in from the industry, stakeholders and volunteers from the beginning, as others recognised the need for an organisation such as SAWIA.

I would like to see SAWIA move into a more sustainable place, to create employment, to offer more financial assistance for aspiring aviators, to inspire girls and women to pursue careers in the aviation and aerospace industry, and to continue promoting positive change in South Africa. Through our Girl Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) we offer an annual 6-day aviation and space camp for 150 high school learners (the next one is being planned for January 2016), and are working with other African countries to establish aviation and aerospace education programmes for girls.

GFPA is an educational programme for both primary and high school girl learners, with an Bz1R15xIAAAD4EWinterest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM education), focusing on aviation and space technology.

Why do you believe many girls are not pursuing aviation as a career? Do you believe it is due to lack of knowledge about this industry or are women dropping out?

When girls are very young they are encouraged to think in gender-specific ways and socialized to focus on raising families and careers such as teaching and nursing. Our research has revealed that most girls are not encouraged to study maths and science in school. The media also plays a powerful role in reinforcing stereotypical roles for girls and women, with most adverts and movies still showing men in technical fields and women in more traditional, nurturing roles. Yes, there are also high dropout rates due to underlying social and political issues, such as gender stereotypes, racism, quality education, financial constraints, and access to mentors and industry professionals. It is my hope that SAWIA and GFPA can bridge some of these challenges.

Apart from the foundation, what more do you plan to do in the future? Any other projects in the pipeline?

SAWIA has a few projects in the pipeline, with two already underway: arranging the GFPA aviation and space camp for January 2016, and expanding GFPA across the African continent (we are working with our Cameroon counterparts to establish GFPA in that country).

What current opportunities are there in the aviation field? Not only for women, but for youngsters as a whole?

There are lots of opportunities available in the aviation and aerospace industry. For example, when we talk about aviation, people assume that being a pilot is the only career choice available. Aviation careers are much more diverse.

For more information about careers in aviation and aerospace visit the Civil Aviation Authority’s A-Z career booklet HERE

Refilwe is an inspiration to many young African women who for a very long time were made to believe that certain careers were not tailored for them, we salute you Refilwe for breaking some of these barrriers.

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