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Becoming the First Black Female Helicopter Pilot in SAPS

By S.L. Fuller | August 25, 2017
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It did not occur to Refilwe Ledwaba that she would become the first black woman to fly helicopters with the South African Police Service until after she became officially qualified. It was something she described as happening “by chance.”

“I didn’t know when I was training that I’d actually be the first [black] woman to fly for the police,” Ledwaba told R&WI. “It only transpired right at the end when I qualified. They were like, ‘Actually, you’re the first.’”

Being the first, she said, meant acting as a sort of “guinea pig” for the service. When she started in 2004, facilities and policies were fit for men only. Only two other women — white women — had flown for the police before Ledwaba, joining, she said, not too long before. There were no bathrooms or showers for females, no maternity policies or considerations. There were no uniforms in female sizes. But she said she was met with support and spent 10 years flying for the police. She performed a variety of missions, from search and rescue in the mountainous and maritime environments, to pursuits, to narcotics and more. While she can fly the Robinson Helicopter R44, Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 and Airbus Helicopters AS350 B2, Ledwaba said most of her hours were spent flying the AS350 B3.


South African Police Pilot Refilwe Ledwaba

Refilwe Ledwaba

By the time Ledwaba left the police force in 2014, she said a female joining the police service was a “nonevent.”

As much as she might have been an inspiration for other women to work in aviation, it was a woman who inspired Ledwaba in the first place. Her infatuation with aviation, she said, was another occurrence that happened “by chance.”

“Where I grew up was a rural area, and we were not exposed to aircraft. Growing up, I never saw a helicopter,” Ledwaba said, who grew up in Limpopo, South Africa. “It was only when I went to university that I flew to Cape Town, and that was my first time in an aircraft. By chance, in that aircraft was a female pilot.

“And I was very intrigued with the flying,” she said, “because I never knew that women could actually fly, until that age.”

Does Ledwaba wish she had known aviation was a possible career path earlier? She admits that having industry knowledge when she was younger, and having some mentorship, would have helped. But, ultimately, her answer is “no.”

“I know that the process, or the challenges that I went through, have made me who I am today,” she said.

That process involved finding sponsors to help fund aviation school (support was given by the South African Police Service) and becoming the first black woman in South Africa to earn an airline transport pilot’s license for helicopters. And after her tenure with the police, she earned her fixed-wing qualification and flew for South African Express Airways for three years. Ledwaba’s process is also inclusive of earning a Master of Business Administration from South Africa’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. She now spends her time as a fixed-wing instructor and flies helicopters part-time to have fun and keep current.

But that doesn’t mean Ledwaba doesn’t want other women and girls to have smooth processes of their own. Inspired by a trip to Atlanta for a Women in Aviation International conference, she started her own group in South Africa in 2009 — the South Africa Women in Aviation and Aerospace nonprofit.

“We needed a network for women to come together and discuss the challenges that are there, and see how we can pave the way for future girls and generations,” Ledwaba said.

She also founded Girls Fly Programme in Africa, which is an educational program for girls in elementary and high school. It promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in aviation and space fields. The program partners with the Women in Aviation International Botswana chapter and is supported by the Young Africa Aviation Professional Association.

“The number of female pilots, the percentage, has gone from a single digit in South Africa, to double digits, now,” Ledwaba said. “We have seen a spike in women becoming not only pilots, but … engineers as well.”

This increase is supported by Ledwaba’s efforts, showing girls an industry they rarely get to see. Girls Fly Programme in Africa holds camps in which girls can visit different facets of the industry, including the military, commercial operations and engineering firms.

“They’ve never seen an aircraft before,” Ledwaba said of some of the campers. “This is that platform for them to actually introduce them to the industry; they had never known about it.”

South Africa hosts more airlines and more general aviation aircraft than any other country on the continent, Ledwaba said. And it’s an exciting time for women in aerospace.

“There’s this beautiful, nice shift that has happened in the last five to 10 years,” she said, “where women are not only going into the technical field, but they’re also starting to climb up into leadership positions as well.”

The director of Civil Aviation at the South African Civil Aviation Authority is a woman, Poppy Khoza. In 2015, Sizakele Mzimela was reported as the first black woman to found an airline, when she created Fly Blue Crane. Mzimela was also reported as the first black executive vice president of South African Airways.

Around the world, women are earning top leadership positions and making their marks. Marillyn A. Hewson is the chairman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin and was ranked No. 3 in Fortune's list of “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” in 2016. General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic was named to Forbes’ 2016 list of Power Women. Airbus’ A3 outpost named its head of special projects, Uma Subramanian, as CEO of its on-demand helicopter service project, Voom. She will be discussing that project as a keynote speaker at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit next month in Fort Worth, Texas.

To ensure the aerospace industry keeps growing in South Africa, and around the world, Ledwaba said that innovation is key. This includes the development of unmanned aircraft system technology, which Ledwaba noted she’s seen increased interest in among women in South Africa. Along with drones, Ledwaba said she has also noticed an increased interest in engineering.

As Ledwaba is mentoring women and girls in their process to becoming an aerospace professional, she recalls her own process. Aviation can present challenges, and sometimes it can be consuming, Ledwaba said. But if there’s one piece of advice she can give, it’s to have fun and enjoy that process.

“It doesn’t matter what challenges are in front of me. I’m going to have fun. I’m going to enjoy it,” Ledwaba said. “When you have a lot of challenges, the fun can grow weak and you can forget why you’re doing it. No matter how hard it is, I’m going to do it smiling, and I’m going to have fun doing it.”


Correction: A previous version of this article stated Refilwe Ledwaba was the first female helicopter pilot to fly for the South African Police Service. It has been corrected to state Ledwaba was the first black female helicopter pilot to fly for the South African Police Force.

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