Women in flight have a new role model
Refilwe Ledwaba grew up as one of seven siblings in a single-parent household in Limpopo. She thought she’d become a doctor, one of the classic means of escape. Gifted and hardworking enough to pursue such a demanding career, Ledwaba was content with the idea. Until she got on an aeroplane flown by a black female pilot. And realised that medicine wasn’t her dream at all.
At the time Ledwaba was studying towards a BSc at UCT, with the hope of transitioning to healthcare. But as the aircraft left the ground that day, her medical ambitions shrunk away with the receding landscape, replaced by a passion entirely her own – flight. Sometimes one moment can change the course of a life. That’s what that take-off did for Ledwaba. She approached businesses to sponsor her training, refusing to be intimidated by aviation school fees. A pilot who offered her free flying lessons was an important aid, but it was the South African Police Service that came to her help financially. Upon completing her probationary air time, she became the first black woman to earn an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence for helicopters in South Africa and joined the force as its first black operational helicopter pilot. After ten years of service, she moved on to attain her fixed wing qualification and has been flying for SA Express since 2014.
In making her dream a reality and signing her name in history, Ledwaba has already achieved so much. But it wouldn’t be enough for her until she’d made a meaningful difference in the lives of others searching for a way into the industry she loves. Her own journey to success was challenged by more than monetary concerns. The lack of female role models in flight proved a major hurdle. So in 2009 Ledwaba started the South Africa Women in Aviation and Aerospace NPO, to provide mentorship and financial support for women hoping to find their wings. And while helping others, she hasn’t neglected her personal growth – Ledwaba completed her MBA last year. With the attitude of a champion, there’s no doubt that she will continue to climb higher.