Female student pilot in high spirits after first solo flight

2014-09-16 00:00

ANELE Shabangu will make a small splash for women when she is thrown into a swimming pool in her full uniform next week.

The tradition will mark the completion of her first solo flight as a student pilot — as well as a new tide of women who are taking the controls of South Africa’s passenger jets.

Jon Sargood, head of the Durban Aviation Centre flying school, said female student pilots had boomed from five percent to 33% of the annual enrolment at Virginia Airport in just 10 years. He said Shabangu’s generation was helping to erode a “long-standing cultural bias” toward male pilots.

In wishing the 19-year-old well for her solo, South Africa’s most senior woman pilot, Captain Jane Trembath, told The Witness: “SAA has already got nine percent women pilots, which is almost double the world average of five percent.”

Shabangu said her first, “awesome” experience of flying as an eight-year-old — a commercial flight to Cape Town — was also one of her last memories of her dad, who died in a car accident soon afterwards.

The Morningside student said she would dedicate her solo both to his memory and to her mother, for her support through the intense, “and very expensive” effort toward a commercial pilot’s licence.

Sargood said he couldn’t say whether men or women make better pilots, “but we know that women are more risk-averse, for instance, and that this is something you want in a pilot”.

“On the other hand, men tend to have the edge on spacial awareness, and, ironically, can learn more quickly precisely because of the greater risks they take. But the communication skills which women tend to bring is a very underrated quality, which has direct benefits for safety.”

He said DAC had been visiting girls’ schools in Durban to market the career.

Shabangu describes herself as “an adrenaline junkie”, but came across as the opposite when The Witness visited her at Virginia, chuckling quietly as she prepared balloon animals for a children’s charity.

Sargood said: “I flew with Anele last week. She’s calm, she works hard, she’s passing all of her exams, she has the ideal nature for a commercial pilot.”

Shabangu said she had sought out black female pilots on social media for advice — and found that many still encountered prejudice.

At least one male passenger had told one female pilot that he refused to fly “with you people”.

“Hopefully, more of us girls up there will stop all the silly attitudes,” she said.

Another female DAC student pilot, Ricky Smit, said two men had told her they would not fly with female pilots in the cockpit.

But Sargood said diversity targets at airlines meant that pilots like Shabangu could expect a good position within months of achieving her licence, which she could win within two years.

Describing the drill of lining her aircraft up for the “0-5” markings on the Virginia runway, and flaring the aircraft for touch-down with precise timing, Shabangu said, “Landing has been the hardest challenge.”

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