He was once told to give up on his dream and that flying wasn’t for him. “Be a politician rather,” one of his instructors said. You’re more likely to make a go of that. But Sipho Mangesi refused to listen. He carried on fighting to fulfill his dream, and today the 26-year-old is inspiring young would-be pilots to dream big too.
He has his own aviation company, iFly Aviation, and is helping to ignite the love of flying and aircraft in kids who might never have gotten near an airliner if it wasn’t for him.
Sipho was once one of them: a poor rural kid from Ngqamakhwe in the Eastern Cape who knew nothing about the winged wonders of engineering that transported people across the globe. He remembers the moment he fell in love with flying – he was playing outside and saw an airliner high in the sky.
“I was fascinated,” he recalls.
“From then on I would run across the field whenever a plane flew past. My friends and I would tap our mouths with our hands and scream at the plane, sending up wishes to the pilot to bring us goodies when he flies past again.”
Sipho was captivated with how aircraft worked.
“I knew a car had a steering wheel to turn the wheels around but I couldn’t see wheels on a plane up in the sky.”
He made a promise to himself that one day he was going to work with aircraft. He didn’t know how, but he would do it. His dream stayed alive all the way through school and after he’d completed matric he applied to join the South African Air Force.
He underwent various tests and passed with flying colours – but his hopes were quickly dashed. Being in the air force didn’t automatically qualify you to fly aircraft, he discovered. Sipho learnt only a select few did so after many years in the service.
Before long he’d packed his bags and headed back to East London. Then a friend brought him brochures about aviation careers and it reignited the fire inside of him – one day he would fly!
“I looked for a flying school in East London, applied at Border Aviation and started training as a pilot,” he says. His parents agreed to pay the fees, but they were steep – around R400 000 for a two-year course.
Sipho ended up doing the course over four years because his parents kept running out of funds.
“But I refused to give up.”
Sipho thought once he started flying it would come easily to him. But he didn’t foresee one main obstacle: airsickness.
Every time he got inside an airliner in his first few months of training he got sick as a dog.
“I would vomit in the plane,” he says.
“Things got so bad one of my instructors got irritated with me – both for getting airsick all the time and for taking frequent breaks from training because of my financial challenges.
He gave me advice that maybe I should just stop flying and go and be a politician.”
But Sipho wasn’t one to be demoralised.
“I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened to me if I’d listened to my instructor.”
He managed to overcome his airsickness, qualified as a pilot and is now working on getting enough flying experience, logging in hours and polishing his skills.
“I’ll then do instrument-rating training for three months.”
The determined young pilot registered his company last year with qualified pilot Derrick Nzeko. He now uses the aircraft owned by the company to teach young children from disadvantaged backgrounds all about flying aircraft.
“I started visiting schools in 2011, did motivational talks and became a self-appointed aviation ambassador,” he says.
The Eastern Cape transport department came on board as a sponsor, he says, and Sipho’s efforts with kids has elevated him to hero status. The kids get to fly in Derrick and Sipho’s Piper Cherokee, a four-seater light aircraft, for about 20 minutes.
Sipho can’t recall how many kids he’s flown with as numbers don’t matter to him.
“It’s all about the experience. I fly these kids to empower them and give them a great first flying experience while I accumulate my flying hours,” he says.
One person who’s glad Sipho didn’t listen to his instructor is Siyakholwa Zazini (21), a pilot-in-training who idolises his mentor.
Siyakholwa comes from an RDP settlement not far from the East London airport and has always wanted to be a pilot, but it was too expensive and he didn’t know if such dreams come true for people like him. Then he met Sipho.
“I met him when I went looking for local aviation schools and ended up at Border Aviation. Sipho was there and he told me to never give up. He promised he’d pray with me until I had a breakthrough,” he says. And it paid off.
Siyakholwa was awarded a bursary from the Eastern Cape premier’s office and the department of transport, passed his exams and is now learning to fly.
Sipho is proud – but not as proud as his parents are of him. He’ll forever be grateful to them for their sacrifices.
“Any money they had went into flying,” he says.
His father, Mthuthuzeli (55), was between jobs when Sipho was a teenager and for a while his mother, Zimbini Mangesi (50), was the sole provider for the family of five on her teaching salary.
His mom’s strength and faith still keep him going.
“Every day at 3am she wakes up and prays for me. When I wake up to go to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning I hear her praying for me. My dad prays for me too but not as much as my mom.”
Zimbini, a primary school teacher in East London, believes it was all worth it. Sipho has lived up to the meaning of his name, she says, and is a gift to many people – including some of their elderly neighbours in Amalinda, East London, whom he checks on every day.
“He’ll go to their homes and ask if they need anything from the shops, just to make sure they aren’t in need while he’s away for the day,” she says.
“I’m proud of him and what he is – a pleasure to have as a child,” Zimbini beams.
Flying means everything to Sipho and he’s glad he didn’t give up. Stepping into an aircraft, sitting behind the controls and soaring into the sky gives him a thrill every time.
“I’m home up there in those skies.”