Refilwe Ledwaba doesn’t let anything, even gravity, keep her down.
She’s South Africa’s first Black female helicopter pilot – a feat she accomplished despite growing up in apartheid South Africa with six siblings and a single, working mother.
“So all through my childhood I saw women doctors, my mother was a school principal, so it was something that – when I grew up, it was sort of normal to see women doing all these exciting things.”
It was while training as cabin crew that Ledwaba decided she felt more at home in the cockpit and was encouraged to train to be a pilot by her white colleagues.
In 2005 she learnt to fly helicopters at a government school outside Johannesburg, where she says she struggled with nerves and the idea that women must always sit with their legs together — something you can not do when operating the controls.
But she didn’t give up, and months later became the first Black helicopter pilot to join the South African Police Service.
“For me what was important is who’s the second, who’s the third, who’s the fourth, who’s the 100th person then we start talking. As much as I was celebrated, I had a responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t end with me, it goes on, we get to the 10th, and for me I think that’s worth celebrating.”
Now a certified flight instructor, Ledwaba’s foundation – Girls Fly Programme in Africa – has trained hundreds of young women in aerospace and aviation over the past decade.
Her mentees and volunteers, like Linda Ngozwana, say she’s an inspiration.
“… because she’s fearless. Nothing is beyond her power.”
The program now operates in four African countries and Ledwaba has her eye on others as she works to break the glass ceiling of a male-dominated industry, and help other women discover that the sky’s the limit.