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'Sky is from where I start my dreams,' says South Africa's first black female fighter pilot

Major Mandisa Nomcebo Mandisa, South Africa's first black female fighter pilot. Image was provided by Mandisa. Photograph:( Others )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jun 13, 2019, 07.59 PM (IST) Ayushi Agarwal

When South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa took the oath of office to become country's head of state on May 25 2019, it was Major Mandisa Nomcebo Mfeka who made headlines. Mandisa became South Africa's first black female fighter pilot.

Born in Ntuzuma, just outside Durban on South Africa’s east coast, Mandisa was part of the Hawk-formation display during the event. She is a Major in South African Air Force and flies Hawk Mk120 developed by the British Aerospace (BAE).

In an interview with WION, Mandisa gave an insight into her training and narrated her journey to her dream job. Her love for aviation and fascination with airplanes began when she was just 5 years old. She used to go to watch the air shows with her mother and grandmother at the Virginia Airport. Since that day to now, she sees a difference in her capabilities and strength and lives by a motto that "Sky is the baseline, it is from where my journey begins". Here are the excerpts from her conversation with WION.

WION: What led you to the dream of flying? When and how did you join the military and the air force?

Major Mandisa: The first time I was introduced to the aviation industry was at the age of five when my mother and grandmother used to take us to an airfield at the Virginia Airport which was close to our home. We would park at the side of the airport and watch the planes take off. It was really something very exciting for me. At that point in time, I did not realise that it was the career that I was going to pursue as a young female, especially when no one from my family had any background in aviation. 

The first time I realized that I can become a pilot was at the age of 16. While I was doing my research in Maths and Science, I came across an article. As I turned the page, I saw a recruitment article by the South African Air Force (SAAF). My grades were really good at school and I met the entry requirements. I was thrilled and remember how excited I was. So, that was the first time I was introduced to flying.

WION: What was the first step/trick to your journey? Can you give some insights into your training?

Major Mandisa: The first step that I took after discovering the South African Air force was to apply for it quickly. I wanted them to know about my grades and my passion for becoming a fighter pilot.  I negotiated with my dad and told him that I wanted to fly and do not want to compromise with any other options for my dreams. So, that was the first trick.

When it comes to training, it was really very tough and exciting as being a military person you need to challenge yourself at every step of your life. You have to be fit in terms of physical capabilities and mental strength. What I was less prepared for was the emotional challenge. My training brought out a very emotional person out of me. I realised that having dreams of flying is not that easy but not impossible too.

WION: Life in defence is different. Was it tough to become a military person?

Major Mandisa: Yes, it was very tough. I had always lived a very protected lifestyle. My parents were very protective as I was their first female child and also the eldest of all. 

South African Air force was gruelling. I knew that the road I had chosen will take to me to the skies. I had always valued the fact that stern and firm training helped me build resilience to withstand pain.  This all brought me closer to the spiritual aspect because I rely on them for healing and moving forward in life.

WION: Did you ever think that being a woman would prove a hindrance in your career?

Major Mandisa: I do not see any difference in any role played by women in any field. Gender never comes in your way. It is your perseverance and hard work for every goal.

WION: How was the feeling while sharing the spotlight with President Cyril Ramaphosa during the air display for his presidential inauguration?

Major Mandisa: I was very thrilled to be included in the flying past. More than anything, I was excited about the learning opportunities of the whole exercise and the entire preparation of it. The planning and construction process by Majors gave us the understanding of the flying dynamics and of leading the show to what it means to be a wingman. Another thing that we need to remember and focus on is always the risks involved. When it comes to aviation and during such ceremonial events, danger does not disappear.

WION: Combat flying is very precision-based and needs much planning and preparation. How did you prepare for it?

Major Mandisa: I am very lucky as the people around me are very experienced and helpful. I observe and learn things. When it comes to flying, I only see it as an opportunity and not as a difficulty because of my positive approach.

WION: Aviation is an expensive industry. Many women mostly give up their passions due to financial reasons. Did you also face any such problems?

Major Mandisa: Yes obviously. When you are going to the military, you are trained by the military and it absorbs all the cost... it is very expensive. But when It comes to civil aviation, lot of companies sponsor young individuals women who are passionate.  There is always some hope for the people struggling financially to kickstart their dreams.

One advice that I would like to give to all young girls who dream of flying is to look for opportunities and never give up on their dreams as the career here is very rewarding and dynamic. When you are exposed to flying, it offers you satisfaction and excitement and at the end of the day, you won't regret anything.

WION: How do you see yourself change through flying?

Major Mandisa: There has been a lot of change in my life. I see myself as a more disciplined person. I remember, when I was being trained, there were few exercises that disengaged many parts of me and I had to question myself "Why Am I supposed to do all this?" But now I have an answer to it which is very visible.

WION: Your advice to parents?

Major Mandisa: People who love you will show their concerns, they will want to protect you. I was firm in my decision. I stood for what I had thought was best for myself.

When it comes to risk in aviation, then I must say that danger prevails at every step of life. It's you who will have to stand and fight for it. No one else will.

WION: Africa and India share history. What do you see in common as in relation to Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi?

Major Mandisa: Mandela and Mahatma, both shared a common purpose. They both loved humanity and wanted peace in their nations. Mahatma Gandhi fought passive resistance while Mandela, after coming out from jail, took a step for talking rather than fighting against the apartheid government.  Their preaching is something I live by and want everyone to follow as well because at the of the day we are all one nation and one of a kind.

WION: Do you watch movies? Any favourites?

Major Mandisa: Yes, I do watch Bollywood movies. Shahrukh Khan's 'Om Shaanti Om', 'Baazigar' and few Amitabh Bachchan's movies are my favourites. I love watching them. They are so fun and entertaining. I grew up watching these movies and now I am thinking of watching some more.

WION: Apart from flying, what is that you enjoy the most?

Major Mandisa: - Swimming and adventurous sports are something I am very fond of.

WION: Your role model?

Major Mandisa: My role model is Oprah Winfrey. The kind of humanitarian work she has done and also for women is amazing. She is like a mega house of the platform that she earned. Apart from being a businesswoman and entertainer, she is a beautiful woman by heart and has always inspired me to be the leader of my field.

WION: What is your world view on the role of women in combat flying?

Major Mandisa: The role of women is no different than that of the males in the field of combat flying. I feel that it is a bias to say that women are more emotional than men. What I had seen here is that there is no difference in terms of emotional capabilities. They too have emotions, it's just that they keep them within while women let them flow.

In countries struck with poverty, especially in Africa here, women are the sole breadwinners for the families. In combat flying too, women have a common role with men... I do not see any difference.

WION: What keeps you going, flying?

Major Mandisa: For me, the sky is not the limit but the baseline from where I start my dreams. I see no limits. At the end of the day, when I see myself reaching so high as an individual, it is so instrumental and satisfying.

Story highlights

Born in Ntuzuma, just outside Durban on South Africa’s east coast, Mandisa is a Major in South African Air Force and flies Hawk Mk120 L developed by the British Aerospace (BAE).