Refilwe Ledwaba was training as a cabin crew just to enable her secure a source of income to pay off her student loan.
But that job fast became a stepping stone helping her reach even higher heights in South Africa.
Although she felt more at home in the cockpit, Ledwaba says her colleagues encouraged her to become a pilot.
One of her friends, a pilot himself, offered to train her for free if she can cover the cost of the fuel.
In 2005, Ledwaba finally got the chance to learn to fly helicopters at a government school outside Durban.
Despite struggling with nerves initially she was encouraged not to give up, Ledwaba said.
But Ledwaba eventually flew solo, breaking the race and gender barriers in one fell swoop in her country.
“(Flying) solo is one of the best moments in your life,” she told Reuters.
Now she is helping younger black South Africans to reach similar heights and dreams, providing training opportunities for them.
She told Reuters that “When you are a female and a Black person, it is a double whammy.
If you don’t have the right people, you could be (Albert) Einstein, but you will never make it.”
Ledwaba has became the first female Black helicopter pilot to join the South African Police Service.
She is also a certified flight instructor and now runs her foundation, Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA).
For over a decade the foundation has trained hundreds of young women in aerospace and aviation and now operating in four African countries.
Ledwaba hopes for a brighter future as she encourages girls not to give up saying the “number of people who are not happy to see you there are far less than those who want you to be.”
Refilwe Ledwaba is South Africa’s first Black female helicopter pilot and today she’s helping other young women to break the glass ceiling and take to the skies. @Sisipho__ reports. pic.twitter.com/XkT7a2k6nT
— Reuters Africa (@ReutersAfrica) March 9, 2021