Forget about glamour of travelling, a career as a pilot is not for the faint-hearted

Sibonelo Mkhwanazi

Sibonelo Mkhwanazi

A career as a commercial pilot in South Africa has in the past been reserved for men, but all that is changing. Claudia Anthony was the first black woman to beat the odds and qualify as a pilot three years ago. Anthony flies Boeing 737-800 commercial aeroplanes on domestic and regional routes for South African Airways.

"Our biggest challenge as pilots is bad weather and trying to accommodate people from different spheres of life," says Anthony.

"Part of being a pilot entails engaging with the hostess and being open about what we are doing."

She says a career as a pilot is not for the faint-hearted and maintains that there is a general misunderstanding that piloting is a glamorous job.

It is not only about getting the opportunity to travel the world. It can be highly stressful because pilots are responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers every time they fly.

"The reality is that if you're not serious about life, you won't make it," she says.

Anthony ascribes the lack of female black pilots to the fact that it is not a well-known profession because it is not well-marketed. She says the rural education most black people received in the past also worked against female participation.

Women in aviation have constantly challenged the notion of what is expected of them, says Phindi Gwebu, senior communications manager at the South African Aviation Authority.

"No one believed that Amelia Earhart would ever be able to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, but she did exactly that on May 21 1932. It seems there is no empirical reason why women should not participate in aviation today," says Gwebu.

Anthony dreamed of becoming a pilot from a very young age, but had all but given up hope because she came from a poor family.

"I thought that only people from stable backgrounds could enrol for pilot courses," she says.

But constant encouragement from her mother, a single parent, coupled with Anthony's dedication saw her rise above her disadvantaged background.

There are a number of private training schools around the country that offer piloting courses, but these can be expensive. Entering a cadet programme with one of the larger carriers such as SAA could get your foot in the door.

An entry pilot with SAA, which is someone who holds an Airline Transport Pilot's License with 1500 hours and who has flown for another airline, will earn about R500000 a year.