Lt-Col Zanele content after leading the fly past

Lt-Col Vayeka-Shabangu thrills Union Buildings with her heroics

Jeanette Chabalala Senior Reporter
Lt-Col Zanele Vayeka-Shabangu
Lt-Col Zanele Vayeka-Shabangu

Lt-Col Zanele Vayeka-Shabangus dream of becoming a medical doctor may have not come true but life had bigger plans for her.

On Wednesday, the 39-year-old mother of three was the lead pilot in a four-helicopter diamond formation which did a fly-past during the second inauguration of President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Thousands watched as she led her team to create a beautiful spectacle in the sky to mark the occasion, which was attended by various heads of state.

Vayeke-Shabangu is a helicopter commander and pilot instructor at the 87 Helicopter Flying School in Bloemfontein, Free State. The school is a unit of the South African Air Force. 

The fact that I did what I needed to do today (Wednesday) stood out for me, Vayeke-Shabangu told Sowetan after flying the helicopter at exactly 1.10pm. 

She was a helicopter planner at the 2019 inauguration and this time about her job demanded she fly the helicopter and make sure it was on time overhead the required target, the Union Buildings.

Things changed while we were in the air and we had to be proactive. We work on time but we had to fly earlier than expected and I was the lead aircraft in the first formation for the fly past.

There was pressure to say, do I continue, or do I wait for everyone? That, for me, was pressure because I had to make a decision and I could hear the panic from the people planning on the ground to say something must happen now because the times have been changed.

For Wednesdays routine, Vayeke-Shabangu said they took two days to practice, twice on Monday and thrice on Tuesday.

I was nervous and excited at the same time today. I just wanted everything to be perfect. When we were walking to the aircraft I told myself, Baby girl this is real. It is now or never. My whole family was excited and they were cheering me on. My husband is my number one cheerleader, she said.

Vayeke-Shabangu, who was born and bred in Temba, Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, said her experience on Wednesday was completely different from 2019. 

This time about I was flying and leading the formation. The dynamics changed a bit because it is a presidential ceremony and you want everything to be perfect. But I think I did a good job under the circumstances. There is definitely a lot of pressure being in a male-dominated industry.

She said becoming a pilot was never part of the plan and she aspired to be a medical doctor — a career she couldnt pursue because of financial constraints.

She then joined the department of defences youth foundation programme in 2003 hoping to get a chance at becoming a doctor. But that too did not work out and she was asked to choose another option.

I knew there were pilots at SAA (SA Airways) but I didnt know the SA National Defence Force had pilots. At that time, I was thinking of packing my bags and going back home because there was nothing else interesting to me about being a soldier.

One of the recruiting people spoke to me about being a pilot and I got fascinated about the career. I put down my name, did tests and now I am here, she said.

She qualified to be a pilot in December 2007 and did her helicopter conversion and qualified in August 2008.

Vayeke-Shabangu said being a commander came with responsibility.

It is quite scary and exciting at the same time because of where I come from and how I joined the Air Force to be a pilot. I never thought one day I would be called a 'first of something but I am very honoured because I actually hold the title of the first black commander and the first female to command the A109.

There are kids who look up to me and I have to be a role model, she said.

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