First and only SA black female aircraft engineer flies high

Lefentse Phokwane, the first and only woman to be appointed as an aircraft maintenance engineer at South African Airways (SAA).
Lefentse Phokwane, the first and only woman to be appointed as an aircraft maintenance engineer at South African Airways (SAA).
Image: Supplied.

Lefentse Phokwane (31) is the first and only woman to be appointed as an aircraft maintenance engineer specialising in non-destructive testing inspection at South African Airways (SAA) Technical.

SAA Technical is responsible for full-service maintenance, repair and overhaul of the airline’s aircraft.

Growing up in Vosloorus in Ekurhuleni, Phokwane aspired to become a chemical engineer but ended up studying for a Diploma in Non-Destructive Testing at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT).

“When I applied for admission at VUT, I was told there was no longer space for first-year students who wanted to enrol for chemical engineering. I was advised to register for non-destructive testing,” she said.

Phokwane initially knew nothing about this specialisation and despite being told that if someone dropped out, she could switch to chemical engineering, she had found her calling.

After obtaining her qualification, Phokwane applied for an apprenticeship at SAA Technical in 2009 and completed her trade test in 2012. She became an aircraft engineer in avionics.

“I was then appointed as an aircraft maintenance engineer specialising in non-destructive testing inspection,” she said.

As part of her job, she performs detailed inspections on aircraft and aircraft components, using various specialised techniques of inspection to look for cracks and defects that are not visible to the naked eye but which could cause damage to or malfunction of the aircraft.  

Like vehicles, an aircraft needs to be regularly serviced for it to function properly and to transport passengers safely.

“One of the most fulfilling rewards for me is to see an aircraft I have worked on take-off, defect-free, and know that my signature is there among the many talented, committed and passionate men and women who also worked on it,” she said.

“I cannot afford to miss any defects. I have to be at my optimum every day and remind myself that although I work with aircraft, people’s lives are what I have to keep in mind,” she added.

She has to develop herself constantly to stay on par with the rest of the engineers in her field because technology is always evolving.

One of the highlights of her career is recently attending training at Rolls-Royce, which is a British luxury car and aero-engine manufacturing business. The company has built a solid reputation for the development and manufacture of engines for defence and civil aircraft.

"According to their records, I am the third female in the world and the first one from Africa to receive this kind of training from their company. That is really humbling to know,” she said.

Phokwane has encouraged young people to consider this career path because non-destructive testing inspection is not as popular in South Africa as it is abroad, and that means there are job opportunities for qualified individuals.

She said the fact that she is still the only woman at SAA Technical doing this kind of work shows that graduates would be highly employable.  

Opportunities for young people

According to SAA head of media relations Tlali Tlali, SAA Technical recruits and trains about 150 apprentices and 30 interns annually. "All nine provinces are allocated an appropriate number of recruits to ensure that youth from across the country get equal opportunities to become aircraft artisans," said Tlali. He also said the apprentices and interns get trained as aircraft mechanics and aircraft electricians, radiotricians, instrumentation experts, welders, trimmers, spray-painters and structure workers.

Tlali said SAA Technical advertises the internships internally, as well as through all Offices of the Premier and with different training institutions, such as technical and vocational education and training colleges.

The recruitment process for the next intake has closed and interviews are now being conducted, said Tlali

“The first 100 apprentices will start on 16 October, and a second batch of 50 on 16 March 2020. We will not advertise for the March 2020 intake as we have acquired enough CVs for both intakes,” said Tlali. He added that the 30 interns, who already hold a tertiary qualification, will start on 16 November 2019.

You can visit the Premier’s Office in your province to find out about the next application period for apprentices and interns.

-This article was originally published in the GCIS Vuk'uzenzele.

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