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SPOTLIGHT: Lieutenant Colonel Phetogo Molawa

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Lieutenant Colonel Phetogo Molawa is commander and helicopter pilot in the South African Air Force. In 2007 she qualified as the first black female helicopter pilot in the South African Air Force.

Subsequent to which, she has flown the Robinson 22, EC 120, Oryx and BK 117 helicopters. In 2017, she qualified as an instructor on the BK117 helicopter, a medium transport helicopter in the SAAF. She was then appointed as the Officer Commanding of Air Force Station Port Elizabeth the following year, another first for a black female. Currently she gives instruction at 87 Helicopter Flying school in Bloemfontein to ab-initio helicopter students. This is amongst performing her duties as an operational helicopter pilot in the SAAF. Her mission has always been to serve others and she feels very privileged to be serving the entire country in the work she does.

She is a mother who loves to travel and explore new places and meet new people. She enjoys the outdoors from swimming to hiking to road trips. She feels she hasn’t travelled enough to have a favourite travel destination but so far African countries take the trophy. Her aim is to trot the entire globe one day! She is a people lover who loves spending time with family and people close to her heart, especially her son. She enjoys reading and loves exploring new interests and places. Music is the one thing she says she could never want to live without. Her favourite genres are R&B and Hip Hop mostly, and of cause some House and Amapiano.

She is a strict disciplinarian much like is expected of a military commander. Outside of uniform she’s a fun-loving, charismatic fashionista of a young woman who is easily misunderstood by those who do not know her.

In this interview, Lt Col Molawa speaks about her journey into the aviation industry, her experience as a pilot and shares advise for young women aspiring to have careers in aviation.

Can you briefly describe yourself and what you do?

Phetogo Molawa is a girl who was born in Bloemfontein, and raised in the small dusty town of Thaba Nchu. I am the second of two children. I am now a mother to a beautiful boy, Athandwa (6). I am I helicopter pilot and instructor in the South African Airforce. Currently I fly the BK 117 helicopter which is a medium transport helicopter. In 2018, I was appointed Officer Commanding of Air Force Station Port Elizabeth. 

I am a believer that not having achieved something is no greater loss than not having attempted at all. Meaning you stand to lose less by trying. This philosophy is what has propelled me to be where I am today. As a 17 years old girl aspiring to be a helicopter pilot most people thought I was crazy, to be honest I thought so too in the back of my mind. For this was an intangible dream to me. But the very fact that it seemed intangible is what motivated me to go for it. Had I failed I would have lost nothing. But how much would have been lost had I not tried?!

Growing up, what did you aspire to be?

I aspired to be a Pharmacist when I was a child but as I discovered myself growing older I knew that the career I wanted to follow definitely shouldn’t be one of monotony or confinement to an office.

What does a normal day look like in your work environment where you are currently based?

Contrary to that which I aspired my work environment to be, my typical day at work is in my office (laughs). Amazing how life turns out huh. Well as the Officer Commanding my primary task is to oversee the correct operation of all processes and operations in line with the base mandate and that primarily consists of documentation, aka paperwork! A pilots worst nightmare!

What subjects did you have to take in high school to qualify into the military?

In order to qualify to be military pilot Mathematics and Physical Science are the prerequisites. Mathematics is the basis of pretty much everything in aviation so it is vital to have studied Maths, not Maths Literacy. In order to understand the principles of flight, Physical Science forms a sound foundation. It is also mandatory to have done English as a subject in school as the universal aviation language is English. So it is important that one can understand and communicate in English.

What qualities make a good helicopter pilot and how have they helped you in your career?

Being a good pilot requires a range of skills over and above academic ability and one of the fundamental qualities is decisiveness and quick thinking. You need to be able to think on your feet especially in stressful conditions. I am a person who does not panic immediately under duress. It’s almost as if I have a delayed reaction. This gives me the ability to handle stressful situations with a level head. It is also important to have the ability to adapt to constantly changing environment.

What is your take on mentorship? Is it important?

I haven’t been fortunate enough to have a dedicated mentor myself  and that makes me understand the importance thereof even more. It doesn’t make sense to have to figure out all the pros and cons yourself when someone else has encountered the same challenges before you. A perfect example is how far the baton can get if the race is run by multiple runners as opposed to one man running the race. The team will arrive at the finish line way ahead of the solo runner. As one wise man once said “Leadership is not sprint, it is a marathon relay. The most important part is not running, it is passing the baton.”

As the first African woman to be made a commanding officer at the Air Force Station in Port Elizabeth, what are the strategies you used to advance in a male dominated space?

To tell you the truth my goals as an Officer Commanding never included anything to do with male domination. I saw a challenge before me to close the gaps I had identified in my time as a junior officer at Air Force Station PE. Yes surely I knew that I would be challenged based on my gender but like all other challenges I saw this as an opportunity to introspect myself as a leader and commander. This task has taught me that as a leader you should be able to adapt to your conditions of leadership in order to achieve your mandate. This has been my biggest lesson because being accustomed to military command I was always of the impression that the people being led should be the ones to yield to your leadership style.

Do you think drones could replace some of the functions of helicopters and are they in use in the military?

There is definitely room for drones to replace some of the functions of helicopters however they cannot fully replace helicopter operations especially not in the military.

What would you still like to achieve in your career?

What I believe is fundamental for me to achieve in my career is to pave the way for young women in Africa to be able to follow in this career path without feeling intimidated to do so. I believe it is so important to change the stereotype such that the ‘male dominance ’ of this industry is no longer  the topic at hand 2 decades from now. We need to start applying ourselves to break performance barriers and not still be fighting through gender barriers.

What advice do you have for other career women and young women looking to get into the aviation space?

If flying is your passion follow your dreams. Women are fully capable of being great aviators as is already evident. The only reason there are so few females in the industry is the lack of opportunity afforded to us and the false perception that was previously created that females are less capable than men to excel in this field!

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