She has the daunting privilege of enjoying beautiful sunrises and sunsets from high altitudes. She can tell tales of landing on top of waterfalls, flying over an active volcano, and hovering over a pride of lions.

Refilwe Moreetsi is a commercial pilot with over 14 years of experience in the aviation industry. Having spent some of those years in the South African Air Force, mainly flying Oryx helicopters, she is currently an airline pilot flying the Airbus A320 for South African Airways. 

Moreetsi holds a Commercial Pilot License for helicopters, an Airline Transport Pilot License for fixed-wing, and a Radio Pilot License (drones). Furthermore, she holds a BCom degree in Business Management with an elective stream in Aviation Management. 

Refilwe is also a wife and mother to two boys. She shares with us her journey in the Aviation industry:

Q. How was aviation introduced to you?

The aviation bug hit when I was 7 years old on my first commercial flight from Joburg to Durban with my family. The highlight of that holiday for me was the flight, where I had the opportunity to view the flight deck. I knew from that moment that I wanted to become a pilot. I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents. My dad took me to airshows and encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a pilot. 

Fast forward to the year after matric, while preparing to leave home for Wits to study Aeronautical Engineering, I asked my mother if I could take a gap year and try and get funding for flying. She agreed without hesitation because she knew that it was my dream. A few months later I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for pilot training in the South African Air Force. After an intense selection process, I was accepted and had the privilege of getting the best flight training, flying amazing aircraft, and being involved in several missions that have shaped my career.

Q. The cost of studying towards qualifying as a pilot is an unfortunate battle for a lot of black students in aviation. What was it like for you and perhaps other black pilots within the industry?

Unfortunately, pilot training is very expensive and it’s a huge struggle for aspiring pilots. The cost of pilot training is dependent on the flight school, but it can cost almost R500 000 for a Private Pilot License and a Commercial Pilot License. Charter companies and airlines require a lot of flying experience before they can hire pilots, so one would have to obtain more qualifications which means more costs. Additional costs include uniforms, books, stationery, and exam fees. 

Some pilots were lucky enough to have received funding through the government or airlines that offer cadet programmes, but there are a lot of other pilots that have had to pay for the initial cost of training themselves until they could get funding to further their qualifications. I was privileged to start my flying career in the SA Airforce because I received full pilot training, employment, and immense flying experience.

Q. Can you talk us through the road to qualifying as a pilot? What stories do your badges tell? 

The common pilot training route is through a flying school. A student pilot must first obtain a Private Pilot License. This allows one to fly light aircraft either for leisure or to train towards a Commercial Pilot License, but you cannot fly for remuneration. 

The next step is a Commercial Pilot License which allows one to fly revenue flights. A minimum of 200 flying hours is required. Some pilots will further obtain an instructor’s rating and/or a multi-engine rating to gain experience and become more employable. 

An Airline Transport Pilot license is the highest obtainable license. You need a minimum of 1500 flying hours and it means one is eligible to become a Captain in an airline. Airlines have different entry criteria, which are normally higher than the minimum licensing requirements. Before obtaining all these licenses, one has to write numerous exams with a minimum pass rate of 75%. 

The epaulettes worn on a pilot’s uniform are a representation of rank or level of experience. Private Pilot license holders wear two stripes, Commercial Pilot license holders wear three stripes and Airline Transport Pilot license holders wear four stripes on their shoulders. These stripes can also differ slightly depending on the airline.

Q. There are certain character traits that are generally associated with women and these perceptions box women into stereotypical roles. In your industry what have you observed in this regard?

Women face more barriers to entry into the aviation industry mostly due to gender roles entrenched into the minds of children through society and the media. Traditionally boys are encouraged to play with toy cars and planes, while girls are encouraged to play with tea sets and dolls. These societal norms increase the pressure for them to conform and lead to occupational stereotyping. So, when women enter the aviation industry, they experience the masculine culture that has existed for decades. 

There are obvious and subtle inequalities that women face throughout their careers. This unfortunately also creates the pressure for women to work twice as hard, especially black women pilots. The industry has transformed gradually since I started my career, but there is still a long way to go. The more transformed the industry becomes, the younger girls can have role models to look up to and see that it is an attainable career.

Q. Are there any black, women leaders you look up to currently?

I admire black, women aviators that I have worked with both in the SA Air Force and airlines because I know how much hard work and dedication is required to get to where they are. 

Sibongile Sambo, who is a founder of an Air Charter company, is one of the black women that I look up to in the aviation industry. The industry is unpredictable and dominated by men and it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to succeed in the aviation business.  

Q. What are your favourite perks of being a pilot?

Having the opportunity to travel and explore new places is exciting and never gets boring. I’ve enjoyed flying to a lot of countries and learning more about their history. I have the privilege of enjoying beautiful sunrises and sunsets from high altitudes. While flying helicopters in the SA Air Force, I’ve had the opportunity of landing on top of waterfalls, flying over an active volcano, and hovering over a pride of lions. I’m grateful to have so many great memories while doing what I love.

Q. Which place has been the best to travel to through your work?

I love traveling to African countries and experiencing the different cultures but Accra, Ghana has been one of my favourites. The people are so friendly, the marketplace is vibrant, and the food is amazing. I would love to travel to more countries on our continent.

Q. As a mother and wife, how has your family supported you and in what way do they help fill the gaps when you are away?

I’m blessed to have such an amazing and supportive family. I’m also grateful to be married to someone that’s not only a great husband but also a present, hands-on father to our boys. We make a great team and stick to a routine so that our kids’ lives are not impacted when either one of us is busy or away. My schedule has allowed me to be home more often, so I get to be more present than I would have been, working a 9-5 job. Nannies are often unsung heroes and having an amazing one brings peace of mind when I’m working. 

Q. What songs are Top 3 on your playlist right now?

“Wena Wedwa” by Thee Legacy. I often try to sing it to my husband, although he has encouraged me to stick to my day job.

“True Confession” by Brook Benton. I grew up listening to Brook Benton thanks to my dad, so I love playing all his favourites.

“Roar” by Katy Perry. It’s my get up and go song and gets me amped for the day ahead.

Q. The pedestal of being a ‘role model’ can be quite tricky to navigate. Young girls who dream to be in aviation may look up to you. How do you reach out to them and how do you keep yourself accountable to opening the opportunity of access for the girl child?

Firstly, I put myself in their shoes. It’s daunting to pursue a career without any role models that look like you. Throughout my childhood, although I knew that I wanted to become a pilot, it was very intimidating because I didn’t know that someone that looked like me could do it. Therefore, since I began my flying career in the SA Air Force, I’ve always been involved in aviation outreach programmes to create awareness of various careers in the aviation industry. I’ve addressed high school students and aspiring pilots in my home province Limpopo, as well as Gauteng. This is extremely important especially for those without access to the internet.

I believe that “Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”. You need to work hard and continuously learn and seek knowledge. I always urge aspiring pilots to seek opportunities and not sit idle while they wait for a bursary or a job. I also advise them to follow aviation-related social media pages and websites such as the Transport Education Training Authority (TETA) which constantly offers flight training bursaries to the youth. 

To the young woman reading this, may your dreams be as high up in the sky and not be limited by anything.