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Pioneering SA pilot Refilwe Ledwaba wins prestigious Amelia Earhart scholarship

Pioneering South African pilot Refilwe Ledwaba has been named a recipient of this year’s coveted and prestigious Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship.

Only 20 scholarships are awarded each year to pilots around the world. Refilwe is the only African woman among this year’s recipients.

The Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship is awarded by the Ninety-Nines Group, a US-based organisation of women pilots that promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and mutual support while honouring women’s unique history and sharing their passion for flight.

The scholarship is for fully funded advanced flight training, including additional pilot certificates and ratings, jet type ratings, college degrees or technical training.

In additional to being a qualified helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, Refilwe is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about youth development and women empowerment in Africa. She is the founder of Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA), a not-for-profit development and empowerment foundation.

She is the founder and executive director of Women and Aviation (W&A), a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a council member of the Aeronautical Society of South Africa (AeSSA) outreach team.

Growing up in Lenyenye township in Limpopo, Refilwe initially dreamt of becoming a medical doctor, and duly graduated with a BSc in Microbiology and Biochemistry from the University of Cape Town.

“My first career choice was to become a medical doctor, so I completed a Bachelor of Science degree at UCT as a foundation to apply to medical school,” she says.

However, during her studies, she took a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and was delighted to discover the plane was piloted by a woman.

“I was inspired. That ignited my passion for aviation. It was only when I finished my degree that an opportunity presented itself. I was still indebted to the UCT for my final year studies, so I had to find a job to start repaying the loan. At that stage, the only job I could find was at BA/Comair as part of the cabin crew. While being a part of the cabin crew, I got even more intrigued by the thought of becoming a pilot.

“I started taking private flying lessons and joined SAA as part of the cabin crew and continued to fly privately. My big break into the aviation industry came in 2004 when I was accepted as a cadet pilot for the police. I flew for them as a helicopter pilot for 10 years while I was qualifying as a fixed wing pilot.” In 2005, Refilwe became the first black woman to earn a helicopter pilot license in South Africa, and the first black person (male or female) to fly operationally for the SAPS.

“Qualifying as one of the first females to fly in the country gave me a unique platform to interact with the youth, and women in the aviation and aerospace industry – noting the many challenges they face,” she says.

“The unique challenges in this industry that I and other women faced, as well as my passion for youth development, inspired me to start SAWIA, with the hope that I could help other girls and women in the industry, and share the lessons of my experience with them.”

Refilwe is passionate about entrepreneurship, education, gender equality, human rights, community-building and flying. “I am committed to youth development, particularly working with girls in high school, exposing and encouraging them to focus on STEM education: science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and then to pursue careers in aviation and aerospace.”


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