One of the major challenges surrounding the Aviation industry is the lack of information about opportunities available. The industry is still a ‘boys club’ (male-dominated), so it can be difficult for women to to navigate because of unspoken rules. This is the view of intrepid, Limpopo-born Refilwe Ledwaba. She started a non-profit organisation for young women to learn about, and network, with women in the Aviation industry. #BossLady chatted to her to find out what propelled her to make this vision a reality…

Refilwe graduated with a BSc in Microbiology and Biochemistry from the University of Cape Town. From there she went on to complete a Post-Graduate Diploma in business administration (PDBA). This highly accomplished #BossLady also holds an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science. 

“My aviation career started at Comair and at SAA as part of the cabin crew. There, I had an opportunity to fly to both domestic and international destinations.


I also trained and worked as a Helicopter Pilot for the South African Police Services (SAPS). This is where I eventually became the first black woman to fly for them. After 10 years, I left the SAPS and joined SA Express as a fixed-wing pilot flying to domestic and regional destinations”.

Refilwe Ledwaba
Refilwe Ledwaba

“Aviation has not been a viable career choice for women in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region for many years. So, WE formED the Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry (SAWIA) in 2009, Especially to help women overcome the kinds of challenges that BOTH I, AND my female co-pilots, faced in the industry”.

This includes lack of information about careers in aviation and aerospace, finance, as well as a lack of female role models and mentorship.

Not easily discouraged, Refilwe is a firm believer in the power of life coaching and mentorship;


We wanted to create a platform that informs young women about Aviation while they’re still young. and while doing so, empower them with access to other women in this field. That’s when the Girl Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) was born”

GFPA is an educational programme for both primary and high school girls with an interest in the aviation and aerospace industry, and any other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) related careers.

The annual programme holds engaging, educational initiatives aimed at creating an awareness of the STEM field with a focus on aviation and aerospace. It is designed to shape and develop future leaders in the STEM sphere, encourage an excellent work ethic among girls and cultivate a culture of community-building and volunteerism within the youth of South Africa. Existing projects include Career workshops across the country, an annual Aviation and Space Camp and a ‘Fly for STEM’ campaign.


One success story from the Programme is that of Nomathemba Khumalo from KwaZulu Natal. She attended when she was in grade 11 and 12. She received information about careers in Aviation and was also able to link up with a company that gave her a full bursary to study for her degree. Nomathemba is currently a third-year student at Wits University studying Aeronautical Engineering.

We asked Refilwe about some of the women that have been the wind beneath her wings. She counts;

  1. Margaret Viljoen (Captain at BA/Comair). She was the first female pilot at BA/Comair and was the first female pilot I met, who inspired me to become a pilot.
  2. Sibongile Sambo (CEO SRS Aviation). She is the first black woman to own an aviation company. She has remained humble and accessible throughout her career and continues to make an impact in the aviation field.
  3. Mapule Mzimba is a Senior Banking Executive. She is a friend who’s been my constant cheerleader over the last 20 years”.

And the books that have spurred Refilwe on to success:

  • Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg)
  • Undeterred: the six success habits of women in emerging economies (Rania Habiby Anderson)
  • Aprons to Aeroplanes (Yvonne van den Dool)

Refilwe is a shining example of a woman who flies in her own life, while she lights the fire in others so they too can launch their careers to success!

Aspiring, young #BossLadies in the Aviation space can look out for her next camp in March 2018. The application forms will be available from  from 1 November 2017. You can also contact Refilwe and her team on Good luck!



  1. Nthati

    I was referred by a friend to this blog and I’m so greatful. Inspirational story by Refilwe, and as a new lady in avaiation I couldn’t be happier to learn about this wealth of information. Thank you

    1. Zamathango Thango

      That’s awesome, Nthati. Thank you for the feedback. We’re so glad you’re finding value in our content. May your career in Aviation soar!

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