Since Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the first plane in 1903, the face of aviation has been predominantly male.
Even Hollywood had us believing that the cockpit was a man cave – think Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
However, women pilots are now smashing that glass ceiling and rising to prominence in aviation circles – even taking over the controls of the Boeing 747 Dreamliner.
From the first black female pilot, American Bessie Coleman, who obtained her licence in 1921, to South Africa’s first female black pilot, Asnath Mahapa, who got her wings in 1998, women are making their mark in the industry.
“I fell in love with flying when I was 13 years old, growing up in Limpopo,” Mahapa said.
“When I became the first black female South African pilot at the age of 20, I didn’t realise the amount of responsibility that came with that title. I just focused my energy on my new role and not on the obstacles I faced.”
Fifteen years after Mahapa took to the skies, she opened the first female-owned school of aviation in 2012, but it shut down in the beginning of this year due to financial issues.
Like Mahapa, black female pilots are soaring to the top of what once was a male-dominated commercial aviation industry.
Commercial airlines are increasingly showing trust in female pilots, and most recently, Ethiopian Airlines flew its first all-women domestic flight. Ethiopian pilot Amsale Gualu said this “shows us that if women get equal opportunities and work hard they can achieve whatever they want in all fields, including the aviation industry”.
Zimbabwe had its moment in the sun in 2015 when an Air Zimbabwe flight was flown by an all-female crew. The flight was helmed by Chipo Matimba and Elizabeth Petros, the first female Air Zimbabwe pilots. Petros posted a picture on Facebook with her co-pilot Matimba celebrating the achievement, with the caption: “History has been made! First all-female flight deck crew on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737! Two captains! Absolute pleasure Captain Elizabeth Simbi Petros! #FLYBABES. #PaintingTheSkyPink!”
Younger women are also keen to take to the skies and, at 19, Besa Mumba of Zambia became that country’s youngest pilot to fly a commercial flight.
The Lusaka-born teenager, who initially wanted to be part of the cabin crew, changed her mind and set her sights on the flight deck of Proflight Zambia’s Caravan aircraft, flying domestic flights.
Further afield, Nigerian-American Kimberly Anyadike became the youngest black pilot to fly a transcontinental flight across the US from California to Virginia at the age of 15 in 2009.
“I decided to fly across the country because I could,” she said while delivering the keynote speech at the West Covina Martin Luther King Jr Day celebration. “As a young black girl I was at liberty to dream and dare to accomplish my 15-year-old dreams. This was the future that Dr Martin Luther King Jr envisioned.”
Kenyan Irene Koki Mutungi made headlines by becoming the first female on the African continent to become certified as captain of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2014. “This is a dream come true in a big way. My dad was a pilot, so he always let us into the cockpit,” she said.
Mutungi became the country’s first female pilot in 1993, and is currently recognised as the only female pilot in Africa licensed to fly the Dreamliner.
Other nations such as India, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, the US and the Netherlands have all crossed the aviation barrier to include women as first-rank captains and pilots.
The sky’s the limit for these women who deserve the limelight for changing the face of aviation.