Major Nandi Zama.
Major Nandi Zama.
Image: Shaun Uthum

In childhood Nandi Zama didn’t watch in wonder as planes flew overhead. She didn’t have jet posters plastered on her bedroom walls, or build model aircraft and dream of one day being at the controls. For a young girl growing up in KwaMashu township, north of Durban, a career in aviation was a far-fetched notion.

And that’s precisely what she’s trying to change.

“Where I’m from, we simply didn’t have exposure to flying,” says Zama. “But one of my science teachers at school brought an article about the air force and their cadet programme. I was looking for something different to the normal nine-to-five career, so, without really knowing what it was all about I sent through an application to the air force. It was just the right time, right place.”

Her application led to an interview, and then the offer of a place in the air force’s cadet training programme. “And from that moment, I was hooked!” says Zama.

But perhaps more accurately, it’s Major Nandi Zama, as she is referred to when she reports for duty in command of 28 Squadron at Waterkloof Air Force Base, east of Pretoria.

As a commander her day job is at the controls of the Hercules C130BZ. In fact, she was the first black woman in South Africa to pilot and command this mammoth military-transport plane. Glass ceilings didn’t stand a chance.

“We are responsible for the movement of any and all cargo and personnel for the department of defence, or other departments we may support,” explains Zama. “The type of flying ranges from regular transport missions to humanitarian-aid missions. We also do maritime search and rescue, we do aerial repositioning, and we support the United Nations missions in countries such as the DRC. It’s extremely varied.”

She was also the commander of the C130 leading the formation that roared above President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration ceremony in 2019, a career highlight for Zama.

“But the most significant flying is where we’re flying support missions to help other nations. My mantra is, ‘Flying for a tangible difference, no matter where I am,’ which is why, in addition to my flying work, I volunteer with organisations such as the Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA),” says Zama.

An educational non-profit organisation, the GFPA was founded in 2010 by fellow pilot Refilwe Ledwaba — a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and in 2019 among the second cohort of Obama Foundation African Leaders — with the aim of promoting aviation and aerospace as a viable and accessible career choice for girls and women on the continent.

“Aviation is an exclusive industry,” says Zama. “Historically it has not had a lot of black people, and it has been predominantly male. The GFPA is about trying to show young women that aviation is a viable career option because, like me, many don’t have exposure to aviation and aerospace in schools.”

But the most significant flying is where we’re flying support missions to help other nations. My mantra is, ‘Flying for a tangible difference, no matter where I am’
Nandi Zama

The GFPA runs a phased series of programmes aimed at school-age learners, often in under-served rural and peri-urban areas. The first phase focuses on primary-school learners, with open days and school visits by professionals in the aviation industry. Along with highlighting careers in aviation, the focus is also on encouraging an uptake in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at school.

“A lot of learners are shying away from maths and science, but these are essential for an aviation career,” adds Zama.

The next phase targets secondary-school learners, with online educational resources and the opportunity to participate in an annual aviation and aerospace camp. Across four days of workshops, lectures, and practical exercises students delve into the world of aviation, engineering, robotics, and aeronautics. Each year up to 100 young women are hosted at the camp, with all expenses covered by the GFPA sponsors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone whose office is at 35,000 feet, Zama’s passion is broadening the horizon of aviation for young people.

“It’s important to expand the young person’s idea of what aviation and aerospace are all about,” says Zama. “Refilwe was a pilot for the police service. I’m a military pilot. There’s private charter, there’s tourism, there’s anti-poaching. Then there’s air traffic control, astronomy, technicians. We provide a lot of information and education support to the learners, parents and teachers. We believe that once the information is there and available it sparks interest in the whole world of aviation.”

The GFPA is also strengthening its online offering, with educational and career resources alongside online learning tools in partnership with US-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

For learners who actively pursue a career in aviation, the GFPA also plays a crucial role in providing access to a network of established industry professionals.

“One of the barriers to success, for women in particular, is the access to a network of industry professionals. In the third phase we’re particularly addressing those barriers, and working to retain young women in the industry,” says Zama. “Through job shadowing and mentorship programmes we provide guidance and exposure to professionals in their chosen field. It’s crucial for youngsters coming into the industry.”

 From the May issue of Wanted 2020.

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