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Fearless Female: A Day in the Life of a Female First Officer

‘There is no dream that is beyond your reach’

In honour of Women’s Day, we’re featuring three fierce females who are killing it in their careers. This is a day in the life of female first officer Noni Radebe.

Fearless Female: A Day in The Life of a Female First Officer

noni radebe female pilot

Packing the day before

I’ll normally pack casual clothes, gym clothes and a change of uniform. I also charge my EFB (electronic flight bag).

Off to work

Wake-up time?

I normally start getting ready 1.30 before I have to be at work. I live 20 minutes from work and I like to be early to prepare.

How do you get ready?

When I get ready, I make sure all my documents and electronics required for work are packed, get my uniform in order, get dressed, have a light meal and I’m off to work. If I won’t be there to take my daughter to school and back, I make those arrangements too.

What do you eat?

If it’s very early, nothing. If it’s about 8am, I’ll eat cereal or have eggs and some coffee.

What do you have to do when you get to work in order to prepare for your shift?

When I arrive, I plug my EFB into the company network so I can get the latest notices and information to best prepare for the flight.

Pre-flight

Reviewing flight

My colleagues at our operations centre will first prepare paperwork and flight plans related to our flight based on the number of passenger, cargo waits, weather reports and aircraft type. They then hand over this pack to the flight crew.

The captain and I will look at the weight of the aircraft and fuel needs in relation to the weather and any structural limitations of the aircraft.

We make a fuel decision based on the airport we’re flying to and the other airport closest to our destination in case of a need to divert.

Up in the Air

What do you do in-flight?

My duties will depend on the role I’m carrying out at that time, either pilot flying or pilot monitoring. In the case of pilot flying, I’m at the controls, doing the flying and navigating on the route. I also update the passengers on the progress of the flight. If I’m pilot monitoring, I do the relevant paperwork, speak to air-traffic control and assist the pilot flying in managing the navigation and fuel. We also start planning for the landing at the destination, look at the performance of the aircraft, weather, alternate airports and any other factors that may affect the landing.

Anything interesting you can tell us about what it’s like being on the job/what crazy stuff has happened on the job?

Contrary to popular belief, the autopilot does not mean the pilots sit and do nothing. The autopilot is like a computer – it works on our inputs. Speed, altitude and performance are all maintained by the inputs of the pilots. It needs constant monitoring and input from the pilot to maintain the desired performance.

Touching ground

What is a normal day like for you?

On a normal day, we will do up to four flights. In between, we get a few minutes to stretch our legs on the ground, then we start the whole process of preparing for a flight again. The captain will check the outside of the aircraft and make sure it’s still okay to fly again. Inside, the cabin crew and the first officer will do the internal checks and prepare the aircraft for the next flight.

How does your day end?

On the last flight, we review any technical issues with the engineers. Then we finish outstanding paperwork and log the hours of the aircraft.

What do you do when you get home?

If I get home early, I spend time with my daughter. I then shower and relax. If I have an early flight the next day, I make sure my EFB is plugged in and my uniform is ready. Then it’s off to bed to get maximum rest.

What got you into aviation?

My curiosity grew when I listened to a pilot speaking on radio about his career, and that is when I really started researching about it and how I could become one. I started studying towards becoming a pilot straight after matric and I am still amazed.

What was your first flight like?

I was very nervous, but also excited. When you do your intro flight, an instructor takes you for a bit of a joy ride, shows you the different controls and what they do, and lets you control the aircraft for a short amount of time. There were so many things I didn’t know, but it was an exhilarating experience and after that my passion for flying took off

When did you realise you wanted to be a commercial pilot?

When I started reading more about aviation and careers in the airline industry – there was just no other option. I already applied for studies in the financial/accounting field, but I realised soon after doing some job-shadowing that it was not for me.

Was there anybody in particular that was instrumental in helping you become a pilot?

My parents. They went through a lot to pay for my studies in aviation, and they were there for me through all the hurdles and joyful times of being a student pilot.

What are some of your fondest memories on the job?

I remember once doing a Women’s Month interview for a television show and they asked me what my dream aircraft would be to fly. I said that it is a Boeing 777. At that time I was still very new in the airline business, and it seemed that I would have to fly thousands of hours before I reached that dream. Last year I started working for Comair, who flies Kulula and British Airways aircrafts. When Captain Sean Pepper called to say I got the job, I remember thinking back to that interview and saying, ‘The dream was not so far-fetched, because now I am flying Boeings.’

Are there any bad moments?

There are challenging moments. Sometimes you have been flying all day, the weather gets crazy or you’re sitting with a massive delay and upset passengers. This is when you have to tap into all the training in terms of managing such situations and meeting the needs of the clients and company as safely as possible, even when you’re being rushed.

What activities do you do outside of flying?

I like to spend time hiking, running, going on game drives and just hanging out with my family and friends.

What would you say to a young woman who is contemplating a career as a pilot?

There is no dream that is beyond your reach. Learning to be a professional pilot takes a lot of time and dedication, so give it your best shot and remember to enjoy it.

Have you ever worked on an all-female crew?

I recently did a flight where there was an all-female flight deck crew and one male crew member in the cabin, so it was pretty close.

Would you say gender bias is starting to lessen in the 21st century?

I would say gender bias is discussed more now than it was before. People used to accept things as they were, but now people are more aware of the capabilities of women. So yes, there is more awareness and more acceptance now and it can only improve from here.

What has flying taught you that you can use in everyday life?

If you approach things with a great attitude, you’re more likely to achieve great results.

In your opinion, why do women make great pilots?

Women are meticulous, efficient and detail-oriented. This is what most pilots need to succeed, so women do well in the aviation industry.

What is your message to encourage more females to get their wings?

There are so many things women are capable of – from coming up with the trajectory formulas to launching spaceships and running countries and businesses. Flying is one of those fields we didn’t get a lot of access to in the past, but now we shouldn’t shy away from it.

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