Major Mandisa Mfeka is breaking barriers as the first black female combat pilot in the South African Air Force.
Her passion for flying was instilled at a young age, and she has since overcome numerous obstacles to achieve remarkable milestones in a male-dominated industry.
As a combat pilot, she’s displayed exceptional skills and leadership qualities, earning the respect of her peers and superiors. One of her career highlights was flying one of the five SAAF Hawk MK 120 aircraft over Loftus Versveld Stadium during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration in 2019.
Beyond her military achievements, Major Mandisa advocates for gender equality and empowerment in aviation. She encourages young girls to pursue their dreams in STEM, mentoring them to thrive and transcend societal barriers.
Her ground-breaking accomplishments and unwavering dedication serve as an inspiration to aspiring aviators, especially women and people of color, making her a role model in the aviation industry and beyond.
We sat down with Major Mandisa to chat about her career journey and sky-high ambitions.
What was the catalyst for your love for aviation? When did you realize you wanted to become a pilot?
When I was 5 years old my mother took us to Virginia Airport in Durban to watch the Airshow. At that stage we were quite young and had no idea that a career in aviation, let alone becoming a pilot was a possibility. It wasn’t until I was 16 years old when I was doing research on careers in maths and science that I came across an advert by the South African Air Force recruiting pilots and navigators that I discovered that this career was a possibility for me! I immediately wrote to them and embarked on joining the SAAF in order to become a pilot.
What has your journey been like to fulfill this dream?
The have been moments that have felt so surreal! Flying the Pilatus PC7 MK2 and later the Hawk Mk120 jet as a serving member seemed so unreal! Especially during ceremonial events like Change of Command Parades and more especially auspicious events that grab the attention of the whole country.
What does it mean to you to be the first black South African female Hawk MK120 pilot to work with the South African Air Force?
The journey came with a lot of challenges therefore I celebrate the victories but more so I celebrate the platforms that meet me as a result. These platforms have meant that my voice is used to empower young people and women to go after their dreams and not to let the echoes of doubt keep them frozen and afraid of reaching for that which they’re truly passionate about.
As a woman of color in a white male-dominated space, what are some challenges you face/faced to get to where you are today?
The niggly voice of doubt that sometimes stems a comment or a remark from someone who may not believe that I could reach the levels that I have. Moreso silencing the fears of others because they couldn’t possibly see themselves walking the path that I was embarking on. I simply chose to recognize that someone’s fear or verbal expression of doubt was not my truth nor would they ever be my reality. I had to push through and remember that promise I made myself when I was 16.
How did you overcome these challenges?
I simply chose to recognize that someone’s fear or verbal expression of doubt was not my truth nor would they ever be my reality. I had to push through and remember that promise I made myself when I was 16. Also, it really helps to come from a family and home structure that would cheer me on when things got tough. When I found myself at my lowest, I would remember my roots (i.e. my parents, school teachers, mentors and peers that helped me to remember my light), and I was able to remember my shine.
What are some of your proudest moments in your career so far?
Flying in close formation in the Hawk M120 Jet in the number 5 position with the then Major G. Cooper in the Gripen in the number 3 position and Lieutenant Colonel M. Mbhokota in the Lead Jet and flying over in the Combat Formation. I was so remarkably affirmed, humbled, and empowered. That is a moment that I will treasure for a very long time.
What do you love most about being in the air?
The thrill of emancipation but the power in knowing that I command, in my hands, a very powerful and capable machine. The excitement of flying fills my cup to the brim.
What does it mean to you to be a female pioneer in the aviation space?
There is a responsibility to make aviation accessible to young people, whether it is in the form of mentorship, encouragement, or the sharing of information. I recognize that this position means that I hold a light that will help someone wade through difficult waters or turbulent skies. I hope that by advocating in this way someone will find their light and that their path will be a little easier because I have honoured my journey.
The aviation sector is still a difficult industry to tap into and some still view it as a sector for the privileged. By holding space I hope that we’ll multiply, no matter the gender or demographic. The love and aptitude for aviation should be the fuel that gets you there. Not the depth of your pockets or expression of your gender.
What advice would you give to other young women of color who aspire to break boundaries?
Honor your strengths and let them fuel you to push beyond the hurdles that you encounter. Your unique signature is your authentic power, let it feed into growth and use it to propel you to where you need to be.
Why do you think it’s important for South Africa to support and nurture women in STEM?
The feminine energy is a creative force and the resolution of some of our biggest problems will rise from the unseen and the innovative. Creativity is what is needed when we look for solutions to problems, therefore embrace the feminine as we engineer solutions for a future of prosperity.
What keeps you motivated on a daily basis?
It’s the echo that I am not where I want to be yet. I keep striving to grow and learn on a continuous basis that is what keeps me motivated. I love to say, “The sky is the baseline,” which means that the excellence bar that was pushed yesterday, should be your starting point for tomorrow!
Who are three women you look up to and why?
Refilwe Ledwaba, the Founder of the NPO Girls Fly Africa. Through her sacrifice, advocacy and love for aviation she has unlocked the minds of young people in the country and in some parts of our continent with her love for aviation. Through her NPO she has managed to reach even the most remote of areas and bring enlightenment to those who never dreamed of prospects in the STEM field. Further, she has helped young people gain access and funding within the sector. That to me reflects a powerful woman. One who knows how to bring down barriers so that there may be more deserving people reaching the platforms that they aspire to reach. She both humbles and inspires me to a great extent.
Captain Annabel Vundla the first Black Female Captain in South Africa (South African Airways). Her hard work and devotion to her career without losing sight of family values truly express the multipotentialite that exists in women. The agility with which she wears various hats is truly remarkable. We’re inspired by the space that she occupies both in the Military and Civil Sectors.
Oprah Winfrey. She has broken so many barriers and shattered glass ceilings in her field. I love the way she honors the gifts of her soul. One is lost if they don’t know how to listen to whisperings from the divine and her voice reminds me of that, time and time again.
What brings you fulfillment in life?
Flying and honestly, it is the love from my family, peers, and partner. I savor little moments, something as simple as taking a walk with someone that I love inspires feelings of gratitude. Those moments, I feel are the treasures of life. They bring me back to the center.