Refilwe Ledwaba


Refilwe Ledwaba is a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, a flight instructor, an advocate for women’s rights and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation goalkeeper who made history by becoming the first black female pilot to fly for the police service in South Africa.

“For a long time, I was the only black female that was holding the highest license for helicopters… But being the first for me is not important. The important is the 20th person, the 30th person, then we can start talking,” she said.

The numbers are hard to come by but according to a report by the University of Nebraska, women make up less than 10% of pilots, maintenance technicians and airline executives globally.

Ledwaba says she’s on a mission to improve the numbers — starting in Africa.

She teaches young pilots in training how to operate aircraft. She also runs the Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA), a foundation with a focus on introducing elementary and high school students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Raised by a ‘superwoman’

She would later become the first black woman to pilot a helicopter in the South African Police Service (SAPS). Today, she is a contract flyer for various charter companies on the continent.

(Courtesy of Gypseenia Lion / Forbes Africa )
Pic Credit: Gypseenia Lion

Ledwaba, who is qualified to fly both helicopters and airplanes, credits her journey to the strong women in her community while growing up in an apartheid era.

Ledwaba grew up in Limpopo, a province in the northeast of South Africa. Her mother, a teacher, raised seven children alone.

She says her upbringing influenced her chosen path.

“I don’t know how she (her mother) did it, she sent us all to university. So, from a very young age, I always thought I could be anything because I looked at her and I’m like ‘Oh, there’s a superwoman,'” she said.

Ledwaba initially planned to become a doctor, and to help fund her studies, she got a job as a flight attendant. She later realized she was interested in learning to fly so she began taking private flying lesson.

Thirteen years later, she has gained experience flying a range of choppers and airplanes.

Changing the face of aviation

In 2010, Ledwaba started the Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) to introduce girls in elementary and high school to STEM at a young age