Lieu­tenant-Colonel Phetogo Mo­lawa is break­ing bar­ri­ers at the SA Air Force

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At 32 years of age, Lieu­tenan­tColonel Phetogo Mo­lawa has al­ready bro­ken through gen­der and age bar­ri­ers in a ca­reer realm per­ceived to be mas­cu­line.

Lt Col Mo­lawa is the first black per­son in South Africa to com­mand a South African Air Force (SAAF) in­stal­la­tion.

She con­sid­ers this one of her ca­reer high­lights, with the first high­light qual­i­fy­ing as the first fe­male he­li­copter pi­lot in the SAAF at the ten­der age of 21.To­day she man­ages over 100 peo­ple at the Port El­iz­a­beth Air Force Sta­tion, sit­u­ated a stone’s throw away from the air­port with which it shares a run­way.

Lt Col Mo­lawa has a quiet strength about her. She de­scribes her­self as some­one who does not rest in com­fort zones and thrives on chal­lenges.

“My pro­mo­tion to com­man­der of this air force base came at a per­fect time be­cause I was start­ing to feel that I’d learnt all that I could as a he­li­copter pi­lot. I was ready for the next chal­lenge,” she said.

Her role re­quires a wide range of skills, from man­ag­ing lo­gis­tics to en­gag­ing stake­hold­ers such the Na­tional Sea Res­cue In­sti­tute (NSRI) and deal­ing with VIP and VVIP trans­fers.

“I do not fly as much now as I am mostly in the of­fice. I deal with lo­gis­tics and the tech­ni­cal as­pect of the job and I am in­volved with hu­man re­sources. My role re­quires in­ter­ac­tion with stake­hold­ers, what our ser­vice-level agree­ments en­tail and what we of­fer. I have to know how our stake­hold­ers op­er­ate in order to know what we can of­fer them. It’s a very steep learn­ing curve for me,” she said.

Some of her in­ter­ac­tions are with the navy and the army, she ex­plained.“Most of the op­er­a­tions are SAAF op­er­a­tions, in terms of what we are man­dated to do. We work with the NSRI for emer­gency sit­u­a­tions and we li­aise with the army and the navy.”

Bar­rier-break­ing achieve­ments

Although Lt Col Mo­lawa’s ca­reer has been char­ac­terised by a se­ries of bar­rier-break­ing achieve­ments, she said ris­ing up the lad­der is within any­one’s reach, re­gard­less of gen­der or race.

“Ap­par­ently I am the first black fe­male to com­mand an air force base. In the air force, from the be­gin­ning, we are not treated dif­fer­ently. Women are not ex­pected to do half of the train­ing. We all do the same army train­ing, the same pi­lot train­ing; we don’t get spe­cial treat­ment,” pointed out Lt Col Mo­lawa.

She high­lighted the sim­ple truth that gen­der stereo­types and lim­i­ta­tions have no place in the air force or the army.

“Dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of gen­der is not al­lowed.The law pro­tects me be­cause when you fin­ish [a cer­tain level of train­ing], you’re a colonel not a woman. If you are in­sub­or­di­nate to me, you are not in­sub­or­di­nate to a woman but to a colonel,” she said.

Lt Col Mo­lawa ac­knowl­edged that there were chal­lenges in com­mand­ing men who come from dif­fer­ent back­grounds.

“Some are much older than me. I’ve only ever worked with men for the most part and so I’ve learnt to han­dle the chal­lenges that come with work­ing with men. But through­out my ca­reer in the air force, I’ve been pre­pared for that,” she said.

Con­stantly ex­pand­ing her hori­zons

It is a quest for ex­cel­lence that has pro­pelled this young, am­bi­tious he­li­copter pi­lot to reach the cur­rent height of her ca­reer.

Lt Col Mo­lawa ini­tially wanted to be­come a phar­ma­cist, but when she started to do more re­search about it she re­alised that a ca­reer as a chemist would trans­late to the kind of monotony she did not want.

“When I came to know what phar­macy en­tails I re­alised I would be con­fined to one space every day and I thought that af­ter a while that would be­come too rou­tine,” she said.

In high school she at­tended a ca­reer ex­hi­bi­tion, found out about avi­a­tion and set her sights on a ‘heav­enly’ ca­reer.

“By that time I knew that I wanted the kind of work that would al­low me to ap­ply my­self and I started search­ing. I knew I wanted to travel a lot and for my days not to be mo­not­o­nous. I came across avi­a­tion while at­tend­ing a ca­reer expo. When I told my par­ents about it, it took them by sur­prise but they were al­ways sup­port­ive. Ev­ery­one thought I was crazy, I also thought that at times be­cause I did not know any­one who was a pi­lot,” she joked.

Her path to be­com­ing a pi­lot and a com­man­der of an air force base in­cluded mil­i­tary train­ing, but she per­se­vered through the gru­elling phys­i­cal chal­lenges and never looked back.

“When I look at my ba­sic mil­i­tary train­ing be­fore join­ing the air force, I re­alise it was tough, es­pe­cially for a fe­male. It was very phys­i­cally de­mand­ing: you go through pro­grammes where you don’t sleep for 24 hours; it’s one phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity af­ter another. Some ac­tiv­i­ties re­quire that you carry a 50kg bag of ce­ment on your shoul­ders for kilo­me­tres. It’s a real test of char­ac­ter. But not once did I think of quitting,” Lt Col Mo­lawa re­called.

The woman from whom she ac­quires strength

The for­ti­tude of the first woman she has ever known – her own mother – in­stilled a never-say-die at­ti­tude in her.

Lt Col Mo­lawa, who was raised by her par­ents in Thaba ‘Nchu, in the for­mer Bo­phuthatswana, said she re­mem­bers strength in her mother that brought the fam­ily through dif­fi­cult times.

“One per­son who in­spires me the most is my mother. I re­cently told her that every time the go­ing gets tough and I want to give up, I just think of her and the sac­ri­fices she has made for our fam­ily. We’ve sur­vived tough times be­cause of her and when I think of all that, I know that I can’t af­ford to give up,” she said.

Sound ad­vice

So what is Lt Col Mo­lawa’s ad­vice for as­pir­ing pi­lots?

“I would say if you are plan­ning to start a fam­ily by the age of 22, be­ing an air force pi­lot is not for you. It is very de­mand­ing and it’s a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act be­tween fam­ily and work,” said the mother of a boy aged four.

“On a per­sonal level, it’s not easy. I fly very lit­tle now since I work in the of­fice. When I was on cour­ses I had to take my son home to my par­ents. It takes a lot out of you be­cause I’m tired when I leave work and I have to get home and still be his mom,” she said.

Lieu­tenan­tColonel Phetogo Mo­lawa thrives on chal­lenges.

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