It was on a Monday afternoon around 3 O'clock at Progress Flight Academy in South Africa, an aviation training institute, when a young female trainee pilot bubbling with confidence and the prospects of a dream come true, prepared to embark on her second solo flight.
Everything looked normal and the weather was not only favourable but encouraging. After conducting her routine checks as taught by the lecturers and under the supervision of an instructor by the name Jolene, she headed for the cockpit and when she ascertained that everything was in order, the then 19-year-old lady switched on the engine ready to conquer the skies.
With a promising future ahead, the flight was important in that it added on to her flight hours, something that is important when one is considered for hiring as a pilot in the competitive aviation industry. Since nothing was amiss with the Cessna 172 aeroplane, she quickly headed for the run- way where in no time she started gaining altitude.
The take off was smooth and one could have mistaken her for a fully qualified and experienced pilot. Hardily a few minutes after takeoff, and after sighing a sign of relief for a job well done, the young lady got the shock of her life. She discovered that the fuel tanks of her plane were leaking and this signalled danger.
She had two options: to continue with the journey and let fate take its toll or to abort the flight and institute an emergency landing. Even though the experience was as terrifying as that of a prisoner under death row coming out of the situation alive was not a guarantee, she did not panic. She gathered all the courage she could muster, coupled with the training she had undertaken and commandeered the plane back to the runway.
"I was really afraid but luckily my training was up to standard and I managed to perform as required (abort the flight)," she said. But, as fate would have it and immediately after touching down, she realized that the aircraft's brakes were faulty, and it took the entire runway for it to stop. When the plane finally ground to a halt, without any eventualities, her colleagues and some lecturers were waiting for her, congratulating her for a courageous conduct.
She had conquered her own world. Though Neema confesses that the incident scared her and while she was still trying to come to terms with reality, the faulty aeroplane was taken for inspection. And, as if what had happened was not enough, the Chief instructor at the Academy ordered that she be given another plane and continue with training. "I was really scared and getting into another plane barely 30 minutes after another aborted flight was difficult.
But, I gathered courage and managed to finish the solo flight that day without problems," she said. This reads like a fairy tale from a fiction story or a script from a Hollywood movie but is a true story of a young and dynamic Tanzanian pilot, Neema Swai, flying our skies today. Though the incident was scary and life-threatening, Neema never looked back; she had a dream to live. Since her childhood, Neema's dream was to become a pilot, and she worked hard for it.
Born in Arusha 25 years ago, Neema is a first officer with Precision Air (PW) Services and confesses that the sky remains the limit. The soft-spoken Neema, is a Tanzanian young lady hailing from Machame in Moshi, Kilimanjaro Region. In a bid to prepare her for the world ahead, her parents enrolled her at Juja Preparatory School in Nairobi, Kenya where the seeds of her dream were planted.
"At an early age I took aviation as a subject which was offered in my primary school and ever since I've always been fascinated by the aviation world and never saw myself doing anything else and with a very supportive family I managed to live my dream," she said. After completing her primary education in Kenya, she moved to Kabojja Secondary School in Uganda where she continued with her education.
When she passed her Ordinary Levels, she was 16 years old then and was too young to join aviation school, so she had to enroll for Advanced Level where she studied Physics, Geography and Mathematics ( PGM). Neema remembers that when she told her parents that she wanted to be a pilot, they told her to study hard and pass with flying colours if ever she had hopes to be one.
And, after her high school in 2007, the second born to Mr and Mrs El- lysoon Kirenga Swai and Sikudhani Mwenda Swai, joined Progress Flight Department in South Africa, for a one year aviation course, opening the doors for her to the male dominated profession. Asked on whether she was afraid during her first ever flight, Neema said that, "No I wasn't, in fact I'd say I was very excited because finally my dream was in my grasp."
When she graduated from the flight school, Neema started working at the age of 20. She is among eight women pilots working with Precision Air, and probably the youngest. Armed with approximately over 2800hrs of flying experience Neema's day-to-day life is busy, flying passengers from one country to the other in East and Central Africa. To date, she has flown in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
Commenting on the most challenging airport within those she has landed, Neema said, "of all the airfields I've flown to I enjoy flying in to Bukoba, it's always a new challenge due to the adverse weather and runway length." "I am rated on the Cessna 172, Pipper Pa28,Pa30, Atr-72-500,Atr-42-500 and now the first and only Atr-42- 600 in Africa and am lucky to be at Precision Air to be the first female pilot to fly it in Africa," she added. Balancing work and personal time is not a challenge for her, "I chose to be a pilot.
So I have learned to balance things and I like it. My work is a bit of a challenge but it is exciting. I have been exposed to the rest of the world and I have gained a lot of experience." Neema says that though some careers are termed to be male dominated, it is time for women and the rest of the society to do away with that notion. She however, said that there are many challenges and for a female pilot to gain the respect and approval in the aviation industry, "you work twice as hard as a male pilot due to the fact that it's been a male dominated field."
Commenting on women and careers, Neema said that self respect and motivation is essential in professional growth for any woman, adding that women are in a good position to tackle 'hard' professions such as engineering. "Everyone has the capacity to perform well in various
fields. All it takes is self respect and commitment. You will meet situations that will pull you down but that is normal. Keep your focus and you will succeed. "It is through having this in my mind that I have come this far. I urge any other woman out there not to be fooled but to keep up their focus and spirits. This is my fourth year working as a pilot and it is not the end.
I have so much I would like to achieve," says Neema.
The second born in a family of three is grateful to her family for the support they have given to her to come this far. "I am grateful to my parents and siblings, elder sister Eshy and younger brother Kelvin. They have been my greatest inspiration all through. I could not be here without them," she says, adding that families form the foundation of everyone's career.
Neema's dream is to fly the Boeing 747 because it's state-of-the-art and modernized aeroplane making it a dream for every pilot, and she also hopes to, one day, own an aircraft. "I want to use it to move around." In a bid to keep fit Neema had this to say, "well I swim, go to the gym and take power walks to keep me fit and ready for my long sitting hours." "Never settle for anything less than what you believe in always motive yourself towards your goals and dreams and remember to work hard towards it," she concludes.