SAA’s Female Superstars

Claudia Ngubeni, Senior Licence Technician: Major Maintenance.

This Women’s Month we celebrate the ladies taking on the men at their own game in the world of SAA Technical, the aircraft maintenance side of the organisation:

CLAUDIA NGUBENI (30) Senior Licence Technician: Major Maintenance 

With the looks of a model, Claudia’s far from the stereotypical aircraft engineer. She joined SAA in 2010, following a period with the South African Air Force. “I was thinking about becoming a pilot, but because I was doing engineering studies, I thought: ‘Let me give this a go.’ I did my apprenticeship in the Air Force and joined SAA as a qualified mechanic.”

She admits that working in this industry has its challenges. “There’s a misperception that women can’t perform to the required standard. We’re often looked down on and have to prove ourselves.” However, she says SAA is a company bursting with opportunities for anyone with ambition. “When I joined the airline, I realised I could become anything. I chose to be a technician, but am currently studying my B Com in supply chain management through the SAA bursary scheme.

“The aviation sector needs more women who are determined to make the most of these opportunities, who are willing to excel and create awareness.”

She also believes there should be more support for women from management. “They’re meant to encourage and motivate you. There was one person who really supported me and pushed me to go further – my old supervisor, Clarke Johnson. He’s resigned now, but he encouraged me to get my licences, do my courses and not to give up. You need someone telling you: ‘You can do it.’”

Claudia aims to be a role model to SAA technical incumbents and advises them: “Don’t limit yourself – go to unexplored territories, because you never know where you’ll end up. This industry has many opportunities. SAA’s Women in Aviation programme offers bursaries for women to study in any area they choose. It just takes determination and self-discipline to get to the top.”

NATALIE KYD (36), SAA Training School Instructor: Avionics 

Natalie’s love of electronics started when she was in Grade Six and was given basic lessons in electronics. She’s been with SAA since 2000, after leaving college in Port Elizabeth. She was studying to be an electrician and the airline visited on a recruitment drive. “I didn’t find SAA – it found me,” she says.

Her time in this very male-centric environment hasn’t always been easy. “It was difficult being the only woman. When I started my practical in the hangars, there were no toilets for me and no changing-room. I had to wait for the men to finish before I could put on my overalls. Then, at the end of the shift, I’d have to wait again for the men to finish before I could go in.”

Another major challenge SAA technical women face in the workplace is the need to prove themselves. “You have to work twice as hard to show that you can do the job. I learnt quickly to simply do what I needed to do and get the job done, without expecting any help from my colleagues,” recalls Natalie. An added frustration is the perception that every accolade women receive is because of their gender, not because they’ve earned it, she says.

In order to drive change, she believes men need greater exposure to working with females. “In avionics there are very few women, so the guys aren’t working with them. Once they have a female in their crew, they start appreciating the energy she brings to the job.”

For the past eight years, Natalie’s been in the training school. She’s inspired by being able to share her knowledge with new apprentices and says this role allows her to spend more time with her family – she’s a mother of three – and to study.

KAREN GRIESEL, Senior Licence Technician (SLT): Minor Maintenance 

Karen started her career in aviation in the South African Air Force. “I wanted to fly, but I didn’t think I was intelligent enough to be a pilot, so the other option was to do a trade and become a flight engineer,” she recalls. This choice of career was bold because, pre-1994, a technical position was a no-go area for women. It was only with the introduction of SA’s Constitution that Karen was able to follow her dream of working as an aviation technician.

She joined SAA in 2009 and worked her way up to SLT in the Minor Maintenance Division. “Minor maintenance involves small checks that come in for the day, or a weekly check that comes in for no more than about eight hours. Our role sees us doing things like inflating tyres or repairing defects on the planes.”

As one of the first women in the industry, Karen’s faced her fair share of challenges. “You have to fight for what you want. You have to be assertive,” she says. However, she adds that a new wave of black women are driving change. “These ladies are coming in and empowering more women. To change the system, you have to work hard to get somewhere, but black empowerment has really helped women. These young women are aware of their rights. They know what’s due to them and they demand it.”

She finds working for SAA extremely rewarding and offers the following advice to young women interested in the field: “Read as much as you can and then start working on mechanical things. Attend workshops and find out if this is what really interests you and is something you want to do

“As women grow, they show other women what they can achieve. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to achieve great things: just work hard and show your worth.”

ANELE NDLOVU (23)

Aircraft Mechanic Technician: Major Overhaul  

Anele’s been with SAA for four-and-a-half years, two-and-a-half of them as an apprentice and the past two years in her present role. Her interest in aircraft started when she was a young child. “I always had a lot of questions about aeroplanes – their sheer size, how they move and how engines work. They’ve always fascinated me,” she says. However, it was her mother who encouraged her to become an engineer.

She works in the Major Service side of SAA Technical. “We overhaul and repair avionic and mechanical equipment to ensure the aircraft operate safely. Our job is keeping the planes moving: we take the aircraft in, disassemble it, do inspections, make sure everything’s fine and then reassemble it before it goes out.”

As a younger technician, Anele hasn’t been exposed to the same trials as her senior female colleagues. “It’s all about proving yourself,” she says. “You have to go the extra mile to show that you can do the job, that you’re capable and that it isn’t about gender. But it’s not that bad.”

She adds that the older women have opened doors. “They’re the SLTs and supervisors, and younger women look up to them. They’ve proved themselves. We now need more women in the aviation industry – not in the office, but on the ground. We need to prove that we’re skilled.

“Diversity in the workplace is important to bring people together to form a strong foundation. Hearing different views from different people strengthens an organisation and creates teamwork,” she says. “I feel proud to work for SAA, seeing the aircraft flying and knowing that my job keeps people safe up there.”

LEONIE VAN SCHALKWYK (41)

Maintenance Control Centre: Airframe Analyst 

Leonie was the first woman to be recruited into SAA Technical – which wasn’t surprising, as she showed an aptitude for engineering from a young age. “When we did psychometric tests in Grade 7, they said I should go to technical school. I was sent to the same one as my brother and was one of 120 girls in a school of
2 000 pupils,” she says.

She started her career as a Diesel Mechanic at Sasol before joining SAA and has no regrets about making the move. “The aviation industry is packed with different aspects; you can never know everything about an aircraft – there’s always something new to learn, and that’s kept me here.”

Asked how she’s dealt with her supervisory positions at SAA Technical, she says: “If men said it couldn’t be done, I proved them wrong by doing it. Then I said: ‘Now you can see why I’m the supervisor!’”

As a woman accustomed to working with men, Leonie advises younger women entering the industry to do more than their male colleagues. “Go and help the men, but don’t let them help you. Women need to assert themselves and let men know they have the situation under control. If they need something, they’ll ask for it. Don’t push the men away, but stand your ground.”

Her goal is to move from working on heavy machinery to working with people. “The human part is more important. How do we get the younger generation to take charge? The older generation is retiring, but the younger people are still following. We need to get this right, or there’ll be chaos,” she says.

This article is the cover story in the August edition of Sawubona, if you missed it, download it here, for free.

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