Overhearing a radio interview with a pilot sparked the imagination of a young schoolgirl from KwaZulu-Natal and has culminated in her flying thousands of passengers over the green fields she once dreamt of soaring above…

Nonhanhla Radebe, or Noni, as she’s known, is a Junior First Officer with Comair, flying Boeing 737-800s for the company’s two airline brands, British Airways (operated by Comair) and kulula.com.

She recalls her “lightbulb moments” in her path to flying Africa’s skies for a living. The first was hearing a pilot talking about a career in aviation. The second was her introductory flight, and being at the controls of an aircraft for the first time.

“That moment was more than I had dreamt it could be. It became the moment that made me a million times more passionate about what I do. I knew then that I would fly for a iving.”

Noni trained at 43 Air School in Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape, a stint working at a flight school in Durban and flying with a few small airlines, then training for the 737-800 at the Comair Training Centre in Boksburg.

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“The Boeing 737-800 is a great plane to fly. Comair’s fleet replacement strategy means we now have the most modern airliner fleet in South Africa. That’s good for fuel-efficiency and emissions, but it also shows that independent airlines can operate profitably without state bailouts. Comair’s done that for more than 70 years now.”

Continual transformation of the sector

Naturally, Noni adds, a competitive aviation sector benefits economic growth, but she has some clear ideas on what’s needed to continue transforming and growing Southern Africa’s aviation and travel sector. “I’d love to see more initiatives in schools that promote awareness of careers in aviation, especially outside the big urban centres.

“Incorporating aviation-based studies into the science syllabus, for example, would make studies more exciting and interesting, and nurture scholars’ interest in flight. We also need to raise awareness of careers in aviation other than actually flying the aircraft.”

She encourages youngsters who are intent on learning to fly to, “Find out as much as you can before you get started and study hard, because it all pays off. Becoming a commercial or even a private pilot takes time and you need to keep your passion alive to see youself through all your exams and flight tests.”

Noni says a typical day starts with signing in at the airline’s operations centre, finalising relevant paperwork, checking weather and planning the day’s flights. While she relishes any time aloft, she says her favourite place to fly in and out of is Durban’s King Shaka International Airport: “It’s home and I always smile when I see those hills and valleys I grew up in from the sky.”

In her spare time, Noni enjoys spending time with her young daughter, game-drives, and lunches with family and friends.