With the vast majority of pilots in the world being men, it never occurred to 28-year-old Esther Muselema Longwe that she would fly a helicopter sooner.
But it had always been her dream to grace the skies and now she is living her calling.
“As a child, I remember saying that I would like to become a pilot or air hostess when I grow up and now here I am,” says the young woman from Chiskemba in Rumphi who recently graduated from the flight school in South Africa.
First born of three in her family, she becomes the first female helicopter pilot in the Malawi Defence Force (MDF), but is the second female in MDF aviation together with Florence Selemani, a female pilot who flies fixed wings types of aeroplane such as Boeings, ATRs and Dorniers.
In 2013, Longwe ditched her information technology career to join the MDF as a lieutenant. Later, she went for the 18 months training as pilot and has just completed the Abnitio Rotor Wing (helicopter) Flying Training in the Republic of South Africa.
“I completed the first phase at Powered Flight Training Centre, Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria and the second phase at Starlite International Aviation Academy in Mossel Bay, Western Cape,” she says.
Flying aircraft is a desirable career not only in the army services and the process of becoming a military pilot is a competitive one.
Asked what attracted her to become a pilot, she explains: “I was fascinated by the capabilities of a helicopter. It is able to hover, which means it can take off and land vertically as well as operate from anywhere.
“It can be used for search and rescue missions during disasters; fire fighting; moving troops and supplies; medical evacuation; tourism; patrolling and agricultural purposes, just to mention a few.”
MDF helicopter pilots have a duty to the army as well as to the nation. They provide essential support for troops in the battle fields such as resupplying items. They also serve to transport troops to difficult terrains where ordinary transportation may not reach.
Apart from that, they provide medical evacuation for soldiers wounded in battlefield so that they are taken for medical attention.
Their role in serving the nation includes disaster management by which they go on rescue missions during floods; forest preservation, by flying over huge forests to keep an eye on encroachers and other things. They also do border patrols, to see what is happening around the borders.
Born on 10 October 1989, the young woman obtained her Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) from St. Dennis Primary School in Rumphi
before going to Marymount Girls Catholic Secondary School.
Subsequently, she went to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology (IT) at the Malawi Polytechnic where she graduated in 2009.
Her first step to becoming a helicopter pilot was obtaining a Private Pilot License. To do that, however, one needs to be at least 17-years-old, have a student pilot license and a valid medical certificate from certified aviation doctors.
On top of that, Longwe says one must complete the theoretical and practical requirements.
“The theoretical phase involves passing the eight written examinations with 75 percent or above and the practical phase involves flying 25 hours under instructions, 15 hours solo [as the pilot in command] including cross country flying,” she explains.
As a woman in a man’s world, she notes, among others things that most societies have a projection of what a woman or a girl must be and what she should achieve.
“This tends to influence one’s sense of self in favour of becoming the person everyone else wants them to be rather than developing individual tools to become the best they can be and achieve what they set out to achieve,” says the pilot who enjoys assembling jigsaw puzzles, going for jogs, playing soccer, watching Manga series and hosting.
As an inspiration to younger girls and women, she urges them to follow their dreams and never to limit themselves to what they can accomplish.
“If you stumble, get back up and keep moving forward. For those dreaming of becoming pilots one day, do not shy away from Mathematics, Physics and Geography,” she advises.
The Malawi Defence Force is the state military organisation responsible for defending Malawi. It originated from British colonial units formed before independence in 1964.