With her hijab and hope, she hopped into her cockpit and soared
Bigotry in the present and disadvantage in the past, it's an old South African tale, but one that can be overcome
We were cruising at 37,000 feet above the earth when a woman wearing a hijab came out of the cockpit. The man next to me shuddered and spilled his coffee. That 6am flight out of Cape Town to Johannesburg takes most passengers in and out of dozing so you could see things if you’re not woke. I knew this could only be one person, the famous senior first officer from the little dried fruit town of Wellington who flies A-320s across the Atlantic. It was indeed Fatima Jakoet, the devout Muslim woman known equally for the scarf on her head as for her skills in the cockpit.
I was already seated in one of those buzzing college town restaurants in downtown Stellenbosch when a soft voice handed me a freshly baked banana loaf — “This is for you and the family.” Somehow I could not square this gentle, petite and generous woman with a pilot lifting 70 tons of metal off the ground to cruise at 2.5 rugby fields per second. Jakoet sat down and over the next 90 minutes I was to discover one of the most moving stories of resilience in the face of unbelievable odds; it was, in so many ways, a South African story.Fatima struggled to get admission — to medical school so she studied chemistry; and to the cadet pilot programme so she re-applied. Why would such an obviously talented pilot struggle to get in? The answer lies in disadvantage from the past and bigotry in the present. Jakoet changed schools as her parents moved. Her Belhar high school was a typically dysfunctional Cape Flats institution with disruptive children, inattentive teachers and only two unbroken windowpanes in her classroom. Unsurprisingly, her academic results suffered so, as Jakoet does, she repeated her matric subjects with high hopes of still getting admission to medical school.But her toughest struggle for admission was to the cockpit. Over and over again Fatima Jakoet, like so many female professionals breaking into once all-male occupations, would have her “Ashwin moment”. She was black. She was a woman. She was Muslim. She wore a hijab. Why, I asked, did she not give up on this long and difficult road to the cockpit? “Flying is a passion; it’s in my bIood; and I wanted to fly the national flag,” was her simple answer.
On the airport tarmac with a colleague, Jakoet, then a forensic scientist with SAPS, was waiting for a drug mule. Suddenly, right above her, appeared this massive plane, a 747. “This gigantic metal machine was just calling me, saying: ‘Come and fly me.’” A long fascination with flying was about to become a reality and, with the constant nudging of a colleague and fellow flight enthusiast, Gerrit Smith, she applied for the pilot cadet programme. What followed was a battery of tests and interviews, training in Adelaide, Australia to get her wings and later in St Louis, Missouri to fly for a feeder airline. It was tough and the attrition rate high, but Fatima Jakoet had heard the calling and was not giving up. “I was the last to go solo but the second to test for my commercial licence.”As a quiet, non-assertive and petite young woman, Jakoet reckoned that she lacked the confidence that flying required. Her Australian mentor saw this, took her hand, inspired belief and encouraged her to make mistakes. Eventually the mentor jumped out of the plane and she had to do her first solo flight. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Jakoet recalls as her mentor saw from below how she mastered the Grob 115 doing the radio calls, flying the circuit and landing the plane safely. A year after 9/11, Fatima Jakoet would graduate and now she was flying the big planes.
In her words, a dream had come true: “There’s nothing more exhilarating as when I advance the thrust levers for the takeoff and I hear the sound of the engines spooling up. This is when butterflies in my stomach starts as we accelerate down the runway. At the right rotation speed, the call is made and I manoeuvre the sidestick rearwards. At that very moment, the wheels lift off the ground and we are flying. After that, it’s just magic.”Fatima’s whole life is “just magic” and this Harvard fellow and Stellenbosch University MBA has launched Sakhikamva (Xhosa for “building a future”), a foundation that introduces disadvantaged youth to the joys of flight. “I want to give wings to the dreams of others,” she says.
It is only a matter of time before the woman commander’s voice coming from the cockpit will say those uplifting words: “This is your captain speaking.”