Breaking the mould
Papua New Guinea’s first government sponsored woman pilots
Marie, Siolima, Gail and Selina are thrilled to be in New Zealand but do not think much of the local weather.
At Nelson Aviation College, Motueka, four young women have recently begun ground instruction as the first steps toward attaining a commercial pilot’s licence and multi-engine instrument rating.
This is by no means out of the ordinary in New Zealand, but these four women are not from New Zealand; they are citizens of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Very few PNG women get the opportunity to learn to fly. Six months ago, in an initiative to improve gender equality in male dominated industries, the Papua New Guinea Central Provincial Government initiated the Central Female Pilot Scholarship Programme. Its aim is to sponsor five women in their goal of becoming commercial pilots.
Female pilots are not particularly rare in PNG — national carrier Air Niugini currently has seven — but the sponsorship by a provincial government of local women to become pilots is. In a country within which adult female literacy is at 44 percent and secondary education for women to the age of 15 is at 38 percent, according to UNESCO Country Programming Document for Papua New Guinea, 2008– 2013, such an initiative is an inspired and bold move by the government of the Central Province.
For Marie Auka, 19, Selina Kule, 22, Gail Rivu, 21, and Siolima Walo, 26, the responsibility each of them holds is clear.
“I would like to become a role model to women in my village,” says Marie. “Our success will be good for female equality in male dominated fields. It’s a positive thing.”
Selina wants to “… go back home and encourage and influence other women. After we have finished, the scholarship shouldn’t die out; it will help women across the country to realise their dreams.”
Nelson Aviation College (NAC) has an excellent reputation for professional flying training in New Zealand and abroad and was highly recommended by Air Niugini pilots, who had completed their training with the organisation, to their government.
NAC CFI Jeremy Anderson was involved from the outset. “We sent our proposal prior to Christmas Eve and Alan Pumphrey, a Dash-8 Q400 pilot for Air Niugini, recommended us and acted as our representative to the Central Provincial Government.”
After a considerable advertising campaign, which included the use of electronic social media and generated much interest among local communities, some 100 women from varying backgrounds applied for the scholarship.
Minimum criteria were University Entrance, or the foreign equivalent of NCEA Level Three Certificate completed in the final year of high school. Each candidate was also assessed based on her extracurricular hobbies and interests and, as a normal requirement of international students at NAC, an average, above average or excellent result was required in the ADAPT pre-screening online assessment tool.
Jeremy Anderson was one of a panel of four assessors who interviewed the 10 selected candidates before narrowing that number to five. “The choice wasn’t difficult, but it wasn’t easy either,” he says. “Each one was graded from one to 10 and in the end we all picked the same candidates.”
Aside from Gail, Marie, Selina and Siolima, the fifth student, Amelia Mea, is currently in Fiji undertaking flying training and will join the others in Motueka this month. She is the only one of the five with any aviation experience, although Gail has a cousin who flies for Air Niugini.
As I speak to the four women present, they have begun PPL theory and are studying Human Factors but have not yet flown an aeroplane. Both Marie and Gail have always wanted to become pilots but never thought that they would.
“I’ve been interested in flying since I was five years old,” says Marie. “Being selected is a great honour; it’s a dream come true. I’m going to be the first female pilot from my village.”
Selina and Siolima are both a little more circumspect.
“I’d thought about becoming a pilot, but I never saw myself doing it,” says Selina. It was 11pm when she received a phone call notifying her that she had been selected. “I was asleep and I thought I was dreaming!” she says, grinning.
Siolima couldn’t believe she had been selected. “I had my doubts I’d get chosen. I was very excited.”
All four women are nervous about the challenges ahead of them in terms of the actual flying aspect of the training, but they are clear in what they intend to do with their qualifications: “Fly for Air Niugini!” is their simultaneous response. “Represent our country.”
When I ask Gail what she wants to do with her newfound skill, she replies sheepishly, “Go home!” This prompts an outburst of laughter from the others. “It’s very cold here and I miss my family.”
The day I meet them it is miserable outside and an outdoor photo shoot is out of the question. “We like it in New Zealand, though — it’s more developed. The people are friendly and very welcoming,” states Selina.
Jeremy has no illusions as to their place within NAC. “Each of them will undergo the standard commercial pilot’s licence syllabus that we offer our students. It’s a 68-week course. They’re bright, intelligent and enthusiastic and get on well with the other students.”
This initiative by the PNG Central Provincial Government is groundbreaking for the country and will hopefully encourage women out of traditional roles in PNG society.
Much more is riding on its success than is readily apparent to those of us living in a developed country. The four quietly determined student pilots have high hopes for their roles in shaping that success.
“We would like to eventually set up a flying training school in PNG,” says Selina, matter-of-factly. The others nod their approval.
-Report by Grant Newman, photograph by Nelson Aviation College/Oliver Weber
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