Island Girl to Airline Pilot is the life story of Silva Mcleod, the first Tongan woman to become an airline pilot. She’s still one of only a handful. Told by Silva with frankness and wit, she takes us on a journey of cultural change from her beginnings as a poor island girl to her marriage to an Australian. The challenges of pursuing a flying career and its impact on her family are set against the backdrop of the love story of her life with her husband and his battle with cancer.
Read on for an extract …
We could only afford one flying lesson a week. One day after I’d been learning for about three months, we’d been practising take-offs and landings when Matt said, ‘Let’s call it a day.’
‘Roger that,’ I said as I taxied the aircraft towards the apron.
‘Stop here, set the brakes,’ he instructed. The aircraft had come to a full stop and with the engine still running, he unplugged his headset, opened the door and said, ‘You’re on your own. Go for one circuit, then land and come in.’ With that, he shut the door.
‘Are you kidding me?’ I protested, but he was gone. ‘Shit! Shit! Shit! What do I do now? Holy Mary, Santa Maria, help!’ I whispered. This is your moment, Liva. Matt thinks so too. Soar like a bird.
I meticulously ran through all my checklists as I’d done a thousand times. I taxied to the departure end of the runway and quickly checked the windsock. I took a deep breath and opened the throttle, the now- familiar squeal of the small engine loud in my ear as the Cessna accelerated down the runway. Once I gathered sufficient speed, I eased the nose up towards the sky. Without the extra weight of the instructor, I was surprised at how quickly I was airborne. I watched the earth fall away, the altimeter gaining altitude as I joined those before me who had defied gravity.
I’d been up many times but here I was, seeing the world as if I hadn’t seen it before. Free as a bird, I floated and turned, no longer the little island girl. If only Grandma could see me. Ken, I can’t wait to bring you up here with me so we can share. Soon.
‘Thank you, Lord, for the white man you’ve given me, who took me out of poverty and helped fulfil my dream. Let him live long enough so we can share this blessing. Please guide me to land safely.’ I shook myself out of my reverie and guided my aircraft around the circuit, never letting the runway out of my sight. Like a robot, I went through my checklists, talking myself through the approach.
‘Keep your aiming point constant, crossing the gable mark, shift the aiming point to the runway end, shift it towards the top of trees at the far end as you arrest the sink.’ Then I felt the wheels kissing the gravel runway. ‘Thank you, Lord,’ I said, and I finally remembered to breathe. Mission accomplished.
Flying solo empowered me to share my secret love affair with our kids, family and friends. Elizabeth and Tema were so excited and proud of my achievement, as was my biggest fan, Ken. He was chuffed, I couldn’t love him any more if I tried.
But raising two kids on one income, supplemented with my two days a week of work and now embarking on a very expensive hobby made me sick every time I thought about it. Riddled with guilt, I had to offload on Ken. ‘I don’t know about this pilot thing. So much money in self-indulgence. It’s embarrassing when my people are starving at home. I don’t know where I’m going with this.’
‘Are you still enjoying it?’
‘Of course. I’m addicted and that’s the scary part.’
‘We’ll find a way. Just promise me that you won’t re-mortgage our house so you can fly.’
‘I said I’m addicted, not stupid.’
I took advantage of fine weather one week and had two training flights, which stretched the budget beyond the limit. That was stupid. Have I lost my mind? Ken will leave me and that would serve me right.
I served up sausages and baked beans for the third night in a row. ‘Are things that bad, darl?’ Ken asked.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken a second flight this week but we’ll catch up,’ I said.
The following day, Ken was late coming home. It was getting dark and I was worried. When I heard his van, I couldn’t get to the door quick enough.
‘Is everything okay?’ I asked. He gave me a peck on the nose as he walked past. He put his lunch box in the sink then turned to hug me properly.
‘I had to stop and do a little job on the way. Sorry I couldn’t call but I like it when you worry about me.’
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fold of cash and handed it to me. ‘That should tide us over until the next payday. We can have a nice dinner tomorrow. I told you we’ll find a way.’
Those words pierced my guilt-laden heart and I promised myself that I would never double-up my flying lessons again.
I gave him a squeeze. ‘Are you sure you don’t want sausages and baked beans again?’
‘That would be a no from me,’ he replied. We both laughed.
Ken continued to do lots of little jobs outside his normal hours, which helped immensely, relaxing the tight budget so I could concentrate on my study.
‘Why, Ken?’ I asked him one day. ‘There’s no way a Tongan husband would allow me to do what I’m doing.’