Popularly known by her social media handle of @pilot_onthegram, Melissa is the first South African pilot to be verified on TikTok. This is a factor that the Johannesburg-based content creator and aircraft manager doesn’t take for granted. She makes it her duty to inspire others and continue to break stereotypes regarding women in the aviation industry.
Reaching the world from South Africa
Melissa works for Africa Charter Airline, which is a carrier that serves several African destinations from its hub at Johannesburg OR Tambo International. The pilot is experienced with the Beechcraft King Air 200 and 1900 twin-engine turboprops. However, at the moment, she is solely flying the 200 in the skies.
The 24-year old shares that it is an indescribable feeling of being in control of an aircraft. As a charter pilot in Africa, she flies to many game reserves, which is a unique, fun, and challenging experience. Each day and location is massively different from the other.
The aviator creatively uses social media to make joyful yet informative videos about the aviation scene. She hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams of becoming a pilot with this content.
Presently, Melissa has over 757.1k followers on TikTok, amassing nearly 12 million likes. She also accumulated over 91.7k followers on Instagram due to her engaging footage from the cockpit. This popularity has helped her gain partnerships with the likes of L’Oréal in recent months.
Social media isn’t the only place where Melissa is connecting with potential pilots. She offers mentoring and classes to young people looking to enter the flight deck.
Breaking down barriers
Currently holding a frozen airline transport pilot licence (ATPL), Melissa notes that she was fortunate enough to start flight training straight after finishing high school. While growing up, numerous people told her that her dream of becoming a pilot was farfetched. This is a point that never sat well with her as she knew what she wanted in life. Therefore, she wouldn’t settle until she reached her goal.
Regardless, Melissa emphasizes that in any industry, women have to work twice as hard for half the credit and are constantly criticized no matter what they do. As a result, she uses her platform to encourage women and help them on their way.
Melissa had to overcome significant hurdles. People are constantly trying to put her off her target, making comments such as that she looks too small to be able to control an aircraft. They would also make remarks about how she would post bikini pictures while on holiday, “as some individuals feel that as a pilot it is inappropriate and unprofessional.” Even today, some passengers automatically assume that Melissa is a cabin crew member or disregard her in the plane and only listen to the male crew member.
Never give up
Despite the challenges, Melissa values the rewards of sticking to the plan. Yet, she feels that her progress is just the beginning and hopes to see a wave of others following suit.
“Don’t let people dictate your future because you are ultimately responsible for your own success. Continue to work hard and break stereotypes suggested around women in aviation and always remain true to yourself,” Melissa told Simple Flying when talking about sending a message of encouragement to young pilots.
“Always let your faith be bigger than your fears. I was actually unemployed for a year and a half after qualifying, freelancing here and there for companies. Some months were busy, and other months I was barely keeping up with 90-day recency as work was so scarce (bearing in mind this was before the pandemic). It is important to remember that just because things don’t work out the way you’d like doesn’t mean you should give up. There are many ways for you to arrive at the end goal – be patient, and you’ll find what is in store for you is even bigger than you could’ve imagined.”
Melissa concludes that she is blessed to not only be employed full time but also have the rare opportunity of managing and flying a King Air 200 with her fiancé for the past two years. While looking back, she notices that her dreams have now become the reality that she lives.
South African aviation has gone through a huge transition over the last few years. Veteran airlines had been grounded and are slowly returning to action while new players have entered the game. This month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on the South African government to support the air transport industry following the pandemic.
Melissa adapted to the conditions of the global health crisis by taking each day as it comes. She expresses that the situation showed that no matter what, tomorrow is not promised, and society has to make the most of every opportunity presented.
Thankfully, flight activity is starting to pick up after the considerable passenger downturn, giving hints of promise for the market. Notably, there are high hopes for African aviation in the coming years, with plenty of investment and new passenger segments emerging.
In this next chapter of her story, Melissa will be planning her engagement party with her fiancé. For the remainder of the decade, she will continue to work on progressing in aviation and eventually own her own aircraft.