Elizabeth Vavashe

First female helicopter pilot, Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Current Job: I am a helicopter pilot at Zambezi Helicopter Co., which provides scenic flights over the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River in southern Africa.

First Vertical Aviation Job: My first real helicopter job is my current role with Zambezi Helicopter Co., where I have worked for close to eight years now.

Favorite Helicopter: There are aspects of different helicopters that I love. I love the sound of the Bell 412 blades, the versatility of the Leonardo AW139, the sleek look of the Airbus H160, the effortless lift of the S-64 Aircrane, the affordability of the Robinson models, and the serious face of the Sikorsky S-92.

How did you decide helicopter aviation was the career for you?

I first became interested in a career as a helicopter pilot through a company-­sponsored training facility at my former job. The company owned a Robinson R22 and a Bell 206A JetRanger and needed pilots for their wildlife conservation work. After a rigorous interview process, I emerged as one of two top candidates. I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Jun. 3, 2005, to begin flight training. Prior to that, I had never been close to a helicopter. My first training flight was also my first helicopter flight, and I immediately knew flying helicopters was my life’s calling.

Unfortunately, as a female pilot, I faced prejudice and other barriers during training and while trying to get a job after completing my CPL [commercial pilot’s license] in 2008. I dedicated the next eight years to advocating change and keeping my dream of flying alive.

In 2016, I got my break, joining my current company as a line pilot. I love that the company gave me a chance to fly. Fast-forward to 2023, and I received the Leonardo AW139 Flight Training Course scholarship through Whirly-Girls International. This scholarship has been a major highlight of my career so far.

I know helicopters chose me rather than me choosing them, because I have set the record for the highest number of hours flown by a Zimbabwean female pilot: 2,800 hours and counting. Helicopter flying has shaped and molded my character in many more ways than I can mention. I attended HAI HELI-EXPO 2024 in Anaheim, California. It was my first show, and I met some incredible helicopter people there.

How did you get to your current position?

In 2015, I wanted to convert my South African CPL to a Zimbabwean CPL, so I went to Zambezi Helicopter for the conversion checkride. After flying with the chief pilot in a Bell 206 for the checkride, I got a job offer a few months down the line. I became the company’s first civilian-trained pilot—and Zimbabwe’s first female helicopter pilot.

What are your career goals?

My goal is to fly the AW139. I would like to continue being a role model for young people in my community and in disadvantaged communities around the world. I am currently in training for my flight instructor ratings, courtesy of my employer, and hope that I will be able to teach and share my love for helicopters with others in the future.

What advice would you give someone pursuing your career path?

Stay true to your life’s purpose and pick something you will enjoy as a career, because this choice will significantly affect all other aspects of your life. Always look at things from other people’s perspectives and keep learning and evolving.

Who inspires you?

I am inspired by my parents, my pastors, my siblings, my friends from across the globe, and women helicopter pilots. The Whirly-Girls played a significant role in reviving my career. I am inspired by Stacy Sheard, past chair of HAI (now VAI); Emilia Njovana, the first female pilot in Zimbabwe; Collen Rupiya, who gave me a chance when others did not; and the late PJ Mundy, who encouraged me through training and invested in my career.

Tell us about your most memorable helicopter flight.

My most memorable flight involved taking my parents on their first helicopter flight and seeing them smile. This happened in 2018 in Victoria Falls; they traveled more than 300 km (186 miles) to visit me. The joy I could see on their faces is beyond expression, and it was rewarding to know they were proud of what I had achieved. I am thankful for them encouraging me to be patient and keep moving forward.

Stay true to your life’s purpose and pick something you will enjoy as a career, because this choice will significantly affect all other aspects of your life.

What still excites you about helicopter aviation?

I am excited by the advancement of technology in helicopters. It is good to see that the industry is focusing on improving safety while growing in relevance. Helicopters perform crucial missions that are integral to modern-day society, including airlifting critically injured patients, performing search-and-rescue operations, transporting VIPs, and conducting military operations.

What challenges you about helicopter aviation?

I am curious to look beyond what we already know and glimpse at how new generations will add to this fast-evolving industry. How will the industry continue to integrate itself within the wider aviation industry and reduce the rate and severity of helicopter accidents? I live to see helicopter aviation in Africa become inclusive, with common goals of growth and sustainability, transforming Africa into a hub for trade and furthering her civil pursuits for a community of togetherness.

What do you think is the biggest threat to the helicopter industry?

I can speak only about the helicopter industry where I live. In Zimbabwe, we have helicopter operators who do not employ women for any role in their organizational structures.

I think the biggest threat here is the slow adaptation to change that makes it difficult for the industry to incorporate inclusivity and diversity, implement real legislative compliance, and attract new generations of talent.

Complete this sentence: I know I picked the right career when …

I look through the helicopter window and see the views. It is perpetually satisfying. I get to do something meaningful while enjoying what I do—that is a whole new level of fulfillment.

 

 

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