The inspiring story of the first Tongan woman to become an airline pilot is one of courage, determination and heartbreak, writes Joanna Tovia.
Whenever a plane flew over the small Tongan village Silva McLeod called home, she would rush outside and gaze upward in awe until it disappeared from sight. They must be so clever, the people who fly those machines, she thought. She kept her fascination with flying a secret though, and didn’t dare share her dream of becoming a pilot. With no television, newspapers, university prospects or money to even board one of the aircraft she so admired, the path to becoming a pilot was so far out of reach that she thought she’d be laughed at for even entertaining such a notion. “It was a pure fantasy,” Silva said, when she sat down with Vacations & Travel to share her story – now a published memoir, Island Girl to Airline Pilot (Exile Publishing, $34.99).
By the time she finished high school, Silva had two options: get a job or find a husband. She found work as a bartender at the island’s only hotel – and it was here she met Ken, the man she would come to refer to as the love of her life.
Electrician Ken McLeod was in Tonga to help build a hospital being funded by the Australian government. After work, he and his workmates would have a beer or two at the hotel, where he slowly got to know Silva. Ken was the first person she ever told about her dream of becoming an airline pilot. Instead of laughing, he nodded thoughtfully. “It can be done,” he told her.
He asked her to marry him three times before she accepted. “I felt it was my duty to take care of my family, and I didn’t think that my husband would be prepared for that,” explains Silva. “When you marry a Tongan, you’re also marrying Mum, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, the lot!” By the time she finally said yes, Ken had been living in Tonga for two years. “I was head over heels,” she says. “I was just madly in love.”
They moved to Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and had two daughters, too busy working and bringing up children to think about bigger dreams. But 10 years after moving to Australia, Ken was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and doctors gave him five years to live. “Life is short,” he said to Silva. “Do you still want to fly?”
“Of course I did, my dream had never died,” Silva told V&T. “Something that you wish for or dream about, it never goes away.” In hindsight, Silva says Ken also wanted her to have the financial means to look after their two daughters when he was no longer around. “I think he knew that was the end for him,” Silva says.
Rounds of chemotherapy followed as Ken battled to beat his disease. He gifted Silva an introductory flying lesson, sparking in her a fierce determination to overcome any obstacle that might stand in her way. “I was hooked,” she says.
Becoming a pilot is a long and expensive process, however, and Silva studied from home to save money. She told no one, not even her children or best friend, that she was studying to become a pilot. “That fear of failure was so real; there was so much self-doubt,” she says. “I thought, ‘how can this little island girl running around with no shoes become a pilot?’.”
The day of her first solo flight, at age 31, was one she’d never forget. She turned up at the flying school for her monthly lesson as always, but when she and her instructor landed back on the tarmac, he told her she was on her own.
“He shut the door and off he went, and I went ‘oh my God!’,” Silva recalls. But her hours of training kicked in, along with plenty of adrenalin, and soon she was airborne – all by herself. “In my mind, I went back to Tonga, and I remember thinking, ‘Mum, Dad, Nan, Pa, I wish you could see me now!’.”
Silva went on to fly for Royal Tongan Airlines, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Virgin Australia. Her fascination with the great machines she’d once dreamed of flying never left her. In fact, when asked about her favourite planes to fly, her face lights up.
She loves aerobatic aircraft for the excitement, she says, and flying gliders is like being a bird. “There’s no engine noise, just the wind, and you float around until you run out of puff and come in to land.” She loved her time flying twin turbines and 737s, and when she saw a photo of the new 777 cockpit in a magazine in 1995, she had it framed to hang on her office wall.
“Never, ever in my wildest dreams did I think I would be flying in such a cockpit,” she says. “But all of a sudden, that was my reality and now I can walk into my study and look up at that photo and I can name every button and switch.”
The 777 long-haul flights took her around the world, but Tonga remains a favourite destination for Silva and her family.
“Tonga is a place where time stands still,” she says. “My girls recorded a little video, and they asked my husband which country in the world he liked the most. ‘You mean apart from Tonga? Fiji’. He just loved the islands,” Silva says.
When Ken died in 2020, Silva began writing her story as a way to honour the man whose loss she so deeply grieved.
“I wrote it purely as a tribute to the man that I call the wind beneath my wings,” she explains. “I do hope that just by sharing our story that it encourages and inspires girls and boys from similar backgrounds to pursue their dreams. Just never give up. Never give up.”
Terms and conditions: The competition closes Sunday 29 October 2023 and the winner will be contacted via email. Open to Australian residents only. By entering this competition you agree to receive the Vacations & Travel enewsletter and marketing communications.
Read more inspiring stories by Vacations & Travel…