Here’s the second part of our Women in dangerous jobs, real lives article. Missed Part 1?
Catherine Labuschagne, fighter pilot (first female Gripen pilot of the South African Air Force)
I already wanted be a pilot when I was in high school. That was it. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Whenever I tell someone what I do, I often receive mixed reactions of disbelief and awe. I guess it’s not your average female job.
I feel absolutely exhilarated when I fly, but there’s always a lot of pressure on you to do well. That’s why I normally go for a run or cycle after I finish work, it helps to relax me. My father was in the Air Force so I was fortunate enough to have a lot of exposure to flying and aircrafts. I love what I do and it definitely doesn’t feel like a job!
The Air Force has quite a strict selection process, but if you pass the selection and have the right attitude then it just depends on what their requirements are for their next intake. There are hundreds of people who apply every year and they only want the top candidates. After getting your wings (qualified SAAF pilot), there’s another selection process, which determines where you will be streamed into. One of three flying lines, that is transport, helicopter or fighters.
The fighter line, where I’m at, requires that the pilots be fit, healthy and strong as we operate in a very extreme environment. Your body needs to be capable of not only handling high G forces, but must also be able to operate properly under these conditions. The type of flying that we do is extremely challenging and there’ s very little room for error. We operate at high speeds, very low altitudes, in close proximity to other aircrafts and we drop/shoot live weapons.
If we make a mistake it could result in an aircraft crash or loss of life. We are very strict with regards to flight safety and the aircrew needs to constantly accept positive criticism, as nothing goes unnoticed. I have experienced numerous minor aircraft emergencies throughout my career. Luckily, The Air Force’s high standard of training teaches us how to deal with emergency situations calmly and with a clear mind. We talk a lot about possible emergencies and spend a lot of time in the simulator to practice. It is important not to panic, just stay cool, calm, collected and prioritise.
The only downside to my job is all the admin that goes with it. This is time consuming, but necessary. As pilots we would much rather be in the air than on the ground pushing papers around. If you want to be a pilot you must work hard, since it’ s not an easy career to get into. But once you’re there, it’s very satisfying.
Fiona Hawkins, Bomb technician/ disabler
Bombs in movies have always fascinated me, yet, being a bomb technician never crossed my mind when I joined the police force. I wasn’t aware of such a department until I met with an old friend who gave me more details. Every complaint or scene I’m called into is a challenge. You never know what to expect.
You think, ‘What awaits me there, a violent or a calm scene?’ ‘Has the device been set off already?’ ‘Is it just a dummy bomb?’ And then the adrenaline starts pumping which excites you and then I think, ‘God bring me back to my family, alive.’
At first it was very difficult to get into this field as a woman. Now it’s easier, but to succeed is another thing. When I first started, some of the men said to me, ‘if you want to be in this unit, then you must be tough.’ ‘You have to be strong, physically and emotionally, don’t be a push-over.’ I said to myself, ‘You are not their admin lady or coffee girl. Show them you can do it, and don’t disappoint yourself, disappoint them.’
Anything can happen, but I’m vigilant and confident in what I was taught. At first, my family couldn’t understand why I wanted to become a bomb technician. I told them that someone must do it. I always make jokes with my friends and family that instead of a casket they can bury me in Tupperware! But they are very proud of me, especially after finishing my course and making history as the first ‘non-white, coloured/black-female’ in South Africa to successfully complete the Bomb Disposal Course.
Do I fear for my life, oh yes I do. There is a lot of pressure involved in doing my job correctly, with limited negative consequences for people and their property. The most horrific bomb scene, that will always stay with me, was seeing a 3 year old in bits and pieces. Afterwards the SAPS psychologists called me in for a de-briefing session. But I actually prefer talking to another ‘Bommie’, a fellow bomb technician. We can comfort each other much better, since we all go through the same things together.
I am very proud to be doing what I do. I think that I’m really coping very well with the stress, which worries me because I think it will catch up with me one day. Wanting to ‘save lives’ is something that I feel I need to do. So, if I hadn’t been a bomb technician, I would probably be saving people in another way, say like a psychologist. This job is definitely not like most jobs, if nothing happens it’s good for the statistics, but quite boring for me.
Photos by STEVE KARALLIS and from here.