A 35-year-old Zimbabwean woman, Precious Sibalo, who disliked mathematics, had insufficient money to purchase clothes for an interview, worked as a waitress, model, and air hostess, is now a champion of the skies, after obtaining an Airline Transport Pilots (ATP) license, the highest level of pilot certification.
The Bulawayo native, whose grandparents originate from rural Plumtree in the country’s Matabeleland South region, is currently flying to build hours in South Africa, where she trained as a pilot, in an effort to achieve her next goal - flying big planes at Qatar Airways.
The soft-spoken Sibalo, who grew up in Bulawayo’s Magwegwe high density suburb and spent most of her teen years in Plumtree’s Kungubo area during school holidays, dreamt of flying planes when she visited a Bulawayo airport while she was at Mhali Primary School in the 1990s. Sibalo was disappointed to note that all the pilots at the airport were men.
“… I saw male pilots and never saw a woman there. I said to myself ‘I want to be one of those few women who are pilots.”
She was among many pupils at the school who disliked mathematics, which she says, is a crucial subject for someone to be trained as a pilot.
“I was just an ordinary child. I wasn’t good in Mathematics but that it didn’t stop me from achieving my dreams. I was raised by my grandparents because my mother had me at an early age of 17 and then she had to go to South Africa to look for a job. She was working as a maid in South Africa and sent money for me to go to school. She fell sick when I was around 17 years old and that’s when I also had a child at an early child as well and by that time I thought my dreams were shattered because I could no longer go to Advanced Level, I could no longer go to university. So, I had to leave my child in Zimbabwe with my grandparents and go to South Africa as well.
Sibalo had a child at an early age like her late mother.
“You know, those that they say runs in the family – my mum had me when she was young and I also had a child when I was young but I did not take that as a set back instead I noticed that I needed to change my life for the best.”
Sibalo used most of the stumbling blocks in life to reach the top.
“In South Africa while I was working as a waitress, I worked with excellence. When I was there, customers would see potential in me because I was very optimistic, very jovial person because I believe in the power of the mind. I love reading books, I love empowering myself, keep positive because I believe you are the character of your thoughts. So, every time with that in mind, I would work with excellence and my customers would tell me to try many things like modeling. Some of the customers told me to also apply via a website called OVC and apply overseas. So, I worked as a waitress and moved overseas, for over three months I was in Dubai. While I was in Dubai I applied for a job at Qatar Airways. Among my six friends who applied for the job, I was the one who was chosen for a job of an air hostess and I moved to Qatar Airways. I worked for five years at Qatar Airways while I was saving money to become a pilot which was my childhood dream.
She had problems when she applied for a job at Qatar Airways as she was supposed to buy a white shirt, black skirt and shoes and they specified the inches.
“I wasn’t able to walk while wearing those shoes. So, everything was a challenge. I didn’t even know how to apply make up, in modeling we had makeup artists. They wanted us to be nicely prepared according to their standards but all that was just a blessing because the person who conducted the interviews was impressed by the fact that my name is Precious … Small things like this and that I’m from Zimbabwe. She was really also impressed by my cv (curriculum vitae) because I had done well in my Ordinary Levels as well. I passed all the required interviews including written exams and joined Qatar Airways after staying in Dubai for three months and that where my journey as a pilot actually began.
She the work of an air hostess is amazing job “because you get paid for travelling, I mean who doesn’t want to get paid for travelling. You get to see different countries. I think I have been to different continents meeting different people, different cultures. I would say it’s an amazing experience. You get exposure to different cultures, you broaden your mind basically.
She says being a waitress and air hostess were stepping stones to getting into the cockpit.
“With the help of my friends and family I managed to save money to become a pilot and when that was done, I approached Qatar Airways and spoke to them about my dream and they encouraged me and recommended that I go to 43 Air School in South Africa in the Eastern Cape. So, when it was time for me to leave, I told them that I was ready and I went to 43 Air School through their guidance and support which I highly appreciate.”
Sibalo says she didn’t do well in her initial entry examinations.
“It was a bit tricky because there was a compass test that we were supposed to write. It was different exercises, just to evaluate and see where you stand in aviation, if you have any knowledge in aviation. For me at that time I would say my mistake was not studying before joining, I encourage people that whenever you need to do, you must do your research because it helps a lot. So, I got there, zero knowledge … You know, the worst part is that I used to see pilots when I was a cabin crew member just drinking coffee, doing nothing. I took it lightly joining as a student pilot. ‘I said they are always sitting and drinking coffee and so it might be easy’. The truth is it is not easy, the examinations are tough.
“I failed dismally the compass test and I was told people who have these marks normally don’t make it to the end, people who also do not have mathematics, physics normally do not make it. I did not take that as a discouragement instead I was encouraged to work harder. I spent sleepless nights studying. Those subjects where there was mathematics I was getting 90s (%). Some of them I was even the highest in the entire sittings with different schools where we write our exams – subjects like navigation I was highest both the commercial one and the ATPL (Air Transport Pilot License) one & meteorology. So, all these because I believe success is just small effort put together until they become a habit.”
Sibalo spent a lot of time studying in order to achieve her goals. “I gave myself time to study. I would wake up at 4:00am and sleep maybe for two hours, wake up again, drink coffee and go back to study. I had to put up a lot of effort. You know, I even ended up calculating (mathematical problems) while lying down. I didn’t even need to follow any formula anymore and this is mathematics that we are talking about, something that I didn’t like. That’s how hard work pays off. You cannot expect to climb the ladder with your hands in the pockets. You need to work hard, you need to put effort, do your research. That’s something that I would tell people.
She is currently building her flying hours in order to achieve bigger goals.
“After passing examinations, the school gives you a license and build your experience. It’s time for you to explore the skies. That’s the best because I can take an aircraft and fly on my own and it’s liberating. Sometimes I bring my friends with me and they cannot believe and they are like ‘Oh! My God!’ you have worked so hard to get here. They understand. Those old times I would be offline studying. Now I’m available flying them. So, hard work really pays. Now I am building my hours and I am in the process of doing instructor rating. I want to be a certified flight instructor.”
Sibalo has the highest pilot certification obtained in South Africa.
“There are different licenses in aviation. There is the PPL which is the private pilot license – that one you can fly small private aircrafts and then there is the commercial pilot license, you can fly the airlines as well and then there is the ATPL which is the highest of them all. It is frozen ATPL at the moment and then when you reach 1,500 hours that’s when it becomes unfrozen.”
Sibalo thinks that she will ultimately reach her goals.
“The best part is to do the certified instructors’ rating is to gain more knowledge and build experience.”
The adventurous Sibalo has also tried flying helicopters.
“It is amazing. I liked the scenary. It is different from the fixed wing aircrafts because you have to use three controls simultenously but apart from that the instruments are just similar. I needed to explore.”
Can anyone be a pilot? “Yes, study hard and be dedicated make sure that you eat well so that you don’t get air sick, you are well-rested and mentally fit. You have to take the lessons seriously because you will be carrying lives. It’s very important to be disciplined.”
She says people should never give up on their dreams. “I used the job of a waiter as a stepping stone. Some people will always say ‘I will never take this job’. No, take it and use it as a stepping stone. Work with excellence and cultivate your knowledge because knowledge is power. Nelson Mandela once said ‘it’s always difficult until it is done’. Before you start something you always think that you won’t make it but with all effort, sleepless nights working hard, you can achieve your dreams.”
She says her grandfather is her mentor. “My grandfather is an intelligent man. Now he is 85 and retired. Every time he would come home from work, because he was a headmaster, we would run home. If ever you were playing, you would run and watch current affairs. He wanted to find you doing something productive.
“We grew up reading the Readers’ Digest. He had a subscription of the Readers’ Digest and we would read a lot and we also grew up reading Wilbur Smith books. It is very important that I give credit to my grandfather because he made sure I went to the best school in Mtshabezi. My education was always covered above all.”
Sibalo, who tried modelling between 2010 and 2012, is fashion conscious and loves good food.
“Everyone has to smell good, look good. I also love perfurmes. I have a small perfume business that helps me fund my education.
She dislikes negativity. “I believe everyone has to be positive and by being positive, ofcourse there are days when you feel negative but what is important is what you do about that. What do you read? It’s important to feed your mind because you are the character of your thoughts. If you feed your mind with negative thoughts you will be looking sad because you will only be thinking of only about sad things. When something occurs to you, how do you pick yourself up? What motivates you? Is it prayer, is it your family? Is it taking a walk? For me it’s travelling& prayer, I love travelling, I love adventure … Whatever it is that motivates you if you do it and make sure you stay positive and optimistic.”
She also loves cooking. “I love sushi and I recently learnt how to make sushi at home. I’m good at cooking as well. I cook pap or isitshwala and imbida (vegetables). My grandmother taught me how to cook.”