LEAP Series: Silva Mcleod

Silva Mcleod is a true representation of LEAP; Lived Experience and Professionalism. Being the first female pilot from Tonga, and flying for 32 years, we spoke with Silva on her journey and her thoughts on leading towards success.

What was the most useful lesson or just a tip that your mentor/manager taught you?

Silva: My biggest mentor was my grandfather. He had no education, but he taught me such values that no money can buy, and no other can teach. He always said to me, to do one thing and do it right. Don’t diverse to distraction, make up your mind and go for it. When I had a little job that I exceled and got promoted to be the manager, he said to me, look after other people on your way up, because you’ll meet them on your way down. What goes up must come down, so take care of all staff that helped you on your way up. One day you will descend while someone else ascends.

How do you think the challenge has shifted from when you started your career to the young generation starting now?

Silva: Growing up in Tonga there was no flying school, I never saw a Tongan flying a plane. I didn’t have a pilot in my family or friends to look up to, or anyone I can go to for mentorship in flying. All I knew was I wanted to fly, which I started when I was 31, already a mum with 2 children, no job and a mortgage. I had to rely on my husband, and he gave me 100% support. I was very lucky. In this industry, expense and money always stand in the way. I have seen students having 2 or 3 jobs to feed their dream. I advocate greatly that we shouldn’t let money dictate your destiny, or it will lead you to failure. You take a career because of your passion. If you go down the path, money will come. Don’t put money between you and your dream, you have to go through certain sacrifices to get to the rewards at the end. If I can do it while being a young mum and a mortgage, anyone can do it, as long as they want it bad enough.

What do you think was the most important factor to keep you continue working towards your career goals?

Silva: I always say that it was focus and hope. I’m a huge advocate for hope. But you can’t hope alone without the work. Have your head down and do the work. But technically, it was the passion that kept me going. There were so many times that I thought it was too hard and I couldn’t get through, which could happen to so many other careers. It is important to just focus and know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, know that you are doing something you like. That really kept me going.

Can you tell me one occasion that you think was a great challenge to your career and how did you overcome it?

Silva: I was my own biggest enemy. I had a fear of failure, and someone will tell me to go back to the kitchen. I had to prove my worth, that I belong to the flight deck and in the pilot uniform. Another challenge was my gender and race. I wasn’t flying to just defy the odds about a coloured girl flying, but it occurred to me in multiple occasions. There were comments from my instructor, passengers on flight, or someone calling my husband Captain Mcleod while I was standing next to him wearing full pilot uniform. It was hard for me sometimes and I cried about it, but it also toughened me up. To me, these are the things that I wouldn’t let beat me down. I brushed it off and kept going.

Was there a moment in your career that you felt like you had achieved what your younger self dreamt of?

Silva: There were multiple moments, and they are equally significant. The first moment was the introductory flight. After that 3-minute flight, I bought the headset, the flight kit and was ready to go. My first solo flight was also another great moment. I had the best feeling - that I defy gravity. Even though I was only a student pilot, but I felt like I was a pilot. And I will never forget that flying into Tonga, I did an inflight announcement in Tongan language. The exact moment was when I announced “This is your captain speaking” in my own language, flying my own people into the country. It was a big moment that I fulfilled my dream. Years later, I took a B777 with nearly 400 passengers into airports like Los Angeles, Johannesburg, and Abu Dhabi. B777 is special to me. I had a B777-cockpit photo on the wall of my study since 1994, so flying it in 2009 was very big for me. I never imagined that could happen.

If you hadn’t become a pilot, what career path would it be and why?

Silva: Doctor. I always wanted to be a doctor. There were female doctors already in Tonga as I grew up, so I knew it was achievable, comparing to my fantasy of becoming a pilot. I flew for Royal Flying Doctors for years which was great experience for me. It was a combination of both, my dream to be a doctor and my fantasy to be a pilot. Growing up in Tonga the health system was primitive, it was not easy locating a doctor when you seek medical help, and I didn’t want that to happen to my family if they need the help. It was a nurturing in me, I’d like to help out. If I go down the path of becoming a doctor, I think I will probably pick the subject of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I love babies and this as a speciality symbolises happier news.