Being the first

Thursday, 4 April 2013 00:51 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Coming from a village in Kandy, Menaka Fernando knew nothing of airplanes and piloting, except that she wanted to be one. It was not her intention to make history, or to create any sort of an uproar. She was in Colombo to pursue her dream, and that was all.

Imagine her surprise when the Licensing Officer asked her if she wanted to make history. “Why?” she asked, “Because there are no other women pilots. You will be the first.”

Her journey since then has been an interesting one. She has jumped many a hurdle, faced ridicule, mockery, and animosity but despite the tough times, she has come out strong, with an ability to look back and laugh at the scratches and brush the dust off her shoulders.

In pursuing her dream, her first step was to join in as a flight attendant. “When I was a flight attendant I once told a Captain that I wanted to be a pilot and he scoffed at me and said, ‘Don’t think everyone can do that.’ Fortunately for me, another pilot who was there wrote the address of the Ratmalana Airport and told me to go there,” Capt. Fernando said.

It was the ’83 riot time and at the Ratmalana Airport the hanger was full of refugees sleeping under the few airplanes that they possessed. “I went there and all these people were sleeping under the planes. The instructor thought I came to learn and told me to move the people and start. Even though this was both a frightening and an exciting time, I managed to do as told and he took me on a familiarisation flight.”

Pursuing her dream meant leaving the safety of her home and family, but nothing could keep her away from what she loved. “My parents objected and wanted me to be a doctor, a surgeon actually. Because I wanted to be a pilot they chased me out of the house,” she recalled. “I had to live at the YWCA and collect money I earned as a flight attendant to learn piloting in Ratmalana. While my friends were going to the disco and buying clothes, there I was collecting every cent.”

She never gave up and she soon learnt that if she was to pull through and break boundaries of a male-dominated industry, the best thing was to keep quiet and pursue her dream. “I didn’t tell anybody I was flying. One day a guy saw me and told everyone in Air Lanka – and that was the end. Overnight I made enemies.”

She recalled that the Chief Stewardess never rostered her to First Class since then. Instead she was always Stewardess Five or Six, at the rear end of the plane, near the toilets. “They didn’t want me to go near the flight den,” she laughed. “But doesn’t matter, I still went ahead and got my license.”

“I didn’t wait for anyone to accept me – in the corporate world you have to wait for them to accept you. But I decided no, I’m going ahead, if you want you accept me or get lost because I am going on my path and I don’t care,” she expressed. “There is always a delete button. Just move ahead and delete those who try and steer you away from your dream.”

“Being the first was very hard for me. It is like being a front-line soldier – the one in front must face all the difficulties. It was difficult but that didn’t stop me. And today I can say it was worth it, and the run was fun.”

She got her license; and persuaded by Dr. Ray Wijewardena, who was a constant friend pushing her to do better, she went on to get a degree. “He kept asking me if I was going to be like a bus driver, taking passengers up and down. After much persuasion he convinced me to go to university. I now hold a degree in Business Administration,” she said.

Speaking of ‘Guwansara,’ the program that is now carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority which was pioneered by Fernando, she acknowledged that it all started with wanting to get more girls to come into flying.

“When I started flying in the ’80s, for 10 years I was the only girl in the sky. The only other female voice I heard was from the air traffic control. By about the fourth or fifth year I was wondering why girls weren’t coming into the field. Then Dr. Ray suggested going to schools and conducting programs to share with them the experience of flying.” She approached Colombo schools and was turned down by the principals. “They wanted the girls to become journalists and engineers. They were not interested.”

Time went by and one day she was back in her village when some of the kids approached her and asked how planes worked. “I was near the village temple. I took out a plastic model of a plane I had in the car and started teaching them what it was all about. After five minutes everyone – mothers, fathers, grandparents, even the Buddhist monks – was surrounding my car and listening intently. This is when I realised that I could start teaching the village children if the Colombo schools were not interested.”

Her efforts are continued by the Civil Aviation Authority today. “Outstation kids are far smarter, but they don’t have the money and flying is very expensive. I am still trying to get girls to come in.”

But she is adamant that they first pursue a higher education degree before coming into piloting. “Pilots were considered dumb because most had only O/Ls. Piloting is only a license; it is not an academic qualification,” Fernando expressed. “It is like a driving license really even though you put on caps and gadgets and look fancy. The ground-handling persons are more qualified than pilots. This is why I want them to get qualified first.”

Fernando is down-to-earth, jovial and is buzzing with energy. She has come through life smiling, a quality that has helped her overcome many troubled times. Today she is engaged in three fields – aviation, academic field with University of Moratuwa and now part of the medical faculty.

“When there are obstructions you try to look for other paths because you want to go forward, and I found that life was much interesting when everyone blocks you, because it is then that you discover so many different things. Eventually I ended up in three lines of work. If I went straight I wouldn’t have such opportunities. It is difficult but fun.”