Most of us know March 8th as International Women’s Day, but it also holds extra significance for women in Aviation. On this day 113 years ago, Raymonde de Laroche received her pilots license and made history as the first woman in aviation to do so. However, this moment didn’t lay a smooth path for women, like most industries, aviation has been riddled with gender disparity, racial biases, and misogyny.
Thankfully there are women who have not let that stop them from taking their seats in the cockpit, women like Silva McLeod. When Silva joined the world of aviation she became the first female Tongan airline pilot, and now she is the author of our upcoming release Island Girl to Airline Pilot. The story of one woman’s life in the sky and the love that helped her take flight.
Growing up on a small island in Tonga called Vava’u, the well-trodden path that lay before high-school graduate Silva was one that led to marriage and babies, full stop. But secretly Silva dreamt of something more, she dreamt of flying.
“My dreams of becoming a pilot were just that—dreams. They couldn’t come true for a girl like me.”
Or so she thought.
Ken McLeod, a white man from Australia, was on an aid trip to help build a hospital on Vava’u when he first met Silva. He was the furthest thing from the Tongan husband Silva’s family envisioned for her, and yet, after their whirlwind romance Ken and Silva were married in a traditional Tongan ceremony. Ken was the only person to whom Silva confessed her dream of becoming a pilot. Unbeknownst to her, he would hold onto that piece of a dream for years to come.
“Going from a remote island in Tonga to Australia was challenging. Ken’s world offered so many luxuries, so different from my world. But, finding my place as woman of colour in Australia in the 1980s was never going to be easy. I met frustration and racism at every turn.”
In the face of the prejudices and obstacles that came with her new home and the challenges of being a young wife and new mum, Silva’s secret yearning to fly remained a pipedream.
It was years later, when the couple was rocked with the news that Ken had been diagnosed with cancer, that Ken pulled out that piece of a dream he’d held onto since Vava’u, “do you still want to fly?” Of course, she did!
“Life is too short Liva, if you have a dream, go for it.” And go for it Silva did. With the support of Ken and her two daughters, Silva navigated the challenges of the male-dominated aviation landscape, refusing to give in when it seemed her gender and skin colour were all people could see, all while juggling the expectations of motherhood, marriage, and Ken’s diagnosis.
Silva’s unwavering courage and love affair with the sky, combined with the enduring love and support from Ken, kept her in the air for the next 30 years. She became the first female Tongan airline pilot, flew over her home island with Royal Tongan Airlines, saved the world one patient at a time with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and ferried passengers to the other side of the globe when she took the seat in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 for Virgin Australia. In summary, a career that young Silva on Vava’u hadn’t even allowed herself to dream of. Unfortunately, when Covid-19 landed in Australia, Silva’s life was grounded in more ways than one. Her career as a pilot was put on hold indefinitely, but more importantly her husband Ken lost his battle with cancer.
“In the end, our love wasn’t enough to keep him with me forever, and I lost the man I called ‘the wind beneath my wings’.”
Island Girl to Airline Pilot is a book that is first and foremost a love story, it is Silva’s way of preserving the special bond she shared with Ken while also sharing the man that he was with the world. It is of course, also the story of an inspiring career spanning 30 years and endless skies, Silva’s ‘love affair’ if you will. A career that could have ended before it even began if not for Silva’s courage and Ken’s support.
With just 10 percent of commercial pilots in Australia being women, a number that drops even lower when looking at the industry globally, Silva’s story is an important reminder for girls everywhere that there is a seat in the cockpit for them too.
Island Girl to Airline Pilot lands this April
“It’s a story of dreams and hopes that can inspire people regardless of differential background, no matter the challenges. I would dare to do it all over again. Dare to love a white man and dare to pursue my dream to go from island girl to airline pilot.” – Silva McLeod
This is the life story of Silva Mcleod told by Silva herself with frankness and wit. Silva defied expectations and married a white Australian man whose love would go on to help her touch the skies.