Travel & Outdoor
In The Clouds
Her love of flying began when she was 13, her father was in the South African National Defence Force – he had always shown a keen interest in it himself. He took an introduction flight to flying fixed-wing aircraft and Joni went along for the flight. Needless to say, she fell absolutely in love with it, and had found her heart’s calling.
She had a blissful childhood, growing up on a macadamia farm just outside the small town of Badplaas. Her days consisted of riding horses, and playing under the shady trees. When she matriculated from Penryn College outside Mbombela in 2007, she knew exactly what she wanted… She wanted to fly more than anything, and knew she would have to set some goals to get there.
First and foremost she needed the funds, as getting your private pilot’s licence (PPL) is a costly affair. Joni landed a fantastic opportunity, working aboard a cruise ship as a photographer. For a year she sailed the seven seas and saved up for her dream.
“I saw the most amazing places; I did Greenland, the Baltic and Adriatic Sea, the Canary Islands, went over to the Caribbean, and even cruised on the Amazon River,” she smiles. “It was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend that every person travel as much as possible when they are young, but first, study. It’s really hard to get back into it when you come home.”
Although she thoroughly enjoyed this adventurous chapter in her life, once her contracts were up, it was time to return home to where she had left her heart. “Each place you visit while travelling is great and you get to see the positive and the negative, and the problems they face too. It truly made me realise how much I love South Africa, and wanted to come home.”
By this point, she had saved enough money to begin her career in flying, and she began doing her PPL. “You need at least 45 hours of flying in order to get this licence.” This she achieved at the Lowveld Aero Club, located at the old Nelspruit Airport. “The first time I flew solo, I was absolutely terrified. The aircraft is much lighter when the instructor gets out, so you become airborne much quicker. The taking off is fine, but the landing a bit scary. I honestly wish I could experience that adrenalin rush again; it was the best feeling ever. When I got out of the aircraft, I felt great, it was such an accomplishment,” the young pilot tells us.
Joni continued with her flying and got her commercial pilot’s licence, which requires 200 hours of airtime. “My parents bought a light aircraft, a Cessna 150. She had red and blue stripes and an old-school interior, and I absolutely loved her. I continued to build my hours in her.”
At that time her parents’ little Cessna 150 was being leased by the aero club for students, and it worked out in her favour, as it paid for the rest of her course.
“We even took that little dinky toy to Lake Kariba. My friend Jenna, who is also a pilot, and I went together,” she laughs. “It was quite a journey, and it was a bit stressful. We went from Mbombela to Polokwane, where we had to refuel and clear customs, then we went to Francistown for more fuel, and then on to Harare. The winds weren’t in our favour, and we landed at sunset. We stayed the night and then headed for Lake Kariba. We spent four days on a houseboat and had such a jol.” The trip took the adventurous girls 11 hours of flying to reach their destination, which she describes as the most amazing experience.
Her next step was to find a job in the aviation industry, a major challenge that all pilots seem to face in South Africa. “Just like with any other industry, it’s difficult to find a job when you don’t have that much experience. I got really lucky though and landed a job with Cesszani Aviation, a private charter company.”
Joni started on a Cessna 206, and in time progressed to flying other aircraft, her favourite being the King Air 200. With each one, you need to do your aircraft specific rating; this means you need to get a flight-crew qualification that authorises the pilot to operate a particular one. “I spent five years with Cesszani, the last two years of which I was chief pilot. I got to travel often around southern Africa, I saw the most awesome places and met the most amazing people.”
The first time I flew solo, I was absolutely terrified.
In 2014 Joni was honoured with the professional pilot of the year award by the Lowveld Aero Club, a huge achievement in the aviation industry. We ask her if she felt that it was demanding being a female in a male-dominated industry. “In the beginning it was a challenge to gain respect from the guys, I didn’t have a lot of experience or confidence. It takes time to earn respect; I kept on doing what I was doing, and over time I got there. When I started flying charters there weren’t many girls around, but in the past three years there have been a lot more women pilots who have broken through into the industry, and even on the airlines, it’s so great to see, and such a confidence boost.”
For Joni though, the support has been endless, from her parents to everybody in the local aviation community. “I’m incredibly grateful to our aviation community for their support over the years. I have been lucky enough to have been mentored by some very experienced pilots. Their knowledge has been absolutely priceless. They were always willing to take the time to patiently share their knowledge with me.”
Joni emphasises that although flying is her passion and she has loved every minute of it, it can be a stressful job. First of all, it is a major responsibility, and safety comes first. She faces many challenges when up in the air. “The weather is obviously a major factor. The Civil Aviation Authority regulates everything really well. Air Traffic Control helps in keeping us safe, the engineers are constantly doing maintenance checks on aircraft and the instructors who train us are excellent. It’s a team effort. It’s also important to provide a good service to your clients; it’s important that they are happy and satisfied with their flight. Sometimes when we fly into the bush for charters, landings can be a challenge as there will be game on the runway – giraffes are the absolute worst, they just don’t move off,” she laughs.
My favourite part is flying in the early morning along the Kaapsehoop escarpment. It’s really pretty, and has such a calming effect on me.
“But there is nothing quite like being up in the air. It’s just you and the aircraft with the task at hand, and nothing else. That’s what makes it peaceful up there. My favourite part is flying in the early morning along the Kaapsehoop escarpment. It’s really pretty, and has such a calming effect on me.”
Joni has decided to fly solo though, and is now a freelance charter pilot.
“I have changed my priorities from when I started; at first I wanted to prove to myself that I could get to the top, but now quality of life has become really important to me. I want to do what I love while being surrounded by friends and family. Being a pilot is an extremely demanding job. It’s long hours, a lot of travel, and many overnights, and although this is also a great benefit, you can’t always get weekends off; charters are busiest during holidays, so it’s hard to get time off. That’s why I’m freelancing, I want to be more in charge of my own time.”
She has also recently gotten engaged to Justin Hearne and will tie the knot next year. “We went to school together. He is incredibly supportive, and patient, we have a great relationship.”
Joni is always reaching for more though. She would like to get her airline transport pilot’s licence, and is not far off from achieving this. She has all the requirements, and has already passed the theory exams; she needs a few more night hours before she can be tested. She would also like to get more involved on the conservation side, with the game counting and anti-poaching in the area, and lastly she would like to get her PPL in rotor wing. “Helicopters are pretty cool machines, I’d be happy just to get my private licence for them, and just fly for fun.” She believes the sky is the limit, and never giving up.
It’s taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get to this point, but with her passion and unwavering determination, anything is possible, and she looks forward to what her bright future holds. “I am proud of my achievements, and always feel that I have been privileged and incredibly lucky in life.”
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