breaking new ground in the air

MEET Salote Mataitini, a first command pilot for Air Kiribati. Salote made history recently after she and colleague, Saele Fatiaki ( also from Fiji), became the first all female crew to man the aircraft. Salote had graduated from Ardmore Flying School in Auckland with a commercial pilot’s licence in 2007 and has spent two years flying in the tiny island nation of Kiribati. Here, we chat with the commercial pilot about her work.

Q Tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born on the Garden Island of Taveuni and grew up in the chiefly village of Somosomoi where my mother Adi Kunea Lalabalavu is from. My dad Ro Naulu Mataitini is from Lomanikoro, Rewa, who recently retired from the United Nations after 29 years of working abroad and lives in New York with my mum.

I was on Taveuni for my formative years of education where I went to school at Somosomo and Bucalevu before moving to Adi Cakobau School and International School Suva. Later I spent one year in Nairobi, Kenya for my gap year where my family was based for just over 10 years. Then I moved to Auckland, New Zealand for three years for flying school.

Q How did you get interested in flying?

My interest in flying started from when I was six years old, when I was coming back from New York. Cockpit security then wasn’t as strict, I asked the flight attendants on our flight if I can go and see the pilots flying the plane we were in. Once I met the two pilots and looked at the flight deck, all the instruments, all the buttons, I was convinced I would study hard in school to become a pilot.

Q Who is/are your major inspiration?

In my career my biggest inspirations are Fiji B737 Captain Selai Saumi, Capt Mataiasi Vave, first officer Christina Zoing, FO Petrina Yee and A330 Capt Seini Koroitamana.

Q Was it easy making the decision to follow this career path?

It was easy for me, but it took a while to convince my family as they know that being a pilot is a high-risk job. They are always worried when I go flying, especially my mum and they are always praying for my safety. Forever grateful to my family for their financial and emotional support during the course of my studies until I got a flying job.

Q When did you graduate from flying school ?

I graduated from Ardmore Flying School in Auckland with a commercial pilot’s licence in 2007, Came back to Fiji for licence conversion and completed my multiengine Instrument training at Pacific Flying School in Nadi.

Q How would you describe the flying industry in Fiji, especially for young pilots?

Even though the flying industry has grown so much over the years, there aren’t enough flying jobs out there in Fiji for graduate pilots with low hours. My dad’s advice to me “The world is your oyster lewa”… so I decided that’s the path I’m taking in my career.

Q What are some major challenges that are often faced by young pilots like yourself?

The main challenge for young pilots or graduate pilots would be waiting for a flying job. You just have to be patient and not lose hope in your passion. Be persistent and keep sending out those CVs. One day you will make it.

Q Congratulations on becoming the first female crew manning the Air Kiribati. How long have you both been flying for the airline?

Thank you. I’ve been here two years going onto my third year. Got my promotion to command last year to be captain of the Harbin Y12 aircraft and currently in the process of completing my command training on the Twin Otter Aircraft. This promotion made it possible for me to finally fly with my good friend, first officer — Saele Fatiaki. The day we finally flew together, a week or two ago, it was surreal and exciting at the same time for both of us. Saele kept looking at me saying I’m the smallest captain she’s ever flown with lol. We are the only two female pilots here in Air Kiribati and I’m looking forward to Saele also getting her promotion to command this year.

Q What is Kiribati like?

Kiribati is a beautiful country with breathtaking crystal blue lagoons, white sandy beaches. I’m blessed to have traversed the whole of Kiribati through my work. When it comes to the language, Saele and I can both say our passenger briefings in fluent Kiribati. When in Rome…

Q What’s the best thing about your work?

Seeing our passengers happily reuniting with their families after a flight and witnessing breathtaking views in the sky and the different places we fly to.

Q I’m sure you would have been aware of the recent demise of two local aviators on Vanua Levu, would you like to share any of your thoughts?

I would like to share my deepest sympathies with Merelesita Lutu’s family and Iliesa Tawalo’s family. This tragedy has deeply affected us all. I personally knew Iliesa from Pacific Flying School and Merelesita used to follow my flying posts on Instagram. Hearing the news was heartbreaking as I could only imagine what their families are going through. To Iliesa’s students and Merelesita’s friends in flying school, after what happened some of you might be thinking of taking a break from flying, I understand that. Take some time to mourn the loss of your dear friends. I also challenge you to finish what you started in memory of your late friends. They would have wanted all of you to complete flying school because that’s the common dream we all share as aviators. When we chose to become pilots we had also accepted the fact that our job is very risky and our families know that otherwise they wouldn’t have agreed to send us to flying school.

Q Would you like to add anything else ? Happy (belated) Women’s Day to all the hardworking ladies, hardworking mothers, especially to the ladies working in male-dominated fields. Don’t let anyone limit your dreams. With God by your side, anything is possible. To aspiring female pilots, once you put God as your life compass, everything just falls into place. After all, he is the captain of all captains.

* Read tomorrow’s The Fiji Times for Saele Fatiaki’s story

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