The first African woman pilot
By Negest Abate
Fifty four years ago, Weizero (MS) Asegedech Assefa, born from a privileged Ethiopian family, became the first female pilot; by breaking barriers in a totally male dominated field.
When she was asked what motivated her to became a pilot, she said that one day she was having a conversation with a group of men as she often did, when someone told the group about the new flying school within the Ethiopian Airlines that was open to anyone who paid the required fee.
To the surprise of all the men, she immediately said “I want to take the class “She recalls that they didn’t take her seriously- after all she was a woman. As the only woman among a group of men, she finished the assigned courses and passed the exam. First, she practiced flying; with the supervision of the flight instructors. Then she flew solo. She describes both of her instructors were very supportive and recalls that they encouraged her in every way they could. Neither of her instructors was culturally Ethiopian. One was an African- American who felt a strong connection to Ethiopia. The other was Eastern European. She spoke of this instructor with great admiration, praising his teaching skills and describing that she learned a great deal from him. The more she practiced the more she fell in love with flying. She particularly; enjoyed looking down from the air.
Asegedech described a memorable event that occurred while she was still practicing. Frightened by turbulence she called her flight instructor for assistance only to find that he was asleep. She recalls that she was quite surprised, but fortunately, she was able to manage the situation.
When asked how she managed to attend flying class in a country where women were often confined to traditional female roles, such as cooking and raising children, she said she was always different from others. Unlike other women, she never had to do any house work. She was always interested in all sorts of outdoor activities and sports, such as swimming, won an award in a swim competition, target shooting, horseback riding, and travelling. She also liked collecting guns which were given to her by those close to her.
She described that her picture and her story were all over the newspaper. In fact, someone told Emperor Haile Selasse about her. The emperor then asked her to meet with him at the Imperial Palace. She received a lot of praise from the emperor for her accomplishment. He asked her who her father was. The emperor immediately recognized her father, and complimented her by telling her that she was as brave as her father. He also ordered that her tuition be paid in full so that she could further her flying career. She said that she was thrilled that she was about to learn how to fly big international planes while prior to that all of her flights had been domestic.
When she was asked if she realized that she was breaking barriers by becoming not only the first Ethiopian woman pilot, (but also the first African woman pilot, surprisingly, she said that at the time, she was not interested in whether she was the first woman pilot. She said she was just simply doing what she loved doing best.
When asked why she stopped flying, she said that she hadn’t wanted to stop. Unfortunately the men in the flight club started fighting. As a result, the club closed and the money that supported her flight was lost in the process. “Then some of us wanted to buy a private plane and wanted to continue flying” she said. She stated that her cousin, Daniel, purchased a plane and that she was in the process of acquiring one from Italian merchants in the country who were selling small planes. Her cousin Daniel died in a plane crash after taking flight despite a bad weather warning. She recalls that this was a blow for her and a huge setback in her pursuit.
Asegedech, has been living in the United States since 1969. She was asked why she didn’t pursue her flying passion here. She said that it was too difficult to finance, and that is was difficult to find a flight school. She also stated that she hadn’t planned to live in the United States for so long. She also admitted flying was her hobby, and that she never considered it her career.
She was asked what she tells her friends about being the first woman pilot. First of all, I don’t like to talk about myself. In fact I sometimes get irritated when some of my friends start talking about the past, and telling others who I was. “Some of my American Friends don’t believe me when I tell them.
I flew airplanes that I was once a pilot until they see some of my photographs to prove it
Her advice for young girls today is, “you have to have self-confidence and faith in your ability”. She says that she didn’t actively recruit other girls to take up flying as a career. She recalled that she only spoke to two girls and that one of them did started flying class. Unfortunately, when she saw a flight accident, she immediately withdrew from her lessons. When she was asked about living abroad, she answered that she is very content, that she has what she needs, and that is what matters to her.
When she was asked about living abroad, she answered that she is very content, that she has what she needs, and that is what matters to her.