Since a photo of Silva MCleod dressed in her pilot’s uniform is on the front cover of the book called Island Girl to Airline Pilot, I’m not ruining the story here by saying she did indeed become an airline pilot. But this book is about so much more than her fight to take flight. And for that reason, I recommend it to anyone who likes a great yarn and a really good biography.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in aviation, Silva McLeod’s story of rising up (quite literally) from humble Tongan roots to become an international airline pilot is also a great tale of endurance, romance, courage and culture. I read it in a session: a great sign that I remained engaged throughout.
Silva is a natural storyteller. She doesn’t pull any punches, and this warts and all book shows how humble she has remained throughout her ascendence from poverty to pilot. She’s self-deprecating but also proud of her achievements, and she calls it like it is. The language, like her Tongan culture is colourful, but also a tribute to her endurance in that she has written a great book in what is her second language.
Yet one of the things that drove her as she strove to fulfil her lifelong dream to fly, was the goal to speak from the cockpit of her international airline in her native tongue to her own people. It’s mind-boggling to think that safety briefings were previously spoken in English to a mostly Tongan, non-English-speaking plane full of passengers.
And there are other head-shaking moments – of pure racism, sexism and absolute ignorance that Silva encountered as she attempted to gain her credentials.
One that stands out is a phone call from a man who was asking about flying lessons. He wanted to speak to an instructor. Silva said she was an instructor, and this was met with a silence that she filled with a long-overdue rant. I wanted to cheer when she told the caller that she was an instructor, also a woman, and she added - let’s get this out of the way - I’m also a woman of colour. The gobsmacked caller rang off. But to his credit, he turned up with a gift and an apology and asked Silva to be his instructor.
Having achieved what she had previously thought impossible, Silva’s hunger to achieve more and more of her goals saw her move from gaining her pilot’s licence to becoming an instructor, to flying passenger planes to Tonga, and to being a pilot for the Flying Doctor emergency air service. She eventually joined Virgin airlines and was the first black female pilot to fly the international route from Melbourne to Los Angeles on the giant B777. It was a moment of great personal satisfaction when disembarking to see a photo of the then recently-elected President Obama in the arrival hall.
This is a wonderful story about white privilege and our inability to unpack our privilege. And it’s all set against a background of Silva’s great romance and enduring love for her husband through sickness and health, and also of becoming a working mother with two daughters.
Reviewer: Peta Stavelli