Meet Tanzania’s Neema Swai, who just made history flying the first cargo-only aircraft in Africa

Mildred Europa Taylor June 22, 2023
Photo: Facebook/Tz Youth Aviation Foundation

It was all joy early on this month when Tanzanians received their very first cargo aircraft in the country. The freighter plane, which landed at the Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) in Dar es Salaam, was welcomed by people in the aviation industry, government officials and citizens led by Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan. The aircraft, with a carrying capacity of 54 tonnes and named Lake Tanganyika, was commandeered by three pilots led by Captain Neema Swai.

Swai is one of the 10 female pilots for Air Tanzania Company Limited (ATCL) and she made history that momentous day as the first Tanzanian pilot to fly a Boeing 767-300. “I was very excited and honoured to be trusted by ATCL’s managing director, Engineer Ladislaus Matindi, to fly Boeing 767-300F, the first cargo-only aircraft in Africa,” Swai, who flew Tanzania’s first-ever cargo plane from the United States of America to JNIA, told The Citizen.

According to her, Boeing 767-300F is the first aircraft in Africa made purposefully for cargo. In other words, it is the first airline to operate a directly manufactured freighter Boeing 767 in the African continent. She explained that other cargo aircraft available in Africa were converted from passenger airplanes.

The captain, who is living her first dream, believes that being entrusted to fly Boeing 767-300F means she is moving closer to her second dream of flying a much bigger aircraft (Boeing 747F) whose carrying capacity is up to 80 tonnes.

Her dream of flying started during childhood when she used to visit her mother’s pharmacy located at the Kilimanjaro International Airport. While helping her mother at the pharmacy, she saw local and international flights flying and landing at the airport as well as cabin crew members including female pilots who inspired her to work in aviation.

Thanks to the financial and moral support she received from her parents, Swai completed her studies at the Blue Chip Flying Academy in Pretoria, South Africa at the age of 19. She used three months to complete a Private Pilot Training course and get a Private Pilot License (PPL). She flew Cessna172 as her first solo flight around the Wonderboom Airport in South Africa and nine months later, she got the Commercial Pilot License (CPL) which allowed her to fly passenger flights.

On her return home to Tanzania, the young pilot had to sit the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA) conversion tests exam to get a Tanzania license, The Citizen said. She remembered in an interview that in spite of the support she received from her parents, it wasn’t easy being in a field dominated by men and white people. “In the training, we were only two blacks and I was the only female student in 2009. They were looking at me, a young girl by then, and doubted whether I would manage to complete the course,” Swai recounted to Daily News.

To prove everyone wrong, she had to study even harder than her male counterparts and today, the wife and mother of one keeps rising in the aviation industry where she has served as a pilot for 14 years and achieved 8,700 hours of flight time. 33-year-old Swai now wants to upgrade herself in her career as she prepares to pursue studies in aircraft investigation. In the next five years, the history-maker also wants to be an instructor in a bigger aircraft training others to realize their dream in aviation.

Africa got its first female pilot in 1964 but the great achievement was not enough to encourage other women to get into aviation. Over the years, women were only training as flight attendants which seemed to be the most attractive work for them within the aviation sector. Piloting was left for men until women started gaining an interest in the field to create diversity and have their dreams come true. Today, Africa has the highest percentage of women pilots, at 5.2% — a significant increase from 4.1% in 2016, per the latest global survey conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Swai is encouraging her fellow women to work harder to achieve their dreams. “In this world, society should understand that there are no jobs entitled for men and others for women. Anyone can do any job. Most important is to love it, value it,” said the captain.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: June 22, 2023

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