ISLAND pilot

By Liz Bell Photos Yanni & Supplied

Rye’s Silva McLeod describes herself as an “island girl”, a nickname suggestive of the now 61-year-old’s idyllic and simple teenage years growing up in a small community in Tonga.

Her new book, Island Girl to Airline Pilot, tells a very different story of ambition, determination and achievement against the odds as the first Tongan woman to become an airline pilot.

The book, released in April and being launched on the Mornington Peninsula on 5 May, is part love story, inspirational message, tragedy and feel-good memoir as Silva tells of her first meeting more than forty years ago with Australian electrician Ken McLeod (who was working in Tonga for an Australian aid organisation), their marriage in 1980 and their enduring love. It also tells of Silva’s other love, flying, and of the burning desire she had of becoming an airline pilot that she eventually fulfilled through self-belief and the support of family.

Silva was a Tongan girl from a small island with little hope of anything beyond getting married and churning out babies. Her dreams of becoming an airline pilot seemed just that – dreams. Then Ken McLeod, an Australian hired to build a hospital on her island of Vava‘u, came into Silva’s life.

Not long after the 19-year-old met her 29-year-old Aussie sweetheart, the pair married in a traditional Tongan ceremony and moved to Australia, where they had two children and lived in Rye, Ken’s former home. Silva was thrust into a new lifestyle far away from the restrictive but idyllic Pacific island life, and as a woman of colour in the 1980’s it wasn’t easy. Silva says she encountered frustration and racism, along with the immense guilt of leaving her Tongan family.

But in between working in hospitality, looking after the home and family, and making community connections, Silva never dropped her dream of flying a plane, even when disaster struck. “About 10 years after moving here I was given a voucher for a flight lesson and really loved it.” Her husband, who was in hospital after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, turned around in his bed and said that if she wanted to still pursue flying, she should do it and they would make it happen.

“There was no doubt in my mind and he knew it was important to me. I would never have been able to do that in my village in Tonga, where women look after the home mostly and can’t pursue worldly ambitions…I would have been ridiculed.” Silva said the pair had to stick to a budget to be able to afford the lessons, but after nearly two years of dedication she achieved the necessary licences to fly for a commercial airline and was employed in her ‘dream’ job with Tonga Airlines, which of course required a move back to the island nation.

Living away from her husband and girls was difficult, as was the twice-monthly commute between countries to maintain a ‘normal’ family life. “That was the hardest part; I missed my husband and kids, but I knew it had to be done. There really wasn’t any other way,” she said. “But because we had a strong relationship, we both knew it would be okay.”

Four years later Silva was able to move back to her family in Rye when she secured a job flying a Boeing 777 with Virgin and spent almost three decades in a career she had once thought an impossibility. But life constantly throws challenges at us all, and Silva’s next move is an example of the true test of her spirit.

Her beloved husband, who had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma when he was just 40, passed away in 2020, and at around the same time Silva was made redundant. Grieving and trying to hold her life together, she faced a frighteningly uncertain future. But again, her tenacity and optimism shone through, and at close to 60 she pursued another passion – property and houses – to become a licensed real estate agent. “Suddenly I was on my own and had lost the job I loved, but I was used to having doors shut in my face, so I kept looking for options,” she said. “I had always had a strong interest in real estate, and I’m a people person, so I set my sights on my next career.”

Despite initial resistance from prospective employers – one who insisted on administering a questionable psychosomatic test and then telling her she wasn’t suitable – two years ago Silva secured a position with a firm on the peninsula. She says the metamorphosis gave her a new energy and zest for life. “I was feeling a bit lost for a while when Ken died and my career ended, but now I adore my new job; it gives me a reason to get up in the morning again,” she said.

Silva says she feels incredibly lucky to have lived her dream many times over and wants to remind readers that anything is possible if determination and passion are involved.

Her book is being launched at The Dunes in Rye, where she once worked before becoming a pilot. “I really wanted to have the launch locally, to share it with my community; that’s a big thing for me,” she said.

Peninsula Essence – May 2023