iFly want to create the next generation of elite pilots, engineers and air traffic controllers. Until then, giving students a taste of the high life in a light aircraft will have to do.

The iFly Academy is bringing the world of aviation to poor school children in rural Eastern Cape, South Africa. The academy’s founders tour underprivileged schools in East London, Umtata and Port Elizabeth, hosting aviation seminars, bringing flight simulators for the students to play with and ending the day with a plane ride for a lucky.

Co-founder and licenced commercial pilot, Derek Nseko, has lost count of how many students iFly Academy has flown since starting the program eight months ago. “We must have taken up more than two dozen scholars,” he says. “Most of them have never touched, let alone boarded and flown in a plane. They’re mostly from poverty-stricken areas, but we’ve already got some of them into pilot training.”

The most difficult obstacle to getting a pilot’s license is financial, which in South Africa means that only four percent of 17,000 licenced pilots are black, according to the South African Civil Aviation Authority. Another SACAA survey in 2017 revealed zero black flight engineers.

“A commercial pilot’s licence will cost you about R500,000 (approximately US$33,000),” reveals Nseko. ‘This is why a lot of people quit mid-way through the course.” This was precisely the experience of iFly’s Head of Operations, Leonard Nyoka.

“Leo was flying fixed wing aircraft, but had to abandon the course because he just couldn’t afford it, and he eventually had to leave his job as operations manager for a helicopter charter company. When we started iFly he was back home in Zimbabwe, but after selling the iFly vision to his mom, a primary school teacher, and dad, an entrepreneur, they supported his return to South Africa in 2018 to make iFly a reality.

“Nseko admits that while it was tough paying for his course, he is relatively better off than his partners, who include 24-year-old Sipho Mangesi, who comes from the poorest part of rural Eastern Cape and whose pilot’s licence was funded by the Department of Transport. “I’m no rich kid,” he chuckles. “My father is an eye doctor and mum is a school principal, but sacrifices had to be made to get me through, as I come from a family of five children in Uganda, which is poorer than South Africa.”

iFly’s outreach programme begins in the school hall, where the directors speak to kids about career opportunities in aviation. Then comes the most draining part of the visit. “We have to haul our two bulky, desktop PCs out of our cars and set them up so the scholars play this basic flight simulation video game,” says Nseko. “It’s even more tiring when we combine Grade 11s and Matric students, because we have to give hundreds of kids a chance to play.”

It’s an essential part of the visit, because the kids who get the top score on the video game and answer comprehension questions about the seminar correctly, get selected for the airport visit, where they get a tour of the facility and a plane ride.

They’ll need significant funding to make the iFly dream a reality. “We need good funding for our skills development program, especially if our flight school will have its own planes,” Nseko says. “At the moment, we’re awaiting a reply from the Gauteng province’s education and transport council. We’ve tried pushing partnerships with big corporates, but failed. They always love our work. but there is always a ‘but’.

“The success stories are coming through, even as they operate on a shoestring budget using their own flight hours to take kids up in the air. After meeting iFly’s directors a couple of years ago, 21-year-old Siyakholwa Zazini decided to pursue an aviation career. His potential caught the attention of the Department of Transport, which is currently paying for his private pilot’s license at an East London flight school. “Siya was practically living next door to an airport, but in the poorest of locations,” Nseko explains. “After he gets his license, we’d like to recruit him as our first pilot, fresh out of flight school.”

“I failed my school exams in 2014, but passed the rewrite in 2015,” says Zazini. “But I was still disillusioned. I was struggling financially. Deep down I knew I wanted to be a pilot, I just didn’t know where to start until I met Sipho and Derek, who guided me in the right direction by helping me apply for a bursary at the DoT. I eventually got a R200,000 (US$16,000) study loan.”

He’s currently writing his final PPL exam, and then he needs to undertake another 10 hours of flying, perhaps taking out some of the potential aviators of the future. Soon, iFly will have another qualified pilot in their ranks and, if all goes well, he’ll be the first of many.

special thanks to Redbull.com to cover this inspiring story