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Silva McLeod, Tonga’s first female pilot, shares her incredible story

"Love gave me wings..."
SILVA MCLEOD

This is an edited extract from Silva McLeod’s memoir Island Girl to Airline Pilot.

I was 18 years old when I first set eyes on Ken McLeod. My first impression was: “Oh my God, he’s handsome!” Then shortly after: “But he’s unreachable. Why would he go out with an island girl like me?” I’d just finished high school and was working as a bartender on the island of Vava’u. Ken was 28, an electrician on an Australian government aid project, and he seemed to me to be a man of the world.

There were so many reasons why I thought Ken wouldn’t give me a second glance. I was shy and I truly believed I was unattractive. Growing up in the islands, light skin was seen as more beautiful. I was darker than my siblings, I had frizzy hair, and we were poor, so I’d grown up in a traditional Tongan hut with no shoes, no nice clothes.

There was one thing, however, that gave me confidence. I was good at school. If you show even a little potential in Tonga, the whole village is right behind you. If I wanted to get out of chores at home – cooking, collecting firewood, lighting the fire – I’d pick up a book, because then I’d be exempt. I’d graduated dux of the school and could speak a little English, which came in handy now because – when my shyness didn’t get the better of me – I could chat across the bar with Ken.

I don’t think it was love at first sight for Ken, but there was a definite attraction for conversation and companionship. He came into the bar most days after work, and after a while I noticed a twinkle in his eyes.

Ken and I started dating. Tonga is a religious island and Sunday is a day of rest. Everyone goes to church. Back in the ’80s, there were no shops open, no flights out, even swimming on Sunday was an offence, and Ken and I were the worst offenders.

Silva McLeod in front of Royal Tongan Airlines plane
Tonga’s first female pilot Silva McLeod was proud to work for the Royal Tongan Airlines.

On this particular Sunday, I went to the morning service to beg forgiveness, then Ken picked me up and we drove to a popular tourist beach. We’d been courting for 10 months – going to the beach together and out to tea – and we were sitting in the sunshine, watching the turquoise ocean, when Ken asked, “Do you have a dream?”

I said, “No, you tell me first.”

So, he told me he’d always dreamed of having a house, but he had a house, so that dream had been ticked. Now his dream was to have a wife and a family to share it with him.

Then he said, “Okay, that’s my dream. What’s yours?”

I said, “If I tell you, will you keep it secret?”

He promised, and that’s when I told him that I’d always wished I could fly. When I was a child, I would run outside every time I heard a plane, and I would point to the sky and tell my grandmother. But growing up on our tiny island, becoming a pilot seemed like an impossible dream.

I was worried Ken would laugh, but he didn’t. He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “You never dreamed of having a family?”

“Oh, that’s just a natural part of life,” I said. “I didn’t dream of that because somehow I knew it would happen.”

Not long after, Ken proposed. Actually, he proposed three times – the third on bended knee – and promised that he understood he was not only marrying me but my whole extended Tongan family. We went together to ask both my dad and my grandpa for their blessing. They said yes, and naturally I said yes too. I was aching to be Ken’s wife.

Silva and Ken McLeod with their daughters
It was Ken’s dream to have a family. Pictured here with Silva and their two daughters.

We married, we moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, we had two beautiful daughters, Elizabeth and Temaleti, and we supported each other through all the challenges of settling in and raising our family in a very conservative, and very white Australian neighbourhood.

We didn’t speak about that dream of mine for 11 years, though I still thought about flying from time to time. And on Sundays we would sometimes make a picnic lunch, bundle up the kids, sit near the approach path to the airport and watch little planes doing circuits. I loved it. But we never mentioned me flying.

Then, in 1989, Ken was diagnosed with cancer – a complex cancer of the bone marrow called multiple myeloma. It began with headaches, which grew worse over months, then came a series of infections. We were told he had perhaps five years to live.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Ken, with such defiance. “Do you hear me, Liva? I’m going to fight this.” And he did.

Six months later, it was my birthday, and with a gruelling course of chemo behind him, Ken presented me with a bunch of flowers. No surprises there. But tucked into the wrapping was a mysterious white envelope. It contained a voucher for my first flying lesson.

“Life is too short,” Ken said. “Go and do it.” I think he’d decided that a pilot’s license would provide me with a job I loved and the financial security we’d need if he was no longer with us.

I still remember the first day I took an aircraft up solo. I’d been taking one lesson a week (which was all we could afford) for about three months. On this particular day, I’d been practising take-offs and landings with my instructor, when he told me to stop on the runway and set the brakes. Then he took off his headset and stepped out of the plane. “You’re on your own,” he said. “Go for one circuit, then come in.”

“Are you kidding?” I protested, but he had closed the door and he was gone.

I whispered, “This is your moment, Liva. Soar like a bird.”

Silva McLeod with her grandchildren
Two of Silva McLeod’s grandchildren visiting her at the airport.

From there, the sky was the limit. I graduated as a pilot and worked for many years for Royal Tongan Airlines. I flew life-saving missions across the outback with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and I flew the big jets – first the Boeing 737 for Virgin Blue and then the Boeing 777 for V-Australia on long-haul international routes.

I remember easing that first 777 off the tarmac and watching the ground fall away. The aircraft nose pointed north-east and there was only the ocean below, the sky above and the horizon ahead that we would never reach. In that moment I was colourless, genderless and fearless. As I penetrated through the cloud tops, I thought, ‘If heaven looks like this, then I’m in heaven … Thank you Ken, thank you Lord for the life I have.’

Ken well and truly outlived the average five-year survival rate for multiple myeloma. He walked both our girls down the aisle, he saw seven beautiful grandchildren arrive and grow and he celebrated his 70th birthday with us all. But finally, during the COVID lockdowns, we both had our wings clipped. As the airline industry shut down, I was retrenched, and Ken, whose myeloma had returned in 2018, now developed myelodysplasia and his bone marrow began to fail. “Liva, I am tired,” he said.

Ken came home to die, surrounded by family, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. He passed away in June 2020.

After he was gone, I felt my world had ended. I’m not saying that in a gloomy, depressing way. I felt like a chapter had closed on my life. The love we’d had for each other had given birth to my flying, and I didn’t want to fly any more. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

I mourned Ken for six months after his death – six months of grieving and crying, and I really didn’t have the will to see past that. Then, Ken had always told me I should write a book, so I sat down at my computer and began to type, following another dream.

Silva McLeod's book cover

In spite of its title, Island Girl to Airline Pilot, is not a book about flying. It’s about my journey with Ken, because without him there would be no story to tell. His support and love enabled it all – and that made it even sweeter.

Before he died, Ken said, “If I could give you the world, I would.” And I said, “You have.”

Island Girl to Airline Pilot by Silva McLeod is published by Exisle; order it now on Booktopia or Dymocks.

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