Little did Leon van Niekerk knew when he took his son and daughter to air shows in their childhood years, what impact his daughter would have on the South African aviation scene in years to come. Ever since she could remember, her toys were aeroplanes. She never dreamed of becoming a nurse or anything else - only about being a pilot one day…
Major Heybrech Fredrika van Niekerk, 31 years old and is the first and currently the only woman to fly for the SAAF Silver Falcons formation aerobatic display team. Upon our introduction, I'm surprised at her small frame and femininity. She immediately weaves a spell on you with her kindness and excellent sense of humour. “I matriculated at Stellenberg High School but I attended seven schools during my school career. We constantly moved around South Africa due to my father's work. I failed Mathematics in Grade 10 and only just passed Science,” she admits.
With an open honesty, Heybrech says: “I needed to work extra harder to catch up on my school subjects.” This played a huge role in her growth as a person, and also taught her to survive. “During my Grade 10 year, I applied at the SAAF and they replied that they needed my matric certificate. At that stage I wanted to fly the Mirage F1AZ - my favourite aircraft! When I received my matric certificate, I submitted it immediately to the SAAF. I didn't hear from them again,” Heybrech says with a serious face.
Heybrech and her brother grew up with only the bare necessities and no luxuries such as sweets and DSTV. To compensate, her parents firmly believed to raise their kids in good neighbourhoods and to attend good schools. Her parents couldn't afford to pay for private flying tuition. She was on the edge of despair after applying twice at the SAAF and three times at SAA where she fell out at different stages of the selection processes.
She started working for her father to save for a career as a pilot. Heybrech noticed that olives became the in-thing, and olive farmers made small fortunes. With sheer determination she joined Elsenburg College of Agriculture to get to grips with farming. It was the only way to make money to pay for private flying lessons. But Heybrech wasn't willing to wait three years for her practical and only then learn how to plant trees. In a moment of pure desperation, she sat on a step at the college and prayed, asking God to send her a sign - should she carry on, or leave the college?
She continues: “The next moment a Boeing 737-800 flew straight over my head at an incredulously low height. I had my answer. I left Elsenburg and stayed home for six months, still unsure in which direction again. “I've always been good with weather forecasting, even at school. I applied for a short weather observation course at the SA Weather Bureau. During the interview I was asked where do I see myself in ten years?
“As the Captain of a Boeing 747!” she responded without thinking and immediately re-phrased to: “Or a very good weather observer!” Heybrech was accepted. In the meantime she applied again at the SAAF - just for the joke of it. After she completed the Weather Bureau course, she was sent to the George Weather Station. With a far-away look in her eyes, she says: “I remember those days in George - the pilots and the planes. Sometimes the Air Force would land with their Astra's. My heart was torn apart by sadness.”
Life took another turn, when her phone rang at the weather station on a sunny day. “It was a Staff Sergeant enquiring whether I would still like to join the Air Force to become a pilot! I never received the telegrams the Air Force sent to me, and as a last resort the staff-sergeant phoned me. In October 2002, I joined the Air Force for my basic military training.
If it wasn't for that Staff Sergeant my dream of flying for the Air Force wouldn't have become a reality! “My military training wasn't plain sailing. Apart from the hardship in becoming a soldier, I still suffered from a lack of my basic school education. I needed to work harder than anyone else!”
During July 2004, Heybrech arrived in Langebaanweg. She flew her solo-flight on 30 September 2004 on tail number 2023, the Pilatus PC-7 MK II Astra, and was 23 years of age. “I love aerobatics and formation flying - and flying for the Silver Falcons combines the two.”
Heybrech never experienced any difficulties being a woman in a dominant-men world. She proved to be trainable as a Silver Falcon, and within the team a tremendous amount of trust exist. This is only normal when one listens when she explains what happens in the air during an air show.
I ask her whether she prays before flying, and without hesitation she replies: “Always! I pray for concentration, insight, strength and ask God to bring us back safely. There is always a possibility that something might go horribly wrong in the air.” Typical woman, Heybrech admits: “I love earrings, but never wear it nor make-up when I fly as a safety precaution. “And to be honest - ice cream is my Achilles heel,” she admits with a broad smile. My garage is stacked with stuff. I play guitar and piano, love cycling, gholf, tennis, squash, canoeing and kayaking. I go through seasons and eventually return once again where I left off. The same goes for music. My interest ranges from classical to heavy metal.”
Its noticeable on social pages how much people adore her - she's obviously the darling of the South African aviation scene. She quotes Capt. Buti Tsebe, former Falcon 3: “Never let go of a dream until you're ready to wake up and make it happen.” And adds: “Greatness is not built from laziness.”
After leaving the Silver Falcons, she joined 35 Squadron where she now undergoes training to operate aircraft in the maritime patrolling role. Heybrech's dream hasn't touched base yet - she dreams never to quit flying and maybe have her own hangar filled with lots of aircraft one day…