Sema Mathebula - SA's First Black Female Hot Air Balloon Pilot

By Willie Bodenstein


Earlier in the year, we published a story titled 'Semakaleng (Sema) Mathebula, aspirant balloon pilot'. Well, Sema is not an aspirant balloon pilot any more. Yesterday, Saturday 4 December, she successfully completed her inaugural flight and was awarded her wings by Rob Jonkers, Chairman of the Aero club of South Africa.

Bill Harrop's looking rather festive when I arrived at 05h00

Two of the three commercial balloons being inflated. All three were loaded to capacity with eager passengers

Foreground, the Aero Club's Heritage Balloon being prepared for Sema's flight with the three BHOBS balloons in the background

Twenty-six-year-old Sema matriculated in 2013 from Pretoria High School for Girls and is a University of the Witwatersrand Graduate with a Batchelor of Arts degree, having attained joint honours in International Relations and Politics. She started her career as a Campaign Ambassador for a nonprofit organization in 2018 before moving to Bill Harrop's Original Balloon Safaris. (BHOBS)

Sema, behind the burner, concentrating on inflating the balloon……

Almost there……

And getting ready to launch

Coincidentally, the upcoming week was the 2018 Afrox South African Hot Air Balloon Championships and while her term with BHOBS only began in July, she was invited by Afrox to attend the event. That led to her introduction into the sport of hot air ballooning. She accepted, was taken for a flight and that changed her world. She knew there and then that was what she wanted to do.

Sema, who initially was afraid of heights floating on the gentle Zyphers overhead Bill Harrop's Original Balloon Safaris. Photos by Daniel Ralafeta.

Sema with Andries Steyn, one of her instructors on board, getting ready to land after the flight.

In the year to come, as part of Bill Harrop's staff, she quickly mastered the skills required for the day-to-day operation of balloons.

Sema was then, together with two more candidates, invited to be trained by the Balloon Training School as a hot air balloon pilot. Her training, as well as that of the other two candidates, was funded by the Balloon and Airship Federation of South Africa (BAFSA) and the Department of Sport and Recreation.

Safely on the ground with Andries in the basket, BAFSA Chairman Richard Bovell and Martyn Evers were on hand congratulate her

Sema and her proud Mom, who got into her daughter's 'office' to congratulate her

The training of the three candidates was rather difficult, thanks to Covid and other external factors. In Sema's case, the fact that she had started a new career as an analysist in Government Affairs for an international company in the automotive sector made hers more so. Fortunately, her employers were forthcoming and she persevered.

Sema celebrating and with her instructors, farther and son Flip and Andries Steyn

"My training and the lead up to where I am today were challenging but also thrilling. I loved learning all these new elements that one encounters when looking at aviation and which one does not take into consideration." Sema said.

Left to right: BAFSA's Martyn Evers, Hanke Fourie, Sema, Richard Bovell, Flip Steyn and Aero Club Chairman Rob Jonkers

Richard during his Wings Award Ceremony speech

Guests and family members at breakfast during the ceremony

The great moment, Rob Jonkers awarding Sema her wings

One only needs 16 hours to qualify for a license but Sema has now flown 25 hours and her goal is to log fifty hours, the minimum she would need for her Commercial License. Preparation and recovery after each flight can easily take an hour or more. Most of the flying was done early in the mornings and this also had to be done within the confines of the Covid regulations. That, and then doing a full day's work, took a lot of dedication and is proof of this young lady's determination to succeed.

Sema with Tracy Robb and Felicity Clegg, two legendary BAFSA female pilots

We said it last time and we'll say it again: Watch this young lady! Her passion and determination for ballooning is going to take her to great heights in the industry as well as the sport. Sema certainly has the drive, commitment and the bubbly personality to make her a brilliant ambassador for the sport of hot air balloon flying.

The other two candidates have not been forgotten. Watch this space…….

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