Growing up on the streets of Vosloorus in Ekurhuleni, Lefentse Phokwane aspired to become a chemical engineer, but ended up studying for a Diploma in Non-Destructive Testing Inspection at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) instead.
It was a decision that has resulted in the 31-year-old becoming the first female aircraft maintenance engineer to specialise in non-destructive testing inspection at South African Airways (SAA) Technical. It is a subsidiary of SAA that is responsible for full-service maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft.
“When I applied for admission at VUT, I was told that there was no longer any space for first-year students who wanted to enrol for chemical engineering. The head of the department at the engineering faculty advised me to register for the non-destructive testing inspection course. I had no idea what it was about,” she explained.
“I was told that the introductory modules for first year of this course were the same as those for chemical engineering, and that perhaps I could find space in chemical engineering in the second semester as students sometimes drop out or change courses,” she added.
However, that was not to be.
Instead, Phokwane fell in love with the non-destructive testing inspection course and pursued it.
After obtaining her qualification, Phokwane applied for an aircraft avionic apprenticeship at SAA Technical in 2009 and completed her trade test in 2012, and became an aircraft engineer in avionics.
Working her way up
“I was then appointed as an aircraft maintenance engineer specialising in non-destructive testing inspection from 2012 to present. I started as a junior and worked my way up by undergoing intense training and studying relevant courses to enhance my skills,” she said.
Her job entails carrying out detailed inspections on aircraft and aircraft components, using various specialised techniques of inspection.
Through these methods, Phokwane looks for cracks and defects that are not visible to the naked eye but which could cause major damage or malfunction of the aircraft or its components.
One of the methods is called ultrasonic testing, which is the use of sound to discover if there are any defects in various parts of the aircraft. Another method is X-ray inspection, which is similar to the way radiographers do their work on human beings.
“I use an X-ray to see things that are not visible. For example, I would use it on a wing of an aircraft to check if the oil and everything inside it is working or if there are any defects,” said Phokwane.
Aircraft also need to be serviced to ensure that they function properly and transport passengers safely.
Just as a car needs to be serviced after reaching certain kilometres, an aircraft needs to be serviced when it has completed its cycle, which varies from one aircraft to another. Some are serviced on a weekly basis while others are serviced after a longer period.
“We have what we call C and D checks, which are major services on an aircraft whereby maintenance engineers strip off the entire aircraft and I get to perform a detailed inspection on it. Mechanics are responsible for overhauling it after the detailed inspection,” she said.
“One of the most fulfilling experiences for me is to see an aircraft I have worked on take off defect-free to the skies, knowing that my signature is there among the many talented, committed and passionate men and women who also worked on it.”
Phokwane is part of a team of 12 aircraft maintenance engineers who specialise in nondestructive testing inspection. They all work in crews to perform various inspections.
Phokwane views her job as a critical aspect of aviation, saying there is no room for error in what she does.
“I cannot afford to miss any defects. I have to be at my optimum every day and remind myself that although I work with aircraft, people’s lives are what I have to keep in mind. The aircraft needs to fly safely, without any defects. The responsibility that I have as an inspector is quite huge in the sense of having to decide whether to ground it or not, based on the results I have found,” she explained.
One of the highlights of her career so far is recently attending training at Rolls-Royce, the British luxury car and aero-engine manufacturing business.
The company has built a reputation for its development and manufacture of engines for defence and civil aircraft.
“According to Rolls-Royce’s records I am the third female in the world and the first one in Africa to receive that kind of training from their company. That is really humbling to know,” she said.
Phokwane said the fact that she is still the only woman at SAA Technical doing this work is still hard for her to believe and she would like to see more women joining her team.
One of the challenging aspects of her work is that she constantly has to develop herself to stay on par with other engineers in the field because technology is always evolving.
Phokwane encouraged young people to pursue careers in non-destructive testing inspection, which is not as popular in South Africa as it is abroad.
“Not many people are exposed to careers such as this one. I learned about it for the first time when I could not find space to study what I initially wanted. Perhaps the reason I am the only female in my team is because people do not know about this job opportunity,” she said.
Being the only female in the team was a challenge for Phokwane and her male colleagues at the beginning of her career, because they were not used to sharing duties with females.
“They also had to change the way they talk about certain issues,” she said.
However, Phokwane said it did not take too long for everyone to accept her as part of the team.
“They learnt to work with me and I also had to adapt to working with them. Right now we work so well together. We treat each other equally regardless of our gender difference and understand that each of us are an important part of this team,” she said.
Phokwane hopes to see more women specialising in non-destructive testing inspection.
*This article appeared in Public Sector Manager magazine in October 2019