When Tyeisha Clark finished school, she had little idea she would shortly be clutching the joystick on a small prop-driven aeroplane, gently circling Black Mountain Tower in Canberra.
The 19-year-old proudly Indigenous woman hails from the town of Kowanyama on the western side of the Cape York Peninsula, and at least to start with, didn’t have many plans after school.
“I did a gap year and just did nothing after I finished school, but then I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to live like this – I want to find a job'”, she says.
She began her working life as an administrative assistant for Megan Logan from RISE Ventures, which provides training and employment pathways for locals in remote Indigenous communities. Soon afterwards, she met John Sayers from Indigenous-owned integrated services provider 18Fifty3.
John and his business partner Ben Surawski were visiting schools across the Cape to enliven students with music.
“We take a box of 50 ukuleles and rock into a town, go to the school and teach all the kids,” John says.
“We leave them there and they paint their own ukuleles with tribal art, and the instrument becomes theirs. Music is a therapy – it’s good for the soul.”
On 24 August 2022, the pair found themselves nine hours west of Cairns in a small town on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria, only accessible via dirt roads. The first person John met was Tyeisha.
“I asked her, ‘What songs do you like?'” John recalls.
“She said Queen – ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ – and then I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna make you a rock star, Tyeisha’. And she said, ‘I don’t want to be a rock star – I want to be a pilot’.
“That’s how it happened.”
Nine months later, in May 2023, Tyeisha was taking off from Canberra Airport, seated next to a local flight school Learn2Fly trainer. She’s the inaugural student for 18Fifty3’s new program, ‘The Barefoot Pilot’, designed to put more Indigenous people into aviation jobs.
“It would be great for us to have our own pilots,” Tyeisha says.
Demand for pilots is insatiable in Cape York.
During the annual wet season, the already rough and ready roads turn to muddy slush, leaving thousands of square kilometres only accessible by plane. Teachers, doctors and dentists all have to fly in when needed.
The Barefoot Pilot program aims to empower local Indigenous people to fill this need.
John hopes it will eventually morph into a fully-fledged ‘Centre of Aviation’ at the Cape, complete with a flight school, fuel depot and maintenance hangars and equipment – enough to attract major airlines like Qantas to the area. But for now, it all starts in school.
“We want to ignite a passion in kids in different communities and create a whole movement of ‘barefoot pilots’,” he says.
John and Tyeisha will fly back to the Cape in early July to win over the hearts of children in schools across the area with flight demonstrations, free T-shirts and paper-aeroplane competitions (complete with launchers).
John says it’s about piquing their interest before the pressure of high school hits.
“We want the kids to have a reason to learn maths and science because you need maths and science to learn to fly,” he says.
From here, those who choose to pursue it as a career can learn much of the theory remotely and then complete their in-the-air training hours either in Bathurst or Canberra.
“There’s real flying to be done here, in intermittent weather and around hills. Tyeisha can learn to fly in rain and cloud because it can be nothing but blue sky for six months at the Cape. And we can’t do it during the wet season because we can’t get fuel there.”
Tyeisha says the reactions from her family members and peers have been “amazing”, and once she’s completed her 13 hours of flight time, she’s looking forward to her first solo flight from Canberra to Cape York on 3 July, when the whole town will come out to welcome her.
“Every day, I get phone calls from my mum and dad, telling me they are proud of everything,” she says.
“It feels amazing.”
It doesn’t stop here either, because the girl who dreamed of becoming a pilot now wants to be the first Indigenous astronaut.
Original Article published by James Coleman on Riotact.