Real Life

Meet the first Maori female pilot in the New Zealand Air Force

Angela Swann-Cronin (40), of Rotorua, was the first Maori female pilot in the Royal NZ Air Force, and she's ready for take off.
Angela Swann-Cronin

When I was 14, I saw an advert on TV for the air force. I’d never even been on a plane, but it sparked something in me. I knew flying was what I wanted to do even though I had issues with my hearing. In my last year at Rotorua Girls’ High, I applied for the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

I didn’t get in, which was pretty disappointing, so I tried again the following year and failed again. They suggested I go out and get some life experience. I ended up doing a year of an engineering degree at the University of Auckland but it wasn’t really me, so I returned to Rotorua and started studying for a helicopter licence. It was a case of third time lucky because I applied to the air force again when I was 22 and got in. Going from civilian to military life was tough and I’ll never forget the survival course, where they simulate what it would be like to survive a plane crash and you’re sleep-deprived, hungry and exercised to exhaustion.

After graduating, I spent a year flying around New Zealand and then flew Hercules cargo planes to the Pacific and Antarctica, where we would deliver fresh food into McMurdo Station, landing on an ice runway.

Art and soul: The multi-skilled mum is also a talented painter – a passion that keeps her up at night.

I met my husband Anton in the air force. He was a navigation specialist and three months after we got married, he was sent to Dubai and I was sent to Kyrgyzstan, where I flew daily missions into Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. After a year, Anton was sent to Winnipeg in Canada and we ended up living there for three years. I saw more of Canada than most Canadians and ended up flying to the Arctic. My colleagues would joke that there weren’t many women who’d been to both the North and South Poles!

I had my first son Nikau [now 10] in Canada but we really missed our families so, in 2006, we came back to New Zealand. My second son Tai was born two years later, and I spent some time in a ground job and being a mum, which was great. But after four years of not flying, I wanted to get back into it, so Anton and I began to juggle our careers with raising the boys. I loved my job but would cry every day when I dropped the kids at daycare. After two years, we decided to put family first and looked for careers outside the air force. We moved to Christchurch for nine months so Anton could retrain as an air traffic controller and came back to Rotorua to be near family, including my two sisters and their kids.

In August 2014, I started flying regional routes for Air New Zealand from Rotorua. It’s fantastic because the airport is five minutes from home and Anton, who works at Tauranga Airport, is able to arrange his shifts around mine so there’s always someone available for the kids.

Her boys, Nikau (left) and Tai, and husband Anton, an air traffic controller, help keep the high-flier grounded.

I have friends from the military who are flying long-haul routes around the world and are having a great time, but that’s not for me right now. I’m thankful to have the best of both worlds

– to work at a job I love and to raise my family. It also gave me more time to devote to designing and building our straw-bale house. We’ve always been keen on building an eco-friendly house and although it was hard going – because it coincided with my three-month Air New Zealand training where I was hardly at home – we’re happy with how the house turned out. It’s warm, comfortable and we love it.

I’m also hoping to find more time to spend on my art. I was arty at school but switched to the science subjects when I decided I wanted to be a pilot. But my love of being creative has never gone away and I’ve always dabbled in oil painting. Another thing I’m passionate about is encouraging more women to fly. I was the first and – as far as I’m aware – the only Maori woman to become a pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and it would be great to see others do the same.

I had a young Maori woman contact me recently saying she was inspired by me and was thinking of joining the air force. It’s important our young women reach their full potential, not just as pilots but as whatever they want to be.”

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