9 July 2023

Whole hometown turns out to welcome 19-year-old's first flight from Canberra to Cape York

| James Coleman
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Tyeisha Clark received a hero's welcome in Kowanyama.

Tyeisha Clark received a hero’s welcome in Kowanyama.

Imagine the scene when the first space shuttle came into view over California’s skies in 1981. It was a similar scene in Kowanyama earlier this week.

“I had tears in my eye, but I didn’t want anybody to see so I wiped them away very quickly,” Tyeisha Clark, 19, says of her hometown landing.

Her whole community turned out to welcome her back from weeks of flight training in Canberra on the way to her dream of becoming a fully-fledged airline pilot.

“I was just having a moment in the plane and was like to myself, ‘You’re really flying back to your community, I’m really flying back, I’m really doing this’.”

Tyeisha is the inaugural student in a new program called ‘The Barefoot Pilot’, designed to get more Indigenous people into aviation jobs.

It was created by John Sayers from Indigenous-owned integrated services provider 18Fifty3, with practical training provided by Learn2Fly, a flight school with bases in Canberra and Bathurst.

The hope is to establish a ‘Centre of Aviation’ on the Cape, complete with a flight school, fuel depot and maintenance hangars and equipment – enough to attract major airlines like Qantas and address staffing shortages in the area.

“We want to ignite a passion in kids in different communities and create a whole movement of ‘barefoot pilots’,” John says.

Tyeisha first met John when he and his business partner visited Cape York schools, dropping off boxes of ukuleles and teaching kids how to play.

“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.”

Less than a year later, Tyeisha returned to her hometown at the helm of a light aircraft. The trip took two days, starting with an early start out of Canberra at 6 in the morning with a co-pilot also on board.

Tyeisha Clark celebrates her achievement with John Sayers in Kowanyama.

Tyeisha Clark celebrates her achievement with John Sayers in Kowanyama.

“It was long and exhausting, but it was amazing flying across the country,” she says.

“It felt so unreal to me. I loved every single bit of it.”

She and the co-pilot arrived at the runway in Kowanyama the next day, and despite the fact they were several hours behind schedule, it wasn’t late enough to perturb everyone who had come out to watch her come in.

“As we got close, I saw what I thought were houses on the horizon, but they weren’t houses, it was the airport full of cars and people,” she says.

“We ended up parking and I beeped the horn on the plane, and the crowd just went crazy.”

Over the following days, her co-pilot took several kids from her old school up in the plane on short circuits, hopefully to whet their appetites for becoming ‘barefoot pilots’ too.

“I think I can be a good role model to them. And hopefully, I will [find work] with an airline, as well as an Indigenous flight school, and if any Indigenous kids want to, they can come here to learn.”

Despite the nerves, she has also undertaken her first solo flight. And over the course of the year, she’ll divide her time between building interest in flying among the younger generations in her hometown and getting her hours up by flying around Canberra and Bathurst.

For now, however, she’s just very proud.

“My mum, dad, siblings, everybody was just in tears of happiness,” she says.

“I felt very special and like nothing can stop myself and my people from doing something so brilliant and so resilient. I’m proud of what I’ve done for my people.”

Original Article published by James Coleman on Riotact.

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