The Wonders of Aviation story


American and South African soaring enthusiasts help found Wonders of Aviation in South Africa
by Donald Schenk, Soaring Magazine May 2015

Wonders of Aviation is a South African based organisation dedicated to using aviation to inspire that nation’s youth. Soaring’s involvement in this initiative is the result of two American soaring enthusiasts, Marion Griffith and Mark Huffstutler, who told me about how soaring had transformed their lives and how it could be used to transform others’ lives as well. Since both men spent their careers in aviation, one as a Concord Captain prior to becoming a senior executive in the pilot training industry, and the other as a business jet pilot and aviation entrepreneur, I listened carefully. This article is the story of how their thinking motivated me and others into creating Wonders of Aviation in South Africa and my hope that it will motivate readers to use their love of soaring to inspire today’s youth.

Soaring’s role in the creation of Wonders of Aviation was largely the work of Daniel Ralefeta, an avid glider pilot and educator. Daniel saw the potential for Wonders of Aviation to assist with his outreach work and he encouraged other aviation industry executives see how it could also help them. Fortunately, there was no need to establish outreach programs because South Africa is blessed with numerous aviation executives who love their work and are committed to increased diversity. There was, however, room for helping these programs to collaborate for their mutual benefit. 

That collaboration was accomplished by creating Wonders of Aviation, whose function is to:

  • Provide rewards;
  • Recruit role models and mentors;
  • Improve knowledge of and access to aeronautical training and scholarships;
  • Provide a forum for the exchange of information; and
  • Support aviation employment.

As the Chairman of Aero Club's Development and Transformation Committee, Daniel Ralefeta saw the potential value of an industry-wide initiative. In that capacity, he identifies students in impoverished schools who want to build model planes, and then uses their interest in model planes as a motivation for learning maths and science. This program has inspired thousands of South Africa’s most underprivileged children.

As exciting as this program is, its ability to change children’s lives is constrained by its one-year term and the lack of opportunity for its graduates. Fortunately, Daniel’s needs could be met by another founding member of Wonders of Aviation, the National Aerospace Center at Wits University (NAC). The NAC was in a position to help these aspiring scholars with scholarships to some of South Africa’s leading aviation universities. Moreover, for students with exceptional potential these scholarships can cover graduate work with the funding provided by the South African government’s Department of Trade and Industry and many of the world’s leading aerospace companies, including Boeing from the United States.

While these two organizations provided a basis for founding Wonders of Aviation, the leadership at NAC and I wanted broad industry support. Achieving that goal was helped by the fact that South Africa’s aviation industry is committed to increased diversity and each company already had its own program in place.  

After almost two years work, Wonders of Aviation was launched and its founding members include the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s airline capacity (South African Airways, Mango Airlines, and Comair Limited), South Africa’s aviation infrastructure companies (Airports Company of South Africa, Air Traffic and Navigation Services, and the South African Weather Service), the two major industry associations (Aero Club of South Africa and the Airlines Association of South Africa), Jonker Sailplanes, Vukani Aviation, and the NAC.  

Fortunately, each of these organizations’ outreach efforts is supported by individuals who are passionate about helping South Africa’s underprivileged youth. Moreover, they believe in the power of aviation to transform lives. Thus the name “Wonders of Aviation,” and the idea of having these organizations share their “Wonders” with the annual award winners. 

Wonders of Aviation was launched in May 2015 when six amazing young adults were selected by the South African aviation industry to be its 2014 award winners. Once again, the Aero Club and Soaring Society took the lead and offered to host a full day event for the year’s Wonders of Aviation award winners and their mentors. This offer created such enthusiasm that several companies offered to provide their own “Wonder,” which included:

  • A tour of the Johannesburg control tower;
  • Flying Airbus and Boeing flight simulators;
  • A tour of Wits University’s supersonic labs;
  • Attendance at the South African Air Force Swartkop Air Show;
  • Participation in Mango Airline’s Career Day; and
  • A flight on a commercial aircraft. 

The award winners were enthusiastic about each “Wonder,” but the highlight was the day was the opportunity to fly in a glider. This award was provided by the Kranskop Soaring Club, which is located at Brits Air Field, Brits, South Africa. 

The club provided four gliders, a safety officer, five instructors, two tug pilots, and four ground handlers. The award winners were given a full day of instruction, flying, and socializing with members of the Kranskop Soaring Club. Jonkers Sailplanes, the only aerospace company in South Africa that is building a South African designed and certified aircraft, provided the award winners model aircraft. 

The club’s members provided over fifty flights, with the gliders being towed into the bushveld skies by either a Lamdba or Samba motorglider. When the demand for flights exceeded supply, another club member, Karina du Plessis, took children for a flight in her beautifully restored Eurocoupe 415D. 

Wonders of Aviation is a young organization, but it holds great promise for helping some of South Africa’s least privileged become leading citizens in a country that reflects Nelson Mandela’s dream of South Africa being a rainbow nation. The 2015 award winners are an impressive group who have varied interests. They are: Gift Kgadima, a model plane enthusiast and glider pilot; Thenysia Krishna, Comair’s top performing student; Thabang Mamabolo, who hopes to pursue medicine and aviation; Odisha Bedzin & Monakisi Franz Moraba who want to become pilots; and Tumelo Mukua who is interested in life sciences and aviation. Most of these young adults also work part time to help support their families. 

I believe not only that soaring will play an important role in South Africa’s Wonders of Aviation but also that glider pilots have a great deal to contribute by helping to create local “Wonders of Aviation” initiatives and to serve as role models and mentors for today’s youth. Marion Griffith and I are talking to aviation organizations in Dallas and Seattle where we live and hope others will do the same in other locations. I also hope that this story will inspire readers to become involved with in the South African initiative. 

The original article was published in SSA's Soaring magazine in May 2015.