With dreams of flying high above the clouds, Heidi Fourie refused to be deterred when the South African Air Force told her she could not become a pilot.
Ms Fourie enlisted in the Air Force at 17 and found her ‘wings’ in other ways, determined to always face adversity and challenges head on.
“I was told that I would never be a pilot because I was a woman,” Ms Fourie said.
“I decided early on that ‘no’ was not a good enough reason to stop trying and even in the face of people continually telling me ‘no’, I was resolute that I would carve out a new path or at least a different path to what was traditional or easy.
“I went into my Air Force career wanting to question what opportunities I would and could be given in direct comparison to my male colleagues. At the time that made me a pioneer not only for my career progression but also for all the women who came after me.”
One area that did interest Ms Fourie was technology and foreign languages and little did she know that this focus would set her on a path for a diverse and challenging career.
“I started out in intelligence but I didn’t want to just analyse data and information – I wanted to be on the frontline and very early on I decided if I couldn’t fly, then I wanted to be involved in a different way,” she said.
“I learned to speak Russian and applied these skills operationally and analytically, which lead me to be involved in image interpretation, electronic warfare and airborne surveillance (manned and unmanned).
“I was the youngest and most junior rank to complete the advanced image interpretation course and after completing the training, I went on to train pilots, senior officers and advanced image analysts, whilst developing unique specialist intelligence skills and capabilities as my career progressed.”
Now a cornerstone of defence capabilities globally, Ms Fourie said when she first indicated her interest in unmanned aircraft (drones), she was laughed at. However, it was her interest and passion in this area of specialisation which has ensured a career outside the military.
“I was ridiculed at my choice of working with unmanned aircraft – what most people call drones – but to me they were and still are at the forefront of defence capability,” she said.
“When I left the Air Force, I went into Defence Industry in South Africa and it was my skills in unmanned systems which solidified my post Air Force career, working and connecting with defence industry globally.”
As well as the technical skills gained during her service, Ms Fourie said there were a large number of other skills she developed which has helped her post service.
“My ability to strategise, plan and manage complex problems is certainly one I use every day. The military teaches you that a poor decision or a mistake could cost lives and while that might not be true on a day to day level these days, I certainly try and use that mindset in my everyday life because people do rely on us in some capacity.
“I think another thing the Air Force really instilled in me was a culture of being held accountable and being resourceful to get the job done. Teamwork and innovation are also crucial skills which are useful in any workplace.”
Ms Fourie served for 18 years in the South African Air Force and said despite the inherent dangers of deployment, she is proud of the work she was able to be part of.
“Between 1981 and 2001 I was being deployed several months a year off on challenging missions to help people or conduct tasks aimed at protecting our country from adverse intrusion,” she said.
“The memories I have from that time paint a great adventure but equally were terrifying. Particularly during the humanitarian missions knowing you were flying in to help people was so rewarding but knowing you would not be able to help or save everyone was a harsh reality of the job.
“There were times when I would see five aircraft taking off for a mission, and only four would return, but we all knew the risks and the purpose of the job we were being sent to do.
“For me it was a time where I really valued in-the-moment connections because you genuinely didn’t know if it would be the last time you would see someone. During my deployments in particular, we all experienced loss but because of that I live every day in the moment.
“We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow we only have control of what is happening right here, right now but for me once I had my son I knew I didn’t want him to wake up without his mother which ultimately meant that I had to make that incredibly difficult decision to leave.”
Currently Ms Fourie is the National Training Manager at Babcock Australasia based in Adelaide and said her move to South Australia was about ensuring she was in the best place to continue working in the defence industry.
Ms Fourie’s story is part of an ongoing story telling series by Veterans SA. To read more stories of how those with military experience living in South Australia are contributing to our community click here.