By RoxanneB 19 Aug 2022 10 min read

My journey to Captain at South African Airways and beyond

Aviation is romantic. The title of Captain can conjure images of well-spoken, professional, tall gentlemen in dark uniforms with gold accents to attribute their status and experience. Indeed, that is the goal of most young men and women. The ultimate for many who choose a career in aviation is becoming a senior Captain in a Legacy Carrier.  


Introducing Marc Fourie 

My career started in the Western Cape, in South Africa. I was fortunate enough to grow up in beautiful Cape Town with the ocean, warm sunshine days, and breath-taking beauty all around. The day after I completed matric, I went to George to commence my flight training. 

The quaint coastal town was the ideal place to fly, as there was not much air traffic there, the facilities and air traffic control was good and most days we had fairly good weather.

In 1991, I completed my Commercial pilot’s license in Cape Town within 18 months, after my brief time in George and equipped with a newly minted Commercial license, I went to Windhoek, in Namibia to look for work.  

As many young pilots could attest to, finding that first pilot jobs position can be a challenge. No-one wants to take a chance on a rookie! Of course, with 30 years experience in the industry, it makes sense to me. I spent my days at Eros airport in Windhoek at the charter offices there doing anything they needed me to do, free of charge.

After six months of hanging around there, I got a break with Namibian Commercial Aviation as a charter pilot. Many young people today would not even consider such a thing, but it is necessary in this career path to be prepared to be the least for a while.


“Be humble and learn a lot..”

It is important to be humble and to understand that you have a lot to learn. Many things in this business come by experience only, and although you should do your best to understand the theoretical and practical side of your training, there is nothing that can compare with experience.

We as pilots are usually goal-oriented and I must admit that in my haste to get to the airlines, I didn’t enjoy the charter flying as much as I could have. These years were some of the most interesting and daring times of my life. During this time, I flew Med-rescue flights as well as charters all over Namibia.

Namibia was an amazing place to build hours and experience. This vast country has so many beautiful destinations and because it’s so very big, the need for charter flights is quite substantial. As a young man, I enjoyed the free-spirited, impulsive, adventurous lifestyle that this type of flying required.

I had a few close calls as well, like the time we went with Med-rescue to fetch a patient and the gear didn’t indicate that it was down. 

There we were, in the middle of the mountainous desert, a car shining its lights on each end of the road to signify a landing strip and the left gear didn’t want to lock into place according to the indication. There were no emergency support vehicles, or medical assistance.

That’s what we were there for, after all. I decided to gently land on the other two wheels and tip the aircraft onto the one we suspected was not locked. (This all, during the dead of night, of course.) If it was faulty, I would take off again, and go and crash in Windhoek. Thankfully, all was well, and we landed safely. We could take the patent back to Windhoek and see to it that he received the medical attention he needed. It turned out to be a faulty indicator light sensor. 

But that’s the thing though, you never know...

Charter flying is some of the best and most liberated flying you can do. It is excellent preparation for problem solving and managing an operation. The scenery and environment in Namibia are breathtakingly beautiful and when I think back on my short time there, it is with great fondness.


My oldest son is now also entering the aviation arena

He has become a flight instructor and is using that platform to increase his hours and experience to equip him to go on to all the bigger and better things that are in his future. I can only smile as I see his own eagerness to finish this period of his life and like me, he is sure to think back to this time in his life with fondness as well.

After about three years of charter flying and with about two thousand hours accumulated, I was able to apply to the Namibian Legacy Carrier. I got the opportunity to fly with Air Namibia as a co-pilot on the Beechcraft 1900. This 19-seat aeroplane was my opportunity to start building the much-coveted turbine hours.

My unpredictable day-to-day schedule when I was flying charters changed to a much more predictable monthly schedule as I entered the world of Airline flying. The privilege of joining Air Namibia, unfortunately had a very negative impact on my wallet as my salary was about half of what I was getting at NCA (Namibian Commercial Aviation), but I needed the experience to proceed to SA Express as a First Officer in 1995.

Up until this time, that is, during my charter years and time at Air Namibia, I studied my ATP (Airline Transport License) subjects and completed the flight test. I did this before I joined SA Express, and I would highly recommend doing that, if you are considering a career as an Airline Pilot jobs. It’s a good idea to get the theory out of the way as soon as possible and make sure you get all the requirements met for PIC (Pilot in Command) and Night PIC before you get a co-pilot position as this becomes problematic later if you don’t have it.

During this time, I met my wife of 26 years and settling down became a priority. Flying for an Airline gives you the opportunity to have a predictable income and a predictable career path, or so I thought. Flying for SA Express was only ever going to be a transitional stage and even though flying the Dash 8 was good and I enjoyed it, the jetliners of South African Airways were calling!

After many applications and about 4 thousand hours I joined SAA in 1997 as a first officer on the Airbus A300. This heavy twin wide body with a three-man crew was a giant leap for me after turboprops and I really enjoyed the challenge. At last, I had accomplished my goal to join my country’s Legacy Carrier, after 7 years of preparation and hard work.  

During this time, SAA decommissioned the A300, and I flew Boeing’s B737 200 and 800 variants. I was based in a small coastal fleet in Cape Town at the time, and it was nice to be back home, but the downside of being in such a small fleet is that the flying becomes very monotonous. That is why, when the opportunity came to become a Senior First Officer on the Airbus A340, with a factory conversion in Toulouse, France, I leapt at the opportunity.


Long haul flights 

Long haul flights, and CAT 2/3 operations to Europe and the USA are awesome! Landing in places like Hong Kong, London and Milan was amazing and I loved being in these foreign places. Experiencing everything that made each destination unique and special, from the people, the culture, and the cuisine to the weather. It was an experience I not only enjoyed myself, but I was privileged enough to be able to share it with my family. I believe it is a gift that few are able to give their children, that is to see the world.  

After 8 years of long-range flying, I was due to be promoted to the rank of Captain, and of course I took the opportunity when it was offered. That meant that I was going to fly domestic and regional flights, but that was the next step on the ladder to my ultimate goal: Senior Captain on the international fleet. Unfortunately, I never saw this dream realized, in fact, I just missed it as I was next in line for promotion when Covid struck.

But experience is never wasted. One of my regional flights was a testament to that very fact when I departed from Nairobi to Johannesburg.  Two hours into the flight we noticed burning smells throughout the aircraft. There was no ECAM warning as the smoke was not dense enough to trigger any warning. The first officer began working through the smoke/fumes checklist and we elected to divert to Lilongwe.

We were close to the airfield, so I was able to get the aircraft from 36000’ to on the ground in 7 minutes. We had a ground handling agent there and he was able to secure hotels for all the passengers within an hour. Due to the experience of the crew and ability to make decisions quickly, a potentially deadly situation was very effectively dealt with.

As time went on, the company started dying a slow and painful death due to years of gross misconduct and mismanagement. We all saw it coming, and we were powerless to effect change. The Covid pandemic was the last nail in the coffin. The pilot, cabin crew and ground staff unions tried to intervene and after a very public and misleading fight, most of SAA’s pilots, cabin crew and ground staff were retrenched.

When you join a Legacy Carrier, you usually plan to retire there, as the seniority system at most carriers prohibit jumping around. When you leave, you lose your position in the queue. When you join another Legacy Carrier, you start at the bottom. It makes no difference how many hours you have or your level of experience. 

Early retirement was presented as an option to me by circumstances out of my control and my family and I came to picturesque Still Bay in the Western Cape next to the sea. I have had the opportunity to draw closer to God and to find peace and joy again after a very traumatic reality check. Making peace with our drastically misjudged future and deciding what the future holds for us, was a long and deliberate process, but after some soul searching in beautiful Still Bay, I decided I am not done with flying yet.

In South Africa, as more and more airlines go under, pilot’s options are becoming more and more desperate as the work for pilots becomes less and companies are happy to exploit this apparent shortage of work. 

This is why many are looking across the borders of our beautiful Motherland to find greener pastures. What father and husband does not want to give their family the best living he can? Not only are there many opportunities overseas, it’s work that pays well.


Gulfstream’s flagship 

I am currently pursuing opportunities elsewhere in the world as South Africa is no longer an option for me either. At this stage my young heart is aiming to fly Gulfstream’s flagship, the G700, rather than further Airline flying. My two boys have become noteworthy young men and my wife and I are once again able to make decisions not based on schools and a steady, predictable lifestyle.

Looking back on my career thus far, I also have to concede that I probably would not have stepped out into the great unknown if these tragic events did not happen. One wonders if it is better to live your life out in a predictable, safe way, never knowing that there is more to life than working, retiring, and settling close to the kids and the hospital.

My heart is ready for new things now. I have let go of the predictable and the misguided assumption that I have ultimate control over my future and I have allowed myself to have the positive expectation that my family and I are headed for a better future. More than I can ask or think.


3 Tips for aspiring aviation professionals

If you want my advice, here it is:

Work hard to achieve your qualifications as soon as possible. Put in the hours and don’t let any opportunity pass you by. 

    1. Have one goal and remind yourself every day that you’re playing the long game. Instant gratification is just that: Instant. The problem is it moves your ultimate goal further and further. 

    2. Get debt free as soon as possible. My colleagues in SAA suffered indescribable disaster at the hands of the company, the shareholder, and the business practitioners. Some ended up with nothing, not even their health. You don’t know the future but go for it anyway. 

    3. Look after your physical health, exercise regularly, eat well and sleep well.  Your body can be a blessing or a curse during your lifetime.  Someone once said: “I do today what others won’t, so that tomorrow, I can do what others can’t”.

    4. Put your trust in God, not in your circumstances or your future.


Enjoy your journey and make the most of every day wherever you are. Don’t wish your life away and live well within your means (debt free).


Photo by Blake Guidry on Unsplash