Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

The Flying Pioneer: Tonga’s first female pilot Luseane Fetuani Bowden

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
The Flying Pioneer: Tonga’s first female pilot Luseane Fetauni Bowden shares her journey.
Avatar photo
Alice Lolohea | Reporter/Director/Videographer

Growing up in a family of ten siblings, Luseane Fetuani Bowden knew how hard life could be, “we had very little,” she recalls.

Mum and Dad struggled to provide for all ten of us. I remember never having tea and bread in our house.” 

“It was like survival mode constantly. I learned to take nothing for granted.”

Bowden’s original goal was to be a doctor. But with medical school being financially out of reach for her parents, Luseane instead set her sights on the skies when she was granted a scholarship to study at the Gil Layt’s Flying School in Australia. 

The quick pace of the Aussie environment was a culture shock for a girl from the islands.

“Nowadays people travel and are more exposed to the world. Me, I was stepping into the unknown,” Luseane remembers. 

“I was used to Tongan buses, not fast cars. Girls wore skirts where I was from, not pants. I went to Queen Salote College and wasn’t used to working with men.” 

“But there I was amid them, working towards a career that was predominantly a male field…I had to familiarise myself with the new environment, adjust and adapt.”

As a pilot and a single mother, Luseane says her journey wasn’t easy, “but in the end, I pulled through.” Photo: WCCC

Flying school was a tough slog. Learning theory and practice flying simultaneously, but Luseane was intent on giving her family a better quality of life. 

And being the first Tongan female to take the flight course, she knew there was a lot riding on her shoulders, “I had to prove that women could make it in this field.”

Over eight gruelling months of training, in 1993 Luseane finally left the flying school with her pilot license firmly in her hand. 

Luseane got her first job working for the Royal Tongan Airlines, where her Tongan culture was a great asset to her work environment, “We see our women at a higher level. So culture did not really disadvantage me,” she says.

“I’ve been to places where they view women as third-class citizens. Fortunately…all I had to do was to prove myself in my work.”

Her time working in Tonga gave Luseane the confidence she needed when she eventually did experience the gender disparity in Vanuatu, butting heads with some of her male colleagues who found it difficult to take orders from a female pilot. 

But Luseane continued to persevere.

The road still wasn’t easy, especially as a single mother, “People say this is a glorious job,” Luseane says.

“But I’ve been through a lot. I missed milestones in my kids’ life to put food on the table. If I had to do it all over again, I still can’t figure out how to do it. All I knew was to stick with whatever decision I made. In the end, I pulled through.”

Luseane launched her own business Fononga Boutique, learning to make scented candles and gift boxes. Photo: Fononga Boutique

Despite the struggles and adversity she endured, Luseane believes it made her the woman she is today. 

Retirement is well-deserved for Tonga’s first female pilot. These days she’s acquiring new skills in scented candle and gift box making, running her small business Fononga Boutique.

And in this endeavour, Luseane is her own boss. 

“Flying really takes a lot out of you. You do things strictly by the book. I’ve adhered to that since 1993; it’s time I set the rulebook aside.”

“I encourage you; know who you are, know what you want to do, and stick to that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Do your thing.”

“The thought that there is a limit to what you can do because you’re a woman is a myth. There is no limit. You want something, get up, do the hard part, and you can do it!”

Read Luseane’s full interview here.

Stay Connected

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive daily updates direct to your inbox!

*we hate spam as much as you do