Veronica Trataris now Žunić is a British-African pilot, a gentle force breaking barriers in the skies. Born in Malawi, Africa, with a passion for the skies, she scripted history as the first Malawian female pilot and female captain for Air Malawi. Among others, her career includes being a presidential pilot for former president Bakili Muluzi; making the first female captain in TransAsia Airways, and being the first female pilot and captain at Vietnam Airlines.
Veronica embodies a unique blend of kindness, awareness, precision, creativity, and an impressive set of skills that have taken her on a captivating journey around the world as the captain of various airplanes.
Today, Veronica’s journey continues as she shares her wealth of knowledge and experience as an examiner and instructor for ATO aviation company Salient, based in the city of Zagreb, Croatia. Her story is an inspiring tale of resilience, determination, and a true calling in the face of real challenges. Overcoming discrimination with understanding, Veronica has paved the way for aspiring women pilots.
In her own words: “If this is your dream and what makes you excited about your day, then never give up.”
1. When did you know you wanted to become a pilot? Did you dream about it as a little girl?
As far, back as I can remember, I wanted to fly. My mother thought I wanted to be a flight attendant but I categorically told her no, I wanted to be up in the front of an airplane. I can’t say I dreamed of airplanes as a little girl but I always had the sensation of being free and somehow flying above everything and looking down on things from above. The aircraft interest came later when my father asked his pilot friend to take me in his aircraft on a flight. Then nothing could stop me!
2. What passion was driving you to obtain such a difficult goal? Your father passed away too early and you got lucky to be able to finish school. You had three jobs to be able to complete pilot studies in South Africa.
I had this internal passion to fly and nothing could stop me. I cannot explain it and it was internal and fierce. My father passed away while I was writing my high school exams and my mother could not afford to keep me in school. My headmaster at the time, Mr. Dalton, refused to let my mother pull me out of school so he paid my year’s year school fees to ensure that I completed my high school studies. After that, I went to the UK and worked all manner of jobs (butchery assistant, bartender, salesperson etc.) to save money so that I could start my flying school. When I was able to save enough for the initial deposit, I left the UK and went to South Africa to start my flying lessons. As I was self-sponsored and only had enough money for the deposit, I had to work three jobs whilst flying so that I could pay for my tuition and living costs.
This was the toughest period of my life but I guess what doesn’t break you, makes you stronger ☺
3. Were you the only woman studying to be a pilot? How did you get your first flying job?
I was the only female in my class but my very good friend, also a female, was in the class before me also studying to be a pilot.
When I completed my studies, I begged Captain Mchungula from Air Malawi to take me on as a pilot. He was reluctant due to my being a white Malawian and it took a long time to convince the board of Air Malawi that I was a Malawian. It then took a long time to convince them that I would not run off and get married as soon as I completed my training. I consequently had to sign a 5-year year contract stating that I would not get married or have kids during this period.
4. Captain Mchungula was defining for the beginning of your career as first officer. What was your path like before becoming a captain?
Captain Mchungula was a great mentor and support to me. He pushed for me to join Air Malawi and I credit him for starting my aviation career and believing in me. I was the only female white pilot in Air Malawi and it was a challenge in many ways. The path to becoming a Captain was challenging and I believe the training was justifiably hard but I cannot say it was harder than what the men received as I had no comparison.
5. You mention having your best years in aviation when you served the now-liquidated national flag carrier in Malawi. You praise your instructors. Why did they leave such an impression on you?
The instructors in those days were hard but fair and they pushed you to be the best you could be. I flew many aircraft in Air Malawi (HS748, DO228, ATR42, B737) and each of those aircraft gave me invaluable skills and basic foundations that have carried me throughout my career.
6. How did your career continue? You were the first female captain in TransAsia and Vietnam Airlines.
I flew for Air Malawi for 10 years before moving to Taiwan where I was the first female Captain there as well. I loved Taiwan and had a great experience there with communication issues, typhoons, and earthquakes all giving me different perspectives on aviation and life.
After 4 years there, I moved to Vietnam Airlines. Vietnam Airlines initially rejected me based on my gender but when they could not find pilots to join their ATR fleet, they finally accepted me. To date, I believe that I am still the only expat pilot to endure a 9-hour simulator assessment session!
Vietnam Airlines, especially Captain Phan Xuan Duc and Captain Nguyen Duc Ngoc Minh, were very professional and supportive of me and allowed me to develop my career further with them. They were my mentors in Vietnam Airlines and I still hold them in very high esteem today.
7. How come you decided to start providing training to pilots?
In 2014 my husband, Mladen Žunić, and I decided that we could provide good quality training in a much- needed sector. So we opened up an ATO in Slovenia called GreenDot Aviation Ltd. This was very successful and we trained numerous airlines in Asia. Unfortunately, we had to close this company down during coronavirus period but last year we re-branded and re-opened a new training organization called Salient Aero (www.salient.aero)
8. You also flew for DHL for a while?
In 2018, we left Vietnam Airlines as my husband took a job with DHL – European Air Transport in Leipzig, Germany. I worked for them as a freelance instructor/examiner on A330 and then took on a full-time flying position for one year on A300. At the same time, I was the Project Manager for their EBT digital solution and VR Project.
9. What kind of training do you provide at Salient?
Salient Aero is an ATO – Approved Training Organization and it is based in Zagreb, Croatia. We provide A320/330/350 Type Rating training and Instructor and Examiner courses.
I work there as an Accountable Manager as well as an Instructor and Examiner.
10. Do you still fly, or will in the future?
I stopped flying at the end of 2021 and at present, I have no plans to get back into flying. However, if the right opportunity arose, this may be something that I could consider.
11. Where do you feel “at home”? Is it hard to relocate so many times?
My home is Zagreb and I feel very much at home here. I am welcome here and I love the lifestyle and people. The language is proving to be a bit of a challenge but I am slowly working on it ☺
12. How do you view women in aviation? You mentioned many passengers refused to fly with you because you were a woman.
I am delighted to see more and more women in aviation, not only on the flight decks but also in different areas such as ATC, maintenance, and so on. We need more women and more role models for women to learn what these careers entail.
Yes, I have had passengers refuse to fly with me when they learned it was a female captain. That was fine and I accepted that this is a new concept and things will slowly change. But in later years they became more accepting and welcoming.
A career as a pilot, unless you are wealthy and privileged, comes with a lot of hard work and sacrifices. But having said that, it is worth it. The career is amazing and the lifestyle can be great as you travel a lot, meet people, and your office changes daily.
But it requires work, dedication, and sacrifice. In my day it was a lot harder as we faced so much discrimination and unfair treatment. Today, however, the situation is different and many workplaces support women, their families, and their careers.
13. Being an airline pilot is a very exciting career but also a hard life that leaves many pilots dreaming of never having to sleep in another hotel again. What do you feel are your biggest sacrifices and biggest wins?
Yes, it is a hard life involving a lot of time away from home and family and staying in different places all the time.
It can be difficult for families. You tend to be away during special times of the year (Xmas, birthdays, and so on). So this is by far the greatest sacrifice. But the rewards are endless. You receive tremendous satisfaction from learning to fly a new airplane and then carrying passengers safely to their destination. It is mostly a thankless task but there are thousands of flights across the globe each day that take place without occurence. That is testimony to the good job that pilots and everyone involved in aviation are doing daily and taking people safely to and from their homes.
14.) What do you see as the best your career in aviation gave you?
My career has taught me humility and gratefulness. I struggled to achieve what I have and this has taught me the value of things and how life is not easy for us all. Everyone has their private battles and we should never judge. I am humbled by the job and the people I have worked with and these skills have helped me continue to work in the field and to achieve in different dimensions.
15.) Why do people choose your training at Salient, what do you do differently? Where are current difficulties in training and why choose you?
Salient is a company run by aviation-passionate people. We care about aviation, its values, and the roots aviation came from. We do things differently because we care about the trainee and the company behind the trainee. We believe in training every individual to be the best that they can be and to give the best to the company that they move to.
There are many challenges in training right now and too many to briefly discuss in an interview like this. Suffice it to say that each generation brings its challenges to training and that each year brings new technological advances. Our challenge is to match these with the requirements for the job whilst appreciating that pilots are still adults with individual learning adaptations.
So why choose Salient? Because we see you as an individual with individual strengths and weaknesses and we will help and guide you to be the best pilot you can be.
16.) You are now based in Zagreb but you travel a lot around the world to provide training- what is vision for your company, how do you see it grow and make connections in the future?
Salient is a young company motivated by knowledge, experience, and advancement. We have a desire to lead the way in training and provide different perspectives that enhance pilot competency and resilience while maintaining the incredibly high standards that we are known for.
Our future connections will be with the youth of today and helping them navigate the complex aviation world of today.
17.) What do you think the future holds for jobs in aviation?
Robots, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and the Internet are going to reshape the ecosystem of aviation. We need to ensure flexibility and adaptability and understand that future workforces will have different priorities so we will need to adapt our mindsets to ensure rapid business reinvention.
18. What is your advice to future pilots?
Aviation is a unique profession. One that gives great rewards but also requires a lot of sacrifice. To future pilots, I say, if this is your dream and what makes you excited about your day, then never give up. It is a struggle to get started but the sacrifices are worth it. Do not give up and knock on every door until one opens!
19.) You also have taste in art, you recently bought a unique conference table made by us. Can you tell us why you decided to invest in aviation art and how it inspires your work and clients?
My husband and I fell in love with your art and the table you specially created for us is unique, bespoke, and a true work of art. We love the passion that went into making this table and we believe that through this table, our passion for aviation is evident for all to feel.
When we sit at the table to work or have meetings, the energy is felt through the table and it is a unique piece that speaks for the love of flying. As Leonardo Da Vinci said:
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
interview made by: Eva Kraš