• Tori Nikolau jumps for joy after receiving her commercial pilot's licence from Australian Wings Academy at the Gold Coast. (Australian Wings Academy)
Worimi and Gumbaynggirr woman Tori Nikolau has overcome a series of obstacles to become one of Australia's first female, Indigenous commercial pilots.
By
Ella Archibald-Binge

9 Jul 2018 - 1:36 PM  UPDATED 9 Jul 2018 - 2:42 PM

Children are often said to have their head in the clouds, but in Tori Nikolau’s case, that wasn’t a bad thing.

From a young age, the sky was her second home, as she tagged along on flights with her pilot father, Tony.

"Just that moment when you’re rolling and taking off in the aircraft, I used to look around at my parents... and I’d have this big grin on my face," the 23-year-old tells NITV News. 

"It’s the adrenaline of it and the fact that you know that this aircraft is taking off into the sky is just incredible!

"It's pure happiness that I feel, that’s the best way I could ever put it. I feel complete."

When, at 17, Ms Nikolau began to seriously consider a career in aviation, her father struggled to contain his excitement.

"I tried to pretend first that I didn’t really care... but in reality, it did excite me and I thought wow, she’s actually serious about this," said Mr Nikolau, a Virgin Australia Captain.

But the family's excitement was short-lived. ​

Soon after beginning training for her private pilot's licence, the then-20-year-old discovered she’d developed cysts on her lower spine.

Forced to abandon her studies, she underwent three rounds of surgery in six months, leaving her bed-ridden, and putting her dreams in jeopardy.

"It just really takes a toll on your body and you’re just really tired," Ms Nikolau recalled.

"You feel useless, you feel like you can’t do anything. And that’s when I started thinking, am I going to get better? Can I actually take up aviation as a career anymore?".

'At the end of the day, no one has sat down and studied for me.'

After 12 months, Ms Nikolau recovered and was able to resume her pilot training.

Then last year, the family encountered another devastating hurdle, when Tori's mother Tamara was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

"I was trying to find the medium, the balance of still trying to study but still trying to be there for my mum," Ms Nikolau said.

"It was a tough time, but she got through it and she’s a strong woman, and I’m very grateful, grateful for my family."

Despite these challenges, Ms Nikolau finished an intensive 18-month course at Australian Wings Academy on the Gold Coast last October to become one of Australia’s first female, Indigenous commercial pilots.

Now, she's focused on getting a job with a major commercial airline.

"We're very, very proud of her commitment and determination, and yeah just over the moon," says her mother Tamara. 

Across Australia, only around five per cent of commercial pilots are women. 

As an Indigenous woman who proudly identifies with both her mother's Aboriginality and her father's Greek heritage, Ms Nikolau said she had even more to prove.

"People ask, 'where are you from and what’s your background?', and I’ll say I’m Indigenous and I’m also Greek. And they’ll be like, quite shocked," she said. 

"You come across a lot of barriers of people thinking 'oh she’s had help to get to where she’s going', but at the end of the day, no one has sat down and studied for me, no one has done my exams for me, no one’s done my flight tests for me – it was all me doing that hard work and studying.

"I just hope to inspire other females out there to do what they want to do in life, and to know that there are barriers that are held up unfortunately, but you can definitely get through them with determination, passion and just having that drive inside you."

BECAUSE OF HER, WE CAN
Because of Her, We Can: Local Women Leaving Legacies
In celebration of this years' National NAIDOC Week theme, 'Because of Her, We Can', NITV asked the public to nominate exceptional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in their community. These are submitted photos and testimonials of everyday women doing extraordinary things, whether they be changing government policy, advocating for social justice or being the backbone in their family home. These are women who have made an impact in their communities and to all those around them.