Athanasia Tori Nikolaou does not know how to give up, only how to keep going higher, as high as it’s necessary to achieve her goals.
At 20 years old, this half-Greek fearless lady from the Gold Coast has just become one of Australia’s first female, Indigenous commercial pilots; she’s also the first Greek Indigenous one.
“I am one of only a couple of Aboriginal female commercial pilots in the country,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“I am very proud to be in this category as there is not only a minority of five per cent of female pilots here in Australia, but to be an Aboriginal female pilot competing in the aviation industry is very satisfying and also inspiring.”
Both her parents were born in New South Wales, but their heritage goes way back, combining two of the world’s most ancient cultures. Tori is very proud of her Aboriginal and Greek background and considers herself fortunate to have grown up with culturally diverse parents. Her mother Tamara belongs to the Worimi peoples from Taree, on her grandmother’s side and the Gumbaynggirr peoples from Nambucca Heads on her grandfather’s side. Her father Tony’s dad, Traianos, was born in Aridea, Macedonia, and his mum Athanasia was born in Pyrgos Ilias, Peloponnese.
“My eldest sister Teisha Anastasia and I were both brought up knowing where we have come from,” she emphasises.
“It is a great feeling in my heart and soul being able to have the cultural knowledge and experiences about my heritage. My mother has worked [for] many years in training government and non-government organisations on Aboriginal culture. Before Australia, when I was a small child I lived in Athens, Greece; in a small town called Peania for six years. I went to a Greek school and I am fluent in written and spoken Greek.”
It was in Greece that she first became acquainted with aviation, as her father was a pilot for Aegean Airlines for those six years, and for the past 15 years has been a check captain with Virgin Australia. Tony Nikolaou, who has 29 years in aviation and counting, is her inspiration.
“I remember growing up around airports and my father taking me flying with him often as a young child,” Tori reminisces.
“When I was in high school, I had to start thinking about what career path I would go down, and it made sense to follow my heart and passion for aviation.”
When she finished year 12, her parents sat her down to discuss the next phase of Tori’s life. Her mind was made up. She announced that she wanted to be an airline captain just like her dad. Tori’s mother was slightly more concerned with her younger daughter’s decision, but like she always had done, stood proud of Tori’s commitment to make her career dream a reality.
“Mum also knew the hard work and effort that it would take if I was to pursue this, as she had seen my father go through this for the past 26 years they’d been together,” Tori says. “But, she’s supported whatever decision I would make. My father acted like he was reserved and calm when I told him I wanted to be a pilot, but I came to learn later on that he was secretly dancing inside and full of excitement,” she says.
“We used to joke about [how] one day I’d fly a bigger jet than my baba!”
Telling her parents and joining an aviation academy would be the easy part.
“I started my private pilot licence at Redcliffe. A few months into my training, I started to get lower back pain where it became unbearable to sit for long periods of time and be active,” Tori explains.
“My mum took me to the doctor and after numerous scans and tests, I found out I had a large cyst on my lower spine, compressing it.”
After seeing a specialist, and having three surgeries over six months, the then aspiring aviator began to recover slowly, however, the rather painful and trying road to recovery took a major toll on her self-esteem and confidence.
“I had no energy and no motivation to even leave the house some days,” Tori admits, recounting the many times she questioned her abilities.
“After being away from aviation for a year I had to reassess whether I wanted to continue to train towards my dream of being a pilot, or look at doing something completely different. But I knew in my heart and soul that aviation was in my blood.”
After assessing the situation, with her parents’ support she and her dad started checking out flight training schools on the Gold Coast again.
“We walked in to Australian Wings Academy (AWA), were greeted by Carolyn Thorburn who is the general manager, and in that instance I was certain that AWA was where I would complete my training,” Tori says.
And so she did.
Her challenges did not end there as her mother was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Finding the right balance between studying, flying hours and being a carer for her mum was by far the toughest trial, but both Tori and her mum came out victorious.
Tori completed an intensive 18-month aviation course with flying colours making both her parents, and of course, herself, proud.
“I can now apply for work with an aviation company or airline here in Australia and hopefully inspire other women to go after whatever their heart desires, and know that with courage and determination they can succeed, no matter what life might throw their way.”