"I said no, I'm the pilot and he goes 'oh, I just assumed you were the flight attendant!"

It's something 43 year old pilot Angela Swann-Cronin has heard a lot.

Twenty years ago she was the first Māori woman to become a pilot in the New Zealand Air Force.

"It wasn't the norm to have Māori women as pilots and I was the first one ever ... But that wasn't even on my mind."

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Remarkably, Swann-Cronin is still the only Māori woman pilot to graduate from the Air Force, with no other female Māori pilots following in her footsteps.

"There were some gentlemen who didn't like me there and they let me know I shouldn't be there," she said.

"I remember having a conversation with one of them, and they said, ' I think you should leave'. I don't know why, but I didn't listen to them and I stayed and I had a really amazing career."

Swann-Cronin is of Ngāti Porou and Rongowhakaata descent and grew up in Rotorua.

She was just 14 when she saw a TV ad for the Air Force.

"I had failed to get in for the first two times but I was extremely determined so got in on the third attempt as pilot.

"I really didn't know what I was getting myself into because I come from an all-girl family, I come from an all-girls school and I was thrust into all-male environment, very foreign.

"I was completely naive. Somehow through the sheer hard work and determination I had to succeed in that environment, I made it through. It certainly wasn't easy."

Flying the C-130 Hercules and taking it to destinations such as Antarctica, all the way up to Afghanistan, and to the South Pacific Islands, I'm so grateful for those experiences."

These days Swann-Cronin is a regional pilot for Air New Zealand. She's returned to Rotorua and is a reluctant role model for young Māori wahine.

"There's a saying that goes 'you can't be what you can't see'. If people can't see another person in that role, how do they know they can be it? I do encourage other women, Māori women, Polynesian women, to consider aviation as a career.

"Initially I was very reluctant because I fought so hard to blend in with the guys. To be put on a pedestal, I didn't want it. So initially I was not accepting of the attention.

"But then I realised that through my story, I could help others. And I changed my mind about becoming a role model for other young wahine,and I hope it's encouraging more people. "

The New Zealand Defence Force says it's committed to increasing the number of women serving. Two years ago it introduced the School to Skies programmes - a hands-on, six-day technical and aviation programme for Year 13 female students.

It's also introduced a programme to provide opportunities for under-represented minority groups such as Māori.

The number of women applying to train as pilots has risen to 21.3 per cent.

"Over the years, yes I've seen more women join aviation. But we are still well and truly under what it should be in this vocation. Less than 5 per cent of pilots internationally are women. In New Zealand it's pretty similar. We have a few more in the regional airlines were I work, it's up to 15 per cent.

I will happily give my time, if anyone wants to approach me, and says 'hey I am thinking of doing this, will you have a chat with me?"

She's encountered discrimination along the way, but Swann-Cronin refuses to let it get to her.

"My favourite thing is having two women at the front flying and people comment saying, 'well done girls!' I don't think the blokes get that."

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