Speaking to Captain Jan Becker is like getting a shot of positivity straight into a vein.
A vibrant and funny woman, she is a powerhouse in both her work and family life.
She was recently named the University of the Sunshine Coast’s (USC) Outstanding Alumnus for 2017, an award she said would help put the sad state of neonatal health in Tanzania on the map.
A helicopter pilot, nurse, midwife and CEO of Marcoola company Becker Helicopters, the largest helicopter flight academy in the Southern Hemisphere, the Coolum mother of two volunteers in Tanzania four times a year, training midwives in neonatal resuscitation and delivering up to 100 babies a day.
“Tanzania has the worst statistics for neonatal baby and mother survival in the world,” says Captain Becker.
“The work is raw and it’s real and it’s happening on the same planet that we live on here.”
Captain Becker graduated from USC in 2009 with a Bachelor of Nursing Science and recently embarked on a PhD at USC, looking at the ‘silent voices of the midwives’ of Sub-Saharan Africa – managing neonatal resuscitation and very early neonatal death.
Not bad for someone who says they weren’t academic and failed at school, making her Outstanding Alumnus award all the more meaningful.
“I always felt stupid at school, I never fitted in,” she says, adding that it was a culture shock to move to New Zealand in high school after having grown up in Singapore, where her father was involved in setting up a helicopter business which serviced the oil industry.
She and husband Mike, a helicopter pilot, were high school sweethearts.
They moved to Australia in 1986 and 10 years later, launched Becker Helicopters.
On the first day of business, it poured rain all day and Captain Becker was in labour with her second child.
“I remember saying to Mike, ‘what’s plan B, what’s going to happen if this doesn’t work, we’ve bought a bloody helicopter, we’ve got no students, are you shi**ing me’?
He said, ‘there is no plan B’. I remember thinking, oh my god, I love this guy. He told me later he was just as terrified.”
Today, the company is a $20-million business with a fleet of 18 Bell 206 turbine helicopters and a fixed-wing Duchess aircraft that they use to provide 15,000 to 18,000 hours of pilot training a year to an annual cohort of about 120 students.
It specialises in training pilots to fly using night vision goggles, which draws clients from around the world, including allied military forces.
“It’s easy for people to see success, they see the awards; they’re brilliant things to have, but so is having a brilliant relationship.
I’ve always said I could live in a bark hut with Mike, as long as our babies are with us.
“When we first started the company up we had no money, we were sued, and we went from having equity to having no equity.
“There were dark, dark days. I even did feng shui on the office – I had this stupid pot plant that faced north.
“I thought we’d go broke in business before we were successful and we nearly did. But it’s no secret we worked out butts off and six years after writing the strategic plan, we signed a $30-million contract and that changed the business overnight.”
While her daughters Michaela and Chase were young (they’re now 21 and 22), Captain Becker completed a Masters in Civil Aviation while they napped.
“The Masters I did was gold,” she says.
“It was an international course with students from all over the world and I did a thesis on night vision goggles, which is now the pinnacle of our success.”
Captain Becker’s innovation and business leadership with Becker Helicopters have earned her numerous honours, including the Telstra Business Women’s Queensland Business Owner Award, the Telstra Australian Medium Business Award and the Queensland Premier’s Innovation Export Award.
She sits on three boards, including the Helicopter Association International and the Prince Charles Hospital Foundation, and is also Chair of the Cherish Foundation.
But no honour comes close to that of saving the life of a baby and she has now set up an NGO in Tanzania, Midwife Vision, to offer education, global community participation, professional support, and resources to midwives at Amana Referral Hospital in Dar es Salaam.
“There are pockets of absolute happiness when you resuscitate a baby and it lives, and pockets of despair on the flip side,” she says.
“I never imagined it would become this big, I never imagined we would start our own NGO.
“But it became evident that somebody has to be the pilot in command, to make things happen, and things don’t happen without money and the generosity of volunteers.
“I love it, it’s completely different,” she says.
“It’s a second home professionally. You just get in and roll your sleeves up. Mike is on the board in Tanzania and our daughter Chase comes with us.
“There’s so much to be done and we couldn’t do it without a team.
“We’re setting up a transfer business, a bit like the Uber model, to transport mothers to hospital and with that same van we can take equipment to and from the hospital. It will start slowly – it’s funded from here initially.
“Mike came last year and said we could fix the electricity and the plumbing, they had running water for the first time in the labour ward, we got the theatre light fixed so they could do caesarean sections.
“They try so hard over there but they’re strapped by manpower and money. Mike got into the labour ward and painted and got new equipment.
“It changed the face of everybody. Suddenly we saw hope instead of despair, we got the cleaners engaged, got them T-shirts and brand-new mops.
“I think the thing that’s so important is it doesn’t matter how much we do, every little bit helps.
“If you put a plug in a sink with a dripping tap, eventually it fills up. It has taken us years to develop relationships.
“Most people don’t go back – they just do the swoop and run. We are working with the local people.
“It’s their ownership, it’s their nation, it’s their babies. Sometimes you just want people to say, you’re not invisible. I see you.
“We’re not here to change the world, we’re just here to do our bit.”
Captain Becker is back in Tanzania this month, organising a documentary to be filmed over 10 weeks, tracking the progress they’re making.
One of the touching stories that may make it onto our TV screens next year is one of Captain Becker’s many initiatives.
She collects hand-knitted beanies from across Australia and New Zealand to take to the babies in Tanzania, to let the parents and babies know they’re not alone.
“We’re getting 17 or 18 box loads at a time,” she says.
“Sometimes retired people are at a loss as to how to make a difference. A nanny in Australia just wants to give them a little bit of love and then they become global citizens.
“They knit the most beautiful twin sets, booties and beanies, but no one here on the Sunshine Coast wants them, they just want to buy stuff from OshKosh.
“An old man drove up the other day. His wife had died and she’d been a knitter. He said she’d want all the wool to go to the babies. It’s golden threads of connection.
“You know the thing that’s so beautiful? We could not do what we do today without a successful business.
“We couldn’t finance the trips to Sub-Saharan Africa, couldn’t have set up the NGO over there.
“For us, it’s not enough to have money and choice, you’ve got to be able to do something beyond yourself.
“Sometimes I think, why don’t we just grab a good book and go to Fiji for a week?
“I’m sure that time will come, but while you’re young and healthy, get out and get amongst it. We’re global citizens, we should be part of it.
“I don’t know about refugees or how to feed the homeless. I know how to deliver babies, fly helicopters and run a business.”