Flying through the glass ceiling

Apr 23, 2021

A Settlers Park resident with a fascinating story of flying worldwide is Jenni Louw. This fearless lady, born in the late 1930s, in Grahamstown, grew up as the middle child of five girls on a farm in the Fish River near the town of Fort Brown.  At the tender age of 5 she was sent off to boarding school but was promptly sent home as her command of English was not up to scratch.  isiXhosa was her mother tongue! From the local farm school where she mastered English, Jenni went to Collegiate School for Girls in Port Elizabeth and, upon obtaining a university matric pass, decided instead to join the travel industry.

During the 14 years she lived in Grahamstown working for local travel agencies, Jenni regularly took her little dog out to the airstrip for walks.  One day Bob White, a member of the flying club approached her with the idea that she should learn to fly.  His motivation was that he was building up his flying hours and, by introducing students, he would receive an hour’s free flying time for every three hours the student flew. Jenni thus became the first female student and first female member of the Grahamstown Flying Club in 1965. “In those days, men were a lot more chauvinistic,” and her flying instructor, an ex-Royal Air Force pilot made it clear that he thought that women “belonged barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen!”

Her flying career began in a vintage Luscombe Silvaire aircraft which presented its own set of obstacles,  Petite in stature with size 2 feet, Jenni struggled to control the rudder and brake pedal simultaneously.  The lessons were also proving to be expensive at R8 a lesson. This was coming out of the housekeeping budget so sacrifices were being made.  Jenni was on the point of giving up when a former RAF pilot and fellow club member, Paul Plumstead told her that she was “a natural” and offered to pay her fees if she flew solo within 6 hours.  Jenni rose to the challenge and secured her private pilot license, graduating to a Cessna 150.

Soon thereafter her marriage collapsed, and she moved to Durban as a divorcee determined to keep flying.  Her career in the travel industry and a second job financed more flying lessons and she secured her commercial rating, instrument rating and instructors’ rating. Her qualifications landed her a job with Natal National Airlines and again her dreams were grounded when she was mostly assigned office work.  Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Jenni would hop into a plane and take to the skies.  This caught the attention of Vern McWilliams, a prominent South African Aviator who owned the airline. He sent her off to the United States of America where she was based in Wichita,  Kansas. Again, she met more resistance in the workplace due to her gender.  “I flew every type of small aircraft and moved up through ranks, but it proved to a challenge. I was often told that women should stay home; not fly!”

While in America, Jenni flew professionally for several airlines.  She also secured her airline transport license and flew trans-Atlantic delivering aircraft from America to South Africa.  The largest aircraft she ever flew were the Boeing 737s.  Her preference however has always been the smaller planes where she would be “in total command”.  And it was in one of these that she experienced her one and only hair-raising incident.  Both engines failed during a flight from Johannesburg to Ulundi near Vryheid and, realizing that she had no choice but to land, did so in the bush.  Fortunately, none of the passengers were seriously injured. Nerve-wracking, to say the least!

An anecdote from her career as a female pilot she relates is about a man who, upon finding out that a woman was in the cockpit, refused to board.  Jenni wasted no time telling him that she was assigned the route for the upcoming week so best he change his mind about if he wanted to travel.  He boarded the flight!

Having visited more parts of the world than most, Jenni eventually returned to her roots in the Eastern Cape upon retirement by becoming a Settlers Park resident in 2010 and has enjoyed making new friends and being close to three of her four sisters and their families.

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