If enthusiasm and determination are the secret to longevity then octogenarian Yvonne van den Dool, of Sandbaai, has many years ahead of her. Her bright eyes – as blue as the ocean – sparkle as her keen mind relives memories of a woman, decidedly ahead of her time, in far-reaching detail.
Born in an era when women were either teachers, secretaries, nurses – or barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen – Yvonne has experienced many roadblocks on her exceptional journey through life but nothing could hold back her unwavering perseverance.
As South Africa’s first woman to hold a Senior Commercial Pilot’s Licence, Yvonne broke into ‘a man’s world’ and proved she could juggle her career and, as a single mother, her devotion to two daughters, who have reaped the benefit of having a zealous role model.
Yvonne discovered her deep appreciation of aircraft when her parents took her on an outing to Deneysville in the Free State. “Here I came across a most beautiful sight that was to change my life forever,” she recalls.
It was a Sunderland Flying Boat that mesmerised the 15-yearold to such a degree that she dived into the Vaal Dam to get closer to that which had seized her attention. Met by a puzzled, rosy-cheeked young man who helped her on board, this was a turning point in Yvonne’s life. She found herself set on becoming an aircraft designer.
There, however, was no faculty for aeronautical engineering in South Africa, and studies abroad either became impossible or were unaffordable. This was one of many disappointments along Yvonne’s chosen career path. To help make ends meet she resorted to secretarial work, “but that was definitely not my idea of fun”. Undeterred, she kept her focus, and when offered the position of apprentice aircraft mechanic for a maintenance firm at Baragwanath Airfield, she jumped at the opportunity. “This was the nearest I could get to my dream – a far cry from becoming a designer of aircraft,” she muses.
A Rhenia Slabbert bursary resulted in Yvonne achieving an ‘A’ pilot’s licence and her decision to study for a commercial licence. “I hadn’t bargained for the tremendous prejudice from three of the instructors,” Yvonne recollects. “I was told to take up sewing.” They, however, submitted because “her money is as good as anyone’s” and, after rigorous training sessions of endless spins, she went solo – and achieved her goal. About 3 500 official flying hours followed.
“You know you are flying when you’re in control of a Tiger Moth,” says Yvonne, who considers it imperative that all would-be pilots should learn on a Tiger. “They need to perform aerobatics and fly the aircraft to its limits.”
Yvonne has lived her life to the limits, encouraging her two daughters – Ingrid (now van Ginkel) and Karen (now Rudnick) – to do likewise. At 16 and 14 years old, Yvonne got them to pack their bags and “on the smell of an oil rag” the happy trio took off on a ‘hike’ from Pietersburg (now Polokwane, in Limpopo) all the way via Amsterdam and Oslo to the Russian border.
“I had to take the children out of school for three of our sixweek adventure,” explains Yvonne. “The headmaster wasn’t impressed but my dad’s words rang louder than his – ‘never let schooling get in the way of education’, he would say.” Doors opened all along the route and, with very few rands in their pockets, mother and daughters gained valuable life lessons. “And the girls learnt to trust a gut feel,” adds Yvonne.
When asked whether an excursion to a fun fair would be boring, Yvonne sits up very straight. “I’d be terrified,” she says. “Do you think I’m suicidal?” Amusing coming from a woman who has flown at tree-top level spraying tsetse flies at Kariba Dam, established altitude records, represented South Africa as the first governor of the Ninety-Nines (an international organisation of licensed women pilots, started by Amelia Earhart in 1929 – 99 women answered her call) and navigated the treacherous Drakensberg peaks.
Last year Yvonne was offered a flip. She took control of the joystick, performed loops and relived days gone by. She remembers many exhilarating experiences in her flying career – top of the list was aerobatics in a Tiger Moth, and she admits to having “the daylights scared out of me” many times. “Have respect for the weather – and don’t ever enter thunderstorms,” she warns.
Her advice to learners is to get a good education. “Whatever career path you choose, don’t let maths and science scare you, they are not as difficult as you may think; and be responsible.”
“Yvonne would have been a highly capable airline captain, but she did enjoy huge success as a commercial and charter pilot,” said her dear friend Captain Bill Teague. Back in the 1940s women were banned from flying in the air force and that’s the reason Yvonne settled for working as a commercial pilot. That jogged her memory – and her ire.
“Tired of the gender discrimination I’d borne all my working life – and of the office job I had in Johannesburg – I spontaneously packed my bags and took off for the little fishing village of Hermanus, some 30 years ago.”
By chance there was a crop spraying job advertised; Yvonne applied and was told the position was not for a woman. “That sealed it for me,” she recalls. “I gave up the fight to fly, and I got a job in a hotel.” It didn’t take long for Yvonne’s two daughters and granddaughters – Debbie (van Ginkel), Chantal (now le Roux) and Tarryn (now Cawood) – to join her. “We were known as the ‘Six Pack’,” she shares, still amused at the title this formidable collection of women was given.
After a spell in China, Ingrid is now a teacher at Dulwich College in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Karen lives in Sandbaai. Ingrid’s girls – Debbie a Nia instructress, and Chantal a consultant for autism – also spent time in China, and are now in Siem Reap, Cambodia and Cape Town, respectively.
Chantal has added another girl to the clan which makes Yvonne a great-grandmother. Karen’s daughter, Tarryn, is a soughtafter geologist, has been decorated with numerous awards, and after a period of working in the Swiss Alps – among other remote places – she is currently in Los Angeles, USA with her sights set on a PhD. All three grandchildren gained first class matrics at Hermanus High School where, in 2007, Tarryn was Top Achiever and third in the Western Cape.
Hermanus is very different from the peaceful, quiet community Yvonne moved to, but she has grown with it and last year she settled happily in Sandbaai.
This is a mere slice of a thrilling tale. For more on her colourful account, From Aprons to Aeroplanes provides an exhilarating read about a woman’s journey through the world of aviation.
To secure a copy of Yvonne’s self-published book, visit The Book Collector in the Royal Centre, Main Road, Hermanus. Contact Benadé Kruger on 078 120 0120 or Chris Steyn on 083 653 9957 or send an email to yvonne.vandendool@ gmail.com