A little bird that soared high

THE well-known expression that dynamite comes in small packages can definitely be applied to Settlers Park resident Jenni Louw.

PETITE PILOT: Jenni Louw – all 1.5 metres of her with a size 2 shoe – flew aircraft including Boeing 737s all over the world Picture: BOB FORD

This petite woman, just 1.5m tall, broke into the then male-dominated profession of flying aircraft around the world in 1965.

The middle daughter of five girls of a Fort Brown farmer, Louw learnt at an early age to fend for herself, which unknowingly to her at the time moulded her to face the rigors of her life ahead.

This started at the tender age of five when she was sent off to boarding school at the well-known Collegiate High School for Girls in Port Elizabeth. This was tough enough for this little farm girl, but her major problem was that she could not really speak English with Xhosa being the only language she knew. As a result, she was sent home and attended a local farm school until she was ready to be sent back to Collegiate, from where she finally matriculated in 1955.

She then went to Pietermaritzburg to do a one-year secretarial course, after which she returned to Grahamstown where she worked for 14 years, most of these for one of the local travel agencies.

It was during this time that she used to take her dog out to the local airstrip and obviously watched the activity there with interest, never dreaming that one day she would become a pilot.

It was during this time that she used to take her dog out to the local airstrip and obviously watched the activity there with interest, never dreaming that one day she would become a pilot.

Then it happened one day when one of the members of the flying club, Bob White, approached her to join and learn how to fly. His motivation was that he was attempting to build up his flying hours. By introducing students to learn to fly, members were given an hour’s free flying time for every three hours the student flew. And so it was that Louw became the first female member and student pilot of the flying club in 1965.

She started her flying in a vintage Luscombe Silvaire aircraft, but did not really enjoy it.

“I had an instructor who believed that women should not be allowed to fly and he did little to teach me,” she said. Her other problem was that, being small, she wore a size 2 shoe and she had difficulty controlling the rudder and brake pedal simultaneously with one foot.

She added that she was not enjoying flying as a result and it was also proving expensive with the R8 she was having to pay coming out of her housekeeping budget and was on the point of giving up.

It was then that a former RAF pilot and member of the club, Paul Plumstead, encouraged her to continue with the course, saying that she was a “natural.” He made her an offer that if she flew solo within six flying hours, he would pay the fees. This motivated her and, after reading extensively about flying and determination, she achieved this and qualified with a private pilot’s licence after a year. By then she had graduated to flying a Cessna 150.

Louw then had a gap of five years from flying when she transferred to Durban, where she still worked in the travel agency industry. But she still had the urge to fly and she joined the Twin Air Flying School in 1970. Not happy with the basic pilot’s licence she had, she wanted to progress with her career. After 250 hours of flying, she then undertook the basic commercial pilot’s licence with instrument rating, which she completed in a year. During this year, she also decided to do the instructors’ rating course and was again successful.

“This was tough going as I had to pay for all this myself and, in fact, had two jobs at the same time to be able to do this,” she said.

Louw then became a full time pilot with National Air Lines (Natal) for a few years before going to America, where “jobs were easier to get.” There she flew for airlines and various aircraft type deliveries, which also involved trans-Atlantic deliveries of aircraft from America to South Africa after obtaining her airline transport licence.

The largest aircraft she flew were Boeing 737s.

After six years, Louw returned to South Africa and spent the rest of her career doing corporate flying for various companies until she retired in 2008.

During her flying career, she visited many parts of the world, mainly in Europe, America and Southern Africa. During all these hours of flying, she only had one really hair-raising experience through no fault of her own. On a flight from Johannesburg to Ulundi near Vryheid in Natal in a Beachcraft Baron, she lost both engines due to fuel contamination.

“I obviously had to force land, but could not do this on the only road in the area as it was full of people. So I had no alternative, but to put the aircraft down in the surrounding bush. Fortunately, none of the passengers were seriously injured,” she said.

Louw retired to Port Alfred in 2010 and now enjoys the leisurely game of croquet when she is not being kept busy at Settlers Park.


Leave a Reply