Rare Birds

Flying in the Face of the Status Quo

by Sally Armstrong (Homemakers Magazine, Summer 1994)

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There's no accounting for guts.  Or desire.  Not when three women with a combined age of 202 fly around the world in a plane so small it could fit into the first few rows of a 747.  When Adele Fogle, Daphne Schiff and Margaret Ringenberg took off from Montreal on May 1 in the 1994 Round the World Air Race, they pitted their knowledge, experience and anti-gravity attitude against all the perils and pratfalls high fliers are heir to:  a radio that quit over the Atlantic, a thunderstorm that threw them off course in the Middle East, a typhoon that menaced their flight plan in the Far East.  Then there were the problems unique to their gender:  air-traffic controllers who couldn't or wouldn't understand them until they lowered their chins and their voices, and the sudden concern for veils when they were tracked by camouflage F-14 planes in Iran and thought they might be forced to land.

Twenty-five days later, they landed in Montreal via Morocco, Turkey, Dubai, India, Vietnam, Japan, Russia and the United States.  It was a feat few would try , even fewer would accomplish.  Dames extraordinaire!

Adele Fogle is the glamourous 60-year-old owner of Aviation International in Guelph, Ont. ("They said I could only bring 14 pounds of luggage - that's my makeup!"), Daphne Schiff, 70, is a professor of meteorology and aerodynamics at York University in Toronto.  Margaret Ringenberg, 72, is a Second World War pilot from Indiana whose plane and need for co-captains allowed Fogle and Schiff a last-minute entry in the race when their Canadian partner Margo McCutcheon had to bail out just weeks before lift-off.

These rare birds revel in the sensations John Gillespie Magee, Jr. expressed in his poem "High Flight."  When they have "slipped the surly bonds of earth," they take their "laughter silvered wings" and play with clouds.  And when they've done "a hundred things you have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence - "they enjoy the beauty of the earth as heavenly observers.

This time, they'll ply their craft, the Spirit of '76, on the world stage and in the process take aviation, women pilots and the art of having a helluva a good time to new heights.

The task at hand isn't an easy one.  The Cessna 340 they're flying has three of its six seats removed to make room for a 40-gallon fuel tank.  There's a porta-potty at the back and the three remaining seats are in scramped quarters at the front where the women spend as long as 8 to 12 hours at a time.  It's cold in the cabin but they dare not turn on the heater because of the dense gasoline fumes wafting from the ferry tank.  On landing, they must refuel, often by hand, check the oil and the air in the tires, do a visual inspection around the plane, file a flight plan for the next leg (and find a washroom), all while the timekeeper's clock is ticking.

The scores in an international air race are calculated according to a handicap given each entry, determined by the optimum speed the operator's manual claims a particular craft can achieve.  If you get a tail wind and go faster or get a better altitude and find more speed or a more direct route, you score plus points.  If not, you risk falling behind.  Whoever has the higher point count at the end of the race wins.  There are a number of places along the way where the clock stops, when the pilots refuel and rest.  For the 13 other teams, that meant 12 stops.  For Fogle, Schiff and Ringenberg, it meant 21 - nine additional landings to refuel, refile flight plans and deal with often prickly air-traffic controllers.

An all's fair-in-love-and-air-racing philosophy prevails.  One pilot, for instance, had a second jet follow him with backup equipment and pilots.

Montreal to Marrakech via St. John's Nfld: Trouble with radio.  Got up to 19,000 feet.  Good tail winds.  Made some time.  In third place at St. John's.  Crossed ocean in 12 long hours.  Day - blue skies.  Night - scary.  Radio unservicable.

Having it all is not their goal (there's no money in this pursuit!) Doing it all, following your star, being the best you can be, is the modus operandi of these women.  The rewards are certificates, trophies, goofy mementoes.  But mostly it's their proud standing in the famed Ninety-Nines.

More than 6,000 women in 33 countries are members of the Ninety-Nines, an association started in 1929 by Amelia Earhart.  When Earhart wanted to fly, women were refused lift-off.  She thought it was a foolish rule that required changing and put a notice to that effect in a New Jersey newspaper.  Her notice invited like-minded women to join her at a meeting.  Ninety-nine women turned up and the rest is aviation history.

Besides advancing the role of women in aviation, the Ninety-Nines' mandate includes educational, charitable and scientific activities.  Not surprisingly, Adele Fogle, Daphne Schiff and Margo McCutcheon have played leading roles in the founding and operating of the Canadian chapter.  Their own entries into the aviation business were as unusual and determined as Earhart herself.

Marrakech to Istanbul:  Switching fuel tanks in flight is an interesting experience.  Which engine will fail now?  Had to land in Tunis to refuel.  The fuel was in barrels with a hand pump.  Don't ask what it cost in time and money.  Cleared for landing in Istanbul at 3 a.m.. without airport in sight.  Not bad for three old ladies who don't like flying at night.

Adele Fogle learned as a young child that chasing rainbows can cash out in spiritual gold.  The youngest daughter of a Russian mother and Polish father, she grew up in a tiny apartment in Toronto with her parents, sister, aunt and grandmother.  "My sister and I slept in the dining room.  My aunt paid half the rent so she got the other bedroom.  My mother saved every penny she could and sent us to a summer camp.  I saw what those kids had and I wanted it too.  The girls had cashmere sweathers, they drove cars and had bedrooms of their own."

She grew up, married and had two children, but by the time her kids were in high school she was looking for a new direction.  When a neighbour dropped by and said he was taking flying lessons, I said I wished I could do something like that, and he said, "Come along".  I did.

After about 15 hours of flying time, Fogle was ready to solo.  And soon after that, she experienced her first crash landing.  "I was landing, come in too fast.  I pulled back and the plane stalled.  I broke off the nose wheel and rammed the propeller into the ground.  I was 37 years old, sitting in a wrecked plane, with all the young kids who hang out at the airports watching me.  I felt a little out of my element."

"I wasn't at all frightened.  I just figured, next time I'll do it better.  I won't give up.  I persevere and persevere.  It's like a flaw in my character."

When she got her instructor's licence, there were no jobs so she bought an old Aztec plane and flew as a courier.  "I'd leave Toronto at midnight every night for Montreal to deliver the mail.  Then I'd wait until 4 a.m. to return with the newspapers."

Today she's the president and owner of Aviation International, where she teaches flying, charters planes, does aircraft maintenance, sells fuel and runs a restaurant.  A five-foot-four blond with cover-girl good looks, she says "I never felt as much in control of my life as I do now."

Istanbul to Agra via Diyarbakir and Dubai:  The smog is two miles high.  It's so hot the desert sand has been sucked up to our flying altitude.  One of the crews has had to pull out.  We're down to 13.  We have to land at a military base for fuel.  Two American guys at the end of the runway tell us their mission is to feed the kuds.  We think all that radio equipment they're using is to monitor the Iraqi no-fly zone.  Indiana Jones has a lonely life here."

Daphne Schiff has been flying in the face of the status quo for most of her life.  When she registered at the University of Toronto in 1941 as a first-year student, the professor asked her what she wanted to study and she replied "Chemistry, physics and math."  "Sorry", said the prof, "that's for boys"  Daphne took the courses anyway, and when she graduated in 1945, went to work in Chalk River, Ontario, purifying plutonium.  She married, had two children, and when they were eight and nine years old, she went to work as a science lecturer at York University. 

Her attitude about teaching science is indicative of the style she applies to everything she tackles.  "At York, every student must take at least one course in science.  Let's face it, you need a gimmick to teach science.  If you talk equations, they leave the room.  The science of flight and weather - how you stay up there - works wonders.  It's all the same theory."  Every year she lands an aircraft on the campus as the ultimate demonstration for her students.

Schiff's decision to fly in the first place was a creative solution to a time-honored problem.  "My husband has a pilot's licence as well.  When the kids were small and going to camp in Quebec, I missed them and wated to see them.  He said we could fly but it wouldn't be safe unless we had two pilots.  So I learned to fly."

When the fliers reviewed their gear in Montreal, the five-foot-five Schiff tried on the survival suit, declared it too big and heavy, said it would leak and promptly tossed it out of her bag.

Agra to Ho Chi Minh City:  Saudi Arabia refused air clearance so we had to dodge over Iran.  Iranian F-14 jets begin to track us.  They want to know what women are doing flying this plane.  The view of the Guney mountains is spectacular.  Less so are the veils we equip ourselves with in case we are forced down.  A few touchy moments in a thunderstorm.  Thank goodness for radar!  Reception for pilots in Ho Chi Minh City.  Snake and other interesting items for lunch.

A pair of Margs - Margaret Ringenberg from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Margo McCutcheon from Toronto - round out this team.  The former is one of the onboard pilots; the latter, like spiritual radar, is "flying with them emotionally."  During the Second World War, Ringenberg had the extraordinarily dangerous assignment of ferrying war-wounded heaps of aircraft from the bases back to the manufacturers for repair.  When the war ended and the male pilots took cushy jobs in the airlines, Ringenberg and her female colleagues were expected to go home and take care of the kids.  Ringenberg got her instructor's licence but discovered to her chagrin that no one wanted to take lessons from a woman.  She rededicated herself to the Ninety-Nines.

Ho Chi Minh City to Sendai via Okinawa Typhoon Page is blowing around, coming towards us.  We can't watch for advancing clouds because it's nighttime.  We decided we have to get ahead of it.  The next leg is worrisome.  We'll need to stop to refuel and at this point don't know where we can find a landing strip with suitable gas for this plane.

Margo McCutcheon's story echoes the trials of most women pilots.  As a high school graduate in the '50s, she was offered the usual trio of career choices:  nursing, teaching, secretarial work.  She chose nursing because an R.N. was a ticket to aviation.  She was a mother of four when her brother took her for a ride in a helicopter and she decided to make her adolescent dream come true.

"I love flying for the feeling of freedom, escapism from the real worl and the need to be completely focused on something entirely different," she says.  In 1985 she teamed up with Fogle and Schiff to enter the New York to Paris Transatlantic Race.  They placed first in the women's division.

McCutcheon was also instrumental in turning the Canadian Ninety-Nines into Spies in the Sky.  In 1976, they began flying pollution patrols for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.  They sweep the lakes and forests to track the source of fouled lake water and follow lonely forest roads to illegal dump sites.  The low-level aerial photography they produce as evidence makes a significant contribution in the war against pollution.  Today the program operates under the jurisdiction of the ministry's investigations and Enforcement branch.  It's called Operation Skywatch.

Sendai to PetropavlovskWe have terrible head winds.  The area below is very isolated.  No place to land.  It's very cold.  There's ice on the wings.  We have to climb higher.  We land in Petropavlovsk and the customs agent wants to know if we have any guns, drugs or copies of Playboy or Penthouse magazines.

During the 24 days when they circumnavigate the world, the women also reflected on the global village below.  "We saw crumbling humanity and countries taken over by cockroaches," says Fogle.  "In most of the places w visited, the people live a hard, sad life."

"Flying gives you a chance to look at the world from God's point of view," says Schiff.  "Even if it's a desert, it's shining and glowing.  God did a pretty good job when She created the world.  But when we land it's obvious that people aren't doing a very good job with the world God gave them.  Despite that, I am always impressed by the great spirit people have."

Petropavlovsk to Anchorage:  This is the most difficult leg of the journey.  We realize that without a tail wind we cannot make it, so we decide where our point of no return is when we file the flight plan.  Taking off from Petropavlovsk is tricky.  There are volcanos at one end of the runway and a submarine base that is off-limits at the other.  We need elevation fast to avoid the mountains.  The perils of all three force a circling takeoff.  A very stressful experience.  But then, as we fly over Nome, one of the magical gifts only pilots know is presented to us.  The sun is behind us.  There's a deck of clouds below us.  A circular rainbow forms.  There's a shadow in the centre of the circle.  The shadow is our aircraft.  It's a wondrous sight.

The finish line is starting to look attainable.  The race heats up.  For the frontrunners, every second counts.  Secret weather reports, even a hoarded pencil becomes an unfair advantage to the most competitive crews.  The unofficial congeniality award is also being decided.  Atul Dev, the media director who flew in the chase plane, toasts the trio and says, "In my opinion, Adele, Daphne and Margaret are the real winners in this race.  They have had a disadvantage from the beginning having to refuel so often.  They've been left behind overnight, refused fuel and tracked by potentially hostile military planes.  But they never game up.  They were always in good cheer."

Anchorage to Calgary:  It's a relief to be over land.  We've flown this route before and find our way through the pass in the mountains without any problem.  We play with fluffy clouds along the way that lift the plane upward and make us feel like we're riding a horse.  Even with a stop for refueling in Whitehorse, we make our handicap on this leg.

At a stopover in Calgary, the pilots are feted at a ranch in the mountains.  During a barbecue of steak and beans, they kibitz about the obstacles they've faced and the finish line just 24 hours away.  The strain of the voyage is showing.  Their flight jackets and oil-stained.  They're all talking about the trip home and the celebration dinner in Montreal,  Adele and Daphne slip away from the crowd.  They have plans: to ditch the life raft - 85 pounds of baggage they don't need - and find a way to get to Montreal in time to leave their mark on this race.

Calgary to Montreal:  Although it won't alter our last-place finish on the scoreboard, we want to be the first women to land in Montreal, the first Canadians and the first small plane.  They're only one way to do that.  Leave before everyone else.  At 6 a.m., we're airborne.

Just before 4 p.m. on May 24, a little white Cessna 340 is spotted in the skies over St. Hubert Airfield in Montreal.  A roar goes up from the landing strip.  The pilots from crews of the faster planes are cheering on the Spirit of '76.  An even more boisterous welcome is being waved from a row of women standing behind them.  Margo McCutcheon has flown her on Baron from Toronto for the occasion.  Her passenger list?  A crew of ecstatic Ninety-Nines.  They're here to welcome their heroes home!

Ninety-Nine Anna Pangrazzi welcomes her high-flying friends home.

Want to learn about Adele and Daphne's Air Solidarité  flying missions in Africa?

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