FIRST WOMAN JET PILOT
Born Yvonne Van Den Hoek in Pretoria, South Africa, her mother Iris Kyle was a teacher and her father, Marcel, was a businessman. She was the oldest of three girls and they had English, Scottish, American, Dutch and Huguenot ancestry (and Boer of course).
All the girls were raised with an intense love of music.
In 1936 her father was appointed the Overseas Manager of the ‘South African Citrus Exchange’ and the family relocated to London. They lived in Croydon so that Marcel had easy access to Croydon Airport, so that he could fly around Europe on business.
This sparked Yvonne’s love of aeroplanes, despite her being a quiet, shy and serious child. She loved books, especially those by night fighter ace Jack ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, and the Biggles books – anything to do with flying. She would often read them under the bedsheets at night, with a torch.
Her first flight was on a holiday in Sweden – Stockholm to Gothenberg. She called it, “almost unreal.”
But her mother hated living in Britain and returned to South Africa, taking her daughters with her.
Marcel stayed in Britain and a divorce soon ensued.
Yvonne went to a Catholic high school but her education was interrupted with a serious leg problem which led to six months in bed and another three on crutches.
Eventually she went on to study European Languages at Rhodes University. But she hated it and quit the course. She immediately emigrated and went back to Britain to live with her father.
She got a job in London, working at a women’s magazine, sorting out competition entries, but she never lost her desire to fly.
She visited an RAF recruitment office but was turned down. They told her they would not teach women to fly – “and I certainly wasn’t interested in a ground job.”
Instead, she enrolled at a secretarial college. But in her spare time, using every spare penny she had, she went to the private Airways Aero Club, and learned to fly. Her instructor was Eric Pope.
Of her first lesson she said, “I had the strange feeling I was walking towards my destiny.”
Whilst she was learning to fly, Yvonne signed up to work for the British Overseas Airways Corps (BOAC) as an air stewardess. She worked on flights to Europe, the Middle East and South America.
She finally got her Pilots License in July 1952.
On a flight back from Rio the pilot Leslie Gosling invited her into the cockpit and suggested she become a flying instructor (a job he had performed during the Second World War).
Eric and Yvonne became engaged. Just two days before their wedding, in 1953, the couple were flying a Tiger Moth when the fuel gauge packed in, plummeting to zero. They were forced to land in Windsor Great Park.
When she married Eric, she was forced to immediately resign as an air stewardess.
So, she began to build up her hours in the air and did indeed become an Assistant Instructor at Denham.
She also signed up for the RAF Volunteer Reserve as a flight instructor, air traffic controller and pilot. In the meantime, an application to join BEA was rejected, the excuse being (again) that they didn’t accept women pilots.
In 1955, Yvonne co-founded the GB Women’s Pilots Association.
Yvonne and Eric had two sons, Jon and Chris. The latter was born in 1957. Two days after his birth, Eric died, of a cerebal haemorrhage.
She needed a job so became an instructor at a private flying club in Exeter. She won the Brabazon Cup for her work as a Flying Instructor.
When the club went bust, she applied to the Ministry of Aviation and became Britain’s first female air traffic controller. She said of her colleagues, “I was initially ostracized by most of them and pointed remarks were made when I entered the room.” She called it the worst prejudice that she faced in her career.
But she was soon promoted to run the Control Tower at Bournemouth Airport and worked at Gatwick between 1960 and 1964.
She won the ‘International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Award (1965) for being the best air traffic controller in Europe.
There is a well-known photo of her working at Gatwick, sitting next to a St Bernard dog that has all the air traffic controller gear on (including the headphones). She admitted that was the dog of the person who sat next to her – and he always brought it into work.
By now she had gained her Commercial Pilots License and kept her hand in by flying overnight flights to Germany or the Channel Islands.
In 1965 she was recruited by Morton Air Services as a pilot. Her first official flight as commercial pilot was on the 16th January 1965, flying a Dakota to Dusseldorf. Within six months she was flying passengers as well as freight.
In 1966, on holiday with her sons in Minorca, she met Miguel Sintes, a former medical student whose studies had been interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. They became great friends and corresponded with each other.
In 1969 she joined Dan Air, flying de Havilland Comets, the first commercial jet airliner.
In 1970, Yvonne and Miguel got married. He worked with in a hospital, with disadvantaged children.
In 1971 she appeared on the BBC Tv programme ‘Nationwide’, under the headline “Lady Jet Pilot.” She was 41. It was a flight to Tenerife and the presenter interviewed her passengers asking how they felt to be flown by a woman. The first interviewee was a lady.
“What do you think about being flown by a lady pilot?”
“Well, I’m very surprised. In a lot of ways, I would prefer if it was a man…but I think she’s doing a good job.”
By modern standards the whole report was cringeworthy.
In 1972 she was promoted to Captain with her own crew – another British first. She flew the Leeds to Glasgow route. She said that when passengers heard the voice of a female captain, the men were fine, but it was the women who became anxious. Before the flight she would walk through the plane to calm any passenger’s nerves, explaining her experience as an instructor, air traffic controller and pilot. It always worked. Nobody ever complained.
By 1974 was in charge of the first all women crew. She was flying holidaymakers to the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. “What’s rather nice is that I’m flying the very plane that they (BEA) said they couldn’t possibly train me on.”
In 1975 she was the first woman in command of a jet airliner.
She was given the Whitney Straight award, “to recognize the achievement and status of women in aviation.” It was presented to her by Princess Anne – and she was delighted Jack Cunningham was in the audience.
She retired in 1980 and moved to Menorca with Miguel. They bought a cottage and concentrated on running a market garden.
Miguel died in 1999 so she returned to Britain, living in Cranleigh in Surrey.
In 2001, she celebrated her 70th birthday by being given a flying lesson at Goodwood – the first time she had flown since her retirement. When the instructor heard who she was, he simply handed her the controls.
In 2013 she was interviewed for BBC News. She looked through her photograph album with them and saw a Comet 4. “My beautiful aeroplane. Oh, I did so love flying it.”
Her autobiography was entitled ‘Trailblazer in Flight’. In it, Yvonne recalled her first time behind the controls. “My complete absorption and assimilation of every precious moment, high above the snowy white clouds, in the glorious sunshine, was so intense that time both stood still – and yet flashed by.”
She was proud that she had outlived Nationwide by a number of years.
RIP –Revolutionary, Inspirational Pilot