Aggie Dent, a renowned aviatrix who has taught a few Seychellois aviators including Captain Francois Jackson, was recently in Seychelles. She came at an opportune time when Seychelles was marking an important milestone last month, its 45-year journey of civil aviation.
During her visit to Seychelles, the aviatrix met Captain Jackson and presented him with the outstanding services to civil aviation award, for having completed 40 years as a pilot. This was during a ceremony held recently in the VIP lounge at the international airport. She taught Captain Jackson to fly on a Cessna 152 aerobat at the Seychelles Aero Club. The captain went on to become the chief pilot for the national airline Air Seychelles.
Aggie, who is now retired and living in Easter Cape, South Africa, flew to Seychelles courtesy of Air Seychelles. The airline company had organized her flight from Johannesburg to Seychelles. In 1972, Aggie travelled from Kenya to Seychelles to set up the Seychelles Aero club with eight other founder members with the late Mike Savy as chairperson. Aggie was the club instructor for seven years, then became the private pilot license examiner.
On Independence Day in June 1976, she was asked to do an aerobatics display over Victoria. The cloud cover was low, and as she did loops and rolls over the crowds near the old port and was prepared to land onto the highway if the engine cut. She completed the display with a vertically downward spin, while her brother Rudi, called out the altitudes – because it took 200 feet to recover from a spin. As the plane hurtled down towards the crowds below, they panicked and ran for their lives in all directions. After a heart-stopping moment, she pulled out at 20 feet altitude, between the masts of two yachts which were moored at the yacht club.
The extraordinary story of Aggie; Africa’s Aviatrix…
Here is the story of a little girl from the African wilderness whose only compelling wish was to learn to fly above the clouds…
Aggie, known to many East African and Seychelles aviators as Aggie Robinson, was born by the shores of Lake Geneva to Swiss parents, and moved to Tanganyika when she was 18 months old. Her father was a vet who specialized in tropical diseases in cattle. She wanted to learn to fly when she was seven. She was taught to drive the Fordson tractor instead. Her urge to fly was not assuaged by such earthly contraptions, and her desire to be among the clouds, enticed her into sitting on top of roves and trees.
When she was eight, her family moved to Laikipia, a semi-arid plateau north of Mount Kenya, where her father opened up a cattle ranch for Delamere estates. Aggie was 12 when she was enrolled into Nakuru Girl’s High School, but she spent many a day playing truant, and was usually found on the highest point of elevation; the top of an extinct volcano; the Menengai Crater – where she would sit and gaze into the bottom of the crater nearly 2000 feet below.
She persistently reminded her father that she wanted to learn to fly and refused to go to school. When she was 13, her father told her if she did not want to study, then she must work, and promptly made her responsible for managing a section of Lariak Ranch, with about 5,000 head of Boran cattle, and 200 Maasai and Samburu herds-men.
In 1962, when she was just 16, an ex-RAF plot, called Bill Ford began to give flying lessons at the Subukia Valley Airstrip, (North of Nakuru). Aggie got to hear of this, and began taking lessons in his Piper-Cub. After only six hours’ training, she went solo.
She wanted to become an instructor for which she needed to build up her hours. In the meantime, cattle-rustlers were stealing the ranch’s cattle, and Aggie’s father bought a Cessna 180 to scout for cattle rustlers. Aggie would quickly spot the stolen live-stock from the air.
Dr Ann Spoerry (the renowned flying doctor) learned to fly at the same time as Aggie. Dr Spoerry would stop at Lariak Ranch on her way to the Lake Turkana, to pick Aggie up en-route, so Aggie could fly her around on her medical trips in her Piper Cherokee and build up her flying hours.
When Aggie was 18, she applied an instructor’s course at the Wiltshire Flying School in United Kingdom.
The principal in charge was an ex RAF Wing-Commander, who asked her how many Cambridge ‘O’ Levels she had attained in her higher education. She had not finished school and had none.
“Well, then the only way I can test your knowledge is to see how you fly”, he said and took her out in the Tiger-Moth, (which had no starter-motor nor brakes).
Aggie went into her aerobatic-mode and did loops and spins for the next 20 minutes.
“I have never been in favor of women messing about in planes… but I have to admit, she’s got talent,” he said as he climbed out of the plane after it landed.
Aggie completed her instructor’s course, specializing in aerobatics in 1965 with a 100% pass-mark – the first student to attain this level at this flying school.
She came back to Nairobi and taught flying at the Aero-club, Wilson Airport, when she was 19 years old.
Aggie has never bent a plane, although she had a ‘forced landing’ in 1965.
She took off at 7am from Wilson Airport, on a cold August morning with her student. After three circuits, they took off towards the Ngong Hills, but the Cessna’s engine cut at 200 feet altitude. Clearing the 12ft fence surrounding the army barracks above the airport by millimeters, she landed the aircraft safely in the bush next to the barracks.
She yelled at her student to get out of the plane in case it caught fire, who shot out in such a hurry, he did not even undo his seat-belt!
The fire engine from the airport below hurried to the scene, only to find that there was no fire!
Aggie in South Africa.
Aggie worked in Thunder city, Cape Town, which maintained fighter jets owned and operated by civilians. The aviatrix also flew Hawker Hunter jets.
In 2005, Aggie and her husband Steve ran their own company in Cape Town, converting single-engine Cessna 172s from avgas to diesel engine, which doubled the flying range and operating time. Aggie ferried two of these Cessnas from Cape Town to Addis Ababa in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
Her standard advice to students who completed their training was ̶ Don’t Bend it! ̶ while her favorite quote is ̶ There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.