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Open Features: Up, Up And Away

"I have always been interested in aircraft. As I child I read all the “Biggles” books. When other girls were playing with dolls, I was building model aeroplanes.''

In this wonderfully engaging feature Marianne Hall recalls her airborne years.

"Up, Up and Away''

This was the caption on the front page of the Germiston City News. It showed two aircraft, one on the ground and the other smaller one whizzing up into the sky, a white plume drifting behind it.

The occasion was the grand Rand Air Show held at the Ekurhuleni Rand Airport.

My memories went back over fifty years – the time of Dakotas and Skymasters.

I have always been interested in aircraft. As I child I read all the “Biggles” books. When other girls were playing with dolls, I was building model aeroplanes. Balsa wood was painstakingly cut out with a blade and fitted together with glue. A piece of elastic was wound around the propeller. As soon as I had built a model, I would take it up to the nearest koppie, twist the elastic, and hurl it into the air. It would fly for a few feet and then plunge, nose downwards, into the ground. Undaunted, I would pick up the pieces, go home and, ever an optimist, start on another model.

I joined the WAA – the Women’s Aviation Association.

A competition came up. The entrant had to go up in a dual-controlled Piper Cub, and the instructor would decide who was the most eligible for a training course in flying. Of course, I entered. I immediately felt at home in the cockpit, and managed to keep the aircraft on course. However, when the instructor said: “You are on your own now,” I panicked, pushed the throttle forward heading straight down to the lake below. It was yanked back from behind.

I wormed my way into all the pupil pilot’s courses, and learnt about aero dynamics and navigation.

At the age of twenty I applied for a job as an air hostess. I was told to come back the following year. As soon as I “came of age” I re-applied. There were eighteen finalists from all over South Africa. During the interview I was asked about Rembrandt and the Rijksmuseum. I am a Hollander so could answer these questions without hesitation.

We trainees were sent on a three week course. We covered subjects like deportment, safety, first aid, emergency procedures, food service and, of course, my favourite- aero dynamics.

The aircraft left from Palmietfontein. The planes were unpressurised and therefore could not fly above 16000m. The oxygen tanks had to be checked before every flight, as we had to watch out for fainting passengers and clamp oxygen masks over their faces.

The first flight I was on was to the then Rhodesia. My co-hostess was Genl. Smuts grand-daughter . We decided to split the duties. She would hand out the sweets and cottonwool, and I would help the passengers fill in the required documentation they would need on entering Bulawayo. As we were nearing Bulawayo, the Captain called us both into his cabin.

“I hope you girls have your passports with you,” he said. “Otherwise you will be in REAL TROUBLE!”

We looked at each other blankly. “You will find yourselves in jail,” he continued mercilessly.

Then he laughed. “Only joking!” he said.

A co-hostess, Yvonne van den Dool, also a Hollander, already had her pilot’s licence. How I envied her! One day, she disappeared into the Captain’s cabin. When she re-appeared I noticed that she was very excited. She had been allowed to take over the co-pilots controls! She married a pilot and later she and her husband opened up a Charter company in Namibia.
Harry Oppenheimer was a frequent passenger on the Cape Town flights. As soon as he was seated he would take out his briefcase and start working. Time, is seemed, was very precious to him.

One day we carried a group of seventeen “Native” passengers. They were seated in the front of the aircraft by the steward. They were very excited. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I soon found myself joking and laughing with them. However, there was a Nationalist MP on board. The matter was brought up in Parliament. I found myself in the Superintendent’s office, and with much reluctance had to draw up a memorandum in which I had to FULLY explain the trip. It really rankled, and very sarcastically I ended off the memo with “Yours obediently.” I doubt very much if they caught the message.

We were picked up and dropped off at home. Whenever I came back after a long flight I felt disorientated.

There were pros and cons to the job. A good listener and a people’s person, I was very interested in whatever anyone had to say. I felt responsible for the well being of all the passengers. We had been taught about the routes we were covering, so that we could tell the passengers over which mountains and rivers the aircraft was travelling.

The downside was the emptying of paper packets full of vomit and the cleaning up afterwards. Flying low meant that the planes hit many air pockets which resulted in passengers being airsick. We also flew through many electrical storms which were frightening.

The stewards served the drink. We gave a hand with the catering. The food came prepared in aluminium dishes and had to be re-heated and dished up, and the passengers served individually. Coffee was kept in vacuum flasks.

The galley was at the back, separated from the cabin by a curtain. Behind the galley was the loo. A steady stream of male passengers would stumble past us on their way to the loo after they had had their drinks!!

The first jet arrived at Palmietfontein during 1953 on it’s way to the newly constructed Jan Smuts Airport. Those on duty for the day were allowed to take the short trip. We were hardly up in the air before the aircraft landed. On board was George Formby. I was a great fan of this actor and never missed a film of his. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him as the passengers were whisked through a separate entrance.

After a year with SA we were called into the office and told that we were destined for the Australian run. Naturally, we were very excited!

However, in the meantime, I had got engaged. My fiancée said he was going to emigrate to Rhodesia. I handed in my uniform, married him and never ever regretted that decision.
However, when I see a picture of an aeroplane, I can’t help wondering that if I had stuck it out as a hostess and finally got my pilot’s licence, life would have taken a different course.


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