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Daphne Schiff
Daphne Schiff. Photo by Lorne Bridgman

Around the World at 80 Years

Daphne Schiff earned her pilot's license in 1970 at the age of 46 and has flown in so many races that she's lost count

Daphne Schiff isn’t like most people. She has raced around the globe in a twin-engine plane. She can pilot anything from a turboprop to a 737. She flies from France to Africa almost every autumn. And, oh yes, she’s 80 years old.

Schiff earned a BA in 1945 at Victoria College (because someone told her she couldn’t do it), then a master’s in chemistry in 1947 (take that!) at U of T. Does she feel she’s done anything special, being a woman in the male-dominated world of flying and one of the oldest certified pilots in Canada? “No.” Are people amazed by her? “People think I’m crazy – they’re probably right.”

Schiff earned her pilot’s license in 1970 at the age of 46, and has flown in so many races – from the Round the World Race to the Transatlantic Air Race – that she’s lost count. She’s a member of the Ninety-Nines, the international women’s flying club founded by Amelia Earhart. Schiff and a friend, Adele Fogle, make yearly trips to the west coast of Africa for Paris-based Air Solidarité, a humanitarian-aid organization. Flying a single-engine plane from France to Mali, Algeria, Senegal and other countries, the women deliver pharmaceuticals and school supplies. They also check the progress of Air Solidarité projects, including the building of schools and health clinics.

There have been brushes with danger. During the Round the World Race in 1994, Schiff and two fellow Ninety-Nines were flying over Iran when their plane was met by two Iranian military jets. The jets flanked the twin-engine plane for 10 minutes. “They couldn’t figure out what these three women were doing flying this plane,” she says. Nervous that they’d be forced to land, the women scrounged their luggage for proper headwear. “We had no scarves. Nothing but our flight suits. The best we could come up with was three pairs of silk panties!” In the end, the men lost interest and an incident was avoided.

On another occasion, near the coast of Chile, both engines just stopped. Even this didn’t phase Schiff. “You have a checklist and you know what you have to do – you go through it item by item until you find out what’s wrong. And that’s what we did.” What’s happening as the pilots calmly go about their task? “Oh, the ocean’s getting closer,” she says, smiling.

Schiff and Fogle are now preparing for their eighth trip with Air Solidarité this fall. Fundraising is their main task: aid, fuel and other expenses will bring the cost of the trip to $40,000. Schiff and Fogle are so far without a corporate sponsor, as many of their regular donors have contributed to the tsunami relief effort instead. 
Schiff’s piloting adventures began – like her university education – with a challenge. She spent her first flying lesson clutching the arm of her instructor who, upon landing, told Schiff’s husband, “She’ll never be a pilot.” “That’s when I decided to do it,” she says. She’s never looked back since – only down.

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  1. 5 Responses to “ Around the World at 80 Years ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was delighted to see Daphne Schiff in the summer issue. What you failed to mention about this amazing woman is that she was on the faculty of York University for 38 years. In June, Professor Schiff received an honorary doctor of laws degree at York's convocation for her daring and generous acts of philanthropy as a pilot. We all honour her.

    Lorna R. Marsden
    President, York University
    BA 1968 UC, LLD Hon. 1995

  3. N J. says:

    I was Daphne's flight instructor back in 1970. I instructed her for her private, commercial, and airline transport license. She's really progressed to quite a pilot, and I'm proud of her. I was in the audience when she received your honorary doctorate.

  4. Michael Stephenson says:

    I flew with Daphne from time to time at the Island Airport. She might recall giving my newborn son a sweatshirt with the university's name on it. At about 89 or so, would Daphne still be with us? If so, would you pass my contact information along to her please. Thank you very much.

  5. Alain Baudot says:

    I was a chair at Glendon College of York University when Daphne taught a very popular course in the Natural Science Division (Physics of Flight). She also supervised a thesis by a former pilot in the Second World War who admired her very much.

  6. Chantelle Gallagher says:

    I was a student in Ms. Schiff's Physics of Flight course back in the 1990's and have been searching the internet, all these years later, to try to find her name so I could pass it on to my daughter as a woman who inspired and continues to inspire me.