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.