26 May 2023

Dancer to pilot: a lifechanging opportunity for Mary de Klerk

Mary de Klerk had established a career as a dancer and seamstress before a “life-changing” encounter navigated her towards embarking on her pilot’s license and a subsequent career in sports flying, in which she gained many titles before retiring after her bronze medal at the 22nd FAI World Rally Flying Championships

Born in Durban but based in Johannesburg for work, Mary was on an Easter break with a friend in the Botswana Delta in 1989 when someone suggested that the pair tried reach their destination by waiting on a small grass runway, as the road was flooded. Mary takes us back to the moment her life changed: “A Cessna 206 buzzed once, then landed. The passengers alighted and drove away in the game drive vehicle, leaving a young girl in her khaki bush outfit. I asked her where the pilot was and she replied, ‘I am the pilot’.  Rather taken aback, I asked if she would mind flying us over to Xaxaba Camp. ‘No problem’, replied Alison, the bush pilot. Well… The next 20 minutes altered the course of my life forever.”

One of four children, Mary was brought up to have a ‘can-do’ attitude by her hotelier mother, “a 4’8’’ packet of pure Irish dynamite”, and to seize opportunities as they presented themselves. Little surprise then, when shortly afterwards, Mary had booked a month off work and was set to start her PPL at the Natal Flight Centre. On 3 July 1989 she took to the skies for the first time in a ZS KXN (C152), going solo on 12 July and achieving her PPL under the tutelage of Dennis Stuart and Guy Dixon at NFC, 20 days later. By 4 August she had a C152, C172, C182, PA 28/181 and a Pitts on her license.

It was the same opportunistic enthusiasm that led her to accept the chance to fly a rally. Mary explains: “Andre Fourie told me to book an aerie, find a partner and bring my plotting tools to the briefing the next morning.” With no real idea what was expected, the duo took to the skies after a 30-minute briefing and proceeded to find the pictures by scouring up and down a railway line. Taking an undisputed last place did not curb Mary’s enthusiasm for the competition. She was hooked.

The various competition disciplines have all been explored and conquered by Mary since that first flight, both as a pilot and as navigator. She has gained many trophies, cups and titles along the way, from club to international level.  

Mary de Klerk pilot
Mary with her trophy collection

explainer: competition flying

Precision Flying: between 1989-2019 Mary flew competitions between club and international level, winning Best Female Pilot and the title of South African Precision Flying Champion. Precision Flying requires a single pilot to plot, fly the routes and land in four ways, whilst incurring minimal penalties.

Rally Flying: from 1989 and up to 2022, Mary gained numerous awards, medals and trophies, also holding the unbeaten title of South African Rally Champion for a consecutive 14 years. She was navigator in this 2-crew operation in which the team is handed a surprise route and given 25-30 minutes to decipher and plot their plan of action.

Air Racing: between 2006-2022 Mary competed in air races which are a speed challenge, winning as PIC in 2007 and 2010, and as navigator alongside Nigel Hopkins in the 2019 Grand Prix Air Race.

Air Navigation Rally: introduced in 2012, Mary competed nationally as a pilot and flew the last World Championships in 2019 – pre covid.

Landing Championships: South Africa has made a national sport of this discipline and Mary won the South African Landing Championships in Stellenbosch in 2019.

Mary de Klerk pilot
Mary in the cockpit

A career in competition

In the early 1990s, Mary was successful in numerous Club Day Events and went on to be invited to join the Natal Precision Flying team, participating in the National Championships in Brits. Here she was asked to partner with Barry de Groot, and the pair competed locally, nationally and internationally together for 20 years. She particularly remembers that in 1992 she navigated for Barry over the Stellenbosch mountains: “I was almost 8 months pregnant with my first daughter and in the searing December heat, I had to cut my plotting board shorter and shorter to make space. There was hardly anything left to plot on!”

In 1995 they represented South Africa at the World Rally Flying Championships in Herning, Denmark, heralding the beginning of her 27-year career of national and international flying competitions, which has taken her to Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Italy, France, Poland, Germany, Austria, and Slovakia.

Mary most recently took to the podium taking a bronze medal alongside Nigel Hopkins in the overall category of the 22nd FAI World Rally Flying Championships.

“Sitting in 2nd position after day 1 and then up to 1st position after day 2 we were left with only day 3 to go in order to clinch the title. The last day was a near clear round and we landed, ecstatic! However, the wind was not in our favour and the organisers cancelled a whole day of landings which sadly dropped us from 1st position to 3rd position. But it remained a great way to retire from actively participating in sport flying at World Championship level.”

Mary de Klerk with Nigel Hopkins
Mary navigating alongside pilot Nigel Hopkins

Looking to the next generation

In future Mary plans to put her knowledge to good work on the administrative side of the desk. She will continue to Air Race and hopes to one day participate in the ARC – Air Race Classic, the all-female air race in the USA.

Reflecting on her long and busy career as a competition pilot and navigator, Mary comments: “When I first started flying competitions it was a rare sight to see a female pilot in the left hand seat. We were indeed a rare breed. As the years have gone by more and more females have started competition flying and I would attempt to guess that currently we are enjoying about 10 - 15% of the world stage in international competitions.

"Aviation used to be deemed a man’s sport, but Amelia Earhart changed that way of thinking forever. This is a sport requiring a sharp mind, clear logical thinking, quick reactions, rational thoughts, calm attitude and of course, good eyesight.”

As well enhancing these useful aptitudes, Mary adds: “Aviation has changed my life and added enormous value into my being. I have travelled the world, met lifelong friends in over 15 countries and experienced life more than I ever would have remaining on the ground and running my business. My life and that of my family is wealthier for having had that short experience back in 1989 in Botswana. I urge all young females considering aviation as a sport or a career, not to think twice – DO IT! You won’t regret it.”

2023 World Championships in France

Although she has retired from international competition, Mary will undoubtedly follow the performances of her fellow pilots competing at the 23rd FAI World Rally Flying Championship (WRFC) which take place in Mâcon, France between 30 July to 4 August 2023. Around 50 crews and 25 planes from 20 countries are expected to participate during the week-long competition, which will also feature on-site entertainment, vintage planes and an airshow for the finale of the event. 

Images: Mary de Klerk