Enough of that! Now for the really thrilling news... I soloed on Sunday, April 29!
Yip, I SOLOed!!
Felicity Bennett in a letter to her sister Connie, May 1, 1951
It hit without warning…
At 3000 feet AGL (above ground) on a south-easterly heading, a small Cessna 140 airplane with pilot and passenger aboard cleared frozen Lake Ontario passing over Wolfe Island and was now well into New York state. Although the winter flying conditions were ideal when they took off from Norman Rogers airport in Kingston, the small plane was now suddenly enveloped in a misty, cloud-like dense fog.
The passenger, Betty Draycott, was a physiotherapist on her way home to Baltimore, Maryland and the John Hopkins hospital. Her female friend, a recently licensed pilot had agreed to fly her there. Now they were in trouble.
Betty stared straight ahead as she felt the airplane bank to the left in a fifteen degree turn. Keeping her hands in her lap, she saw the control column in front of her in a slight left turn. The plane shuddered in the turbulent cloud. For a moment, she stole a quick glance at the turn and bank indicator on the plane’s instrument panel in front of the pilot and felt relieved that the plane was maintaining altitude. Betty was also a licensed pilot. Both women realized that this sudden fog bank was not predicted. The weather when they left Kingston was ceiling and visibility unlimited or CAVU conditions. Ideal for this time of the year. Betty also knew that her friend, the pilot, did not have an IFR rating. This meant an Instrument Flying Rating. The ability and endorsement needed to fly blind. Neither did she.
The magnetic compass continued to swing as the pilot counted quietly to herself... 1001, 1002,... They could see absolutely nothing through the windshield. Nothing but a white void. By the time the count reached sixty, Betty felt the plane level off. They were still flying blind.
Suddenly, the radio tower at Oswego New York came in view 40 miles away. Then everything was clear over Lake Ontario once more. CAVU conditions back to Norman Rogers airport and Kingston. Betty, turning to the pilot, remarked, “Why Felicity, you’re as white as snow!”
Betty Draycott need not have worried. Flying the left seat that February morning was ‘Amelia Earhart’ herself, the legendary Felicity Bennett McKendry!
This was the same Felicity who gave up her teaching career to become the first female flight instructor in the Kingston region, and one of the first female flying instructors in all of Canada.
The same woman who placed first for the Kingston Flying Club in the Webster trophy competition St. Lawrence zone trials in 1952.
The same woman who would later examine Canadian Astronauts Steve MacLean and Marc Garneau for their private pilot’s license. At his parent’s 50th anniversary, son David remarked in his speech, “Everyone had to ‘get by Mom’. No exceptions!”
It has been sixty years since Felicity counted out the seconds in her head as she pointed her airplane back toward Kingston and safety. “I credit Doug Wagner for the early lesson on counting rate one turns, 3 degrees per second,” remembered Felicity McKendry just recently. “And the fact I had practiced them often while building the 250 hours required to obtain my commercial pilot’s license and instructor rating. It probably saved our lives.” Then she added, “My only regret was that Betty likely had a watch, and I should have asked her to tell me when a minute is up so I could concentrate on holding the plane in a steady one rate turn.” She points to her pilot log book entry for February 22, back in 1953: “Betty Draycott, passenger, Cessna 140, CF-FCZ, Watertown – Syracuse – snowstorm, 1.25 hours... ‘WOW!’”
“Betty is gone now,” Felicity added, “and you know, I really don’t know if she ever did get back to Johns Hopkins Hospital.”
On April 29, 2013, it will be sixty two years since pilot instructor the late Doug Wagner of the Kingston Flying Club jumped out of a Fleet 80 Canuck and said to his student, “How would you like to do that without me?” Instructor and student had been practicing takeoffs and landings for five circuits that afternoon.
In a letter to her sister Connie, Felicity writes:
“I was speechless... None of my landings being even nearly perfect... ‘If you bounce it high, go around again as the air is too still to afford a second landing’ he said. Away I went... more mechanically than by sense... nice even take-off... nicely banked climbing at 500 feet... gained 1000 feet very readily, straight downwind course right on the 1000 foot mark... neither up or down, another nice left turn, cut the throttle... nose up... left turn... right in a line with the runway and a nice even 75 mph glide unassisted by the motor (had to help previous glides) over the water’s edge at the correct 500 mark... still gliding nicely... 100 feet... 75... 30 begin to level out stick... gradually back... full back... and, honestly... I didn’t know when I quit flying and when I landed... Doug came running up... grinning from ear to ear... ‘Why you just greased it in!’ Quite a descriptive word, eh? I was too something or other to say or do anything but I was mighty excited and pleased. Believe it or not, I don’t remember being at all nervous... It’s absolutely wonderful up there by yourself... anyway, out came Doug with the shears so that’s how I lost a good size nip out of that blue shirt Mother made for me. It now hangs in the flying lounge. I don’t know what inscription adorns it yet. Please send this to Mother and Father.”
So began an extraordinary career for a remarkable lady. She could now actually fly an airplane, solo, all by herself. All that training on the ‘Captain Sparks’ cardboard cockpit she had as a child now paid off. “That was the ultimate feeling... Wow!” McKendry exclaimed. “I never achieved anything like it again.” Except when a shy male student showed up on the tarmac shortly after Felicity earned her instructor’s rating. Spence McKendry wanted to learn to fly. “He seemed to book himself every time I was on duty, too,” McKendry laughed.
Soon, Felicity was no longer ‘flying solo’. They married two years later and began a husband and wife career in aviation. “When we returned from our honeymoon, there was a letter from Transport Canada for Spence stating that he was one of 30 from 1500 applicants to be selected on the first ever official Air Traffic Control training in Toronto, less than a month away. He hadn’t even told me he had applied.” Explaining the situation, Spence was accepted on the second course and the couple moved to Brampton, Ontario.
Soon, because of his high standing, Spence was able to select Ottawa for his placement. “Russ Bradley of Bradley Air Services hired me at the nearby airport in Carp because I had my Class 2 Instructors rating. I was Chief Flight Instructor there while we were in Ottawa.” For a time, Felicity gave up her flying to raise her children, David and Sandra. Once the children were in school, Felicity was back in the cockpit.
Between 1958 and 1965, according to the book No Place for a Lady, Shirley Render writes that ‘Felicity flew just enough to keep herself current. In 1966 she resumed part time instructing, working for Margaret Carson, then the Ottawa Aero Services and from 1974 to 1986 with the Rockcliffe Flying Club.
When she retired in 1986 she held a Class 1 instructor’s rating with instrument endorsement. With her retirement students lost a teacher whose calm and gentle manner, combined with her skill as a pilot, made her one of the best loved and respected instructors in the area.”
She has been an active member of the Canadian chapter of the Ninety-Nines since 1952. “The name goes way back to 1929,” McKendry said, “when a group of licensed female pilots agreed to meet after Fay Gillis Wells contacted them. At the meeting in Newark, New Jersey, only 99 members of 120 showed up. The name stuck. The famed American aviator Amelia Earhart herself was named the first president and suggested the name.”
Career over, Felicity McKendry is ‘flying solo’ once more. Her husband and aviation partner Spence passed away recently. Their home in Kingston was sold in 2010. Felicity moved back to Ottawa to be near her children. Each object and picture she holds has a flying story to tell and McKendry can recall each and every one with clarity and humour.
“You know something?” she says, opening a book to a marked page. The picture shows the Calgary 99 convention chaired by Air Canada Captain Rosella Bjornson, the first female Canadian airline pilot to be hired in 1972. “Rosella told me that ‘I was just born twenty years too soon.’”
Closing the book, she places it carefully in a cardboard box. Then, sitting down at her dining room table, the veteran pilot folds her hands one over the other and looks me straight in the eye. “It got the message across... yeah, women can fly these things.
“It’s been a magical ride, honestly!”
By Brian Johnson, captain of Wolfe Islander III and recently had his Pilot Log Book’ signed ‘Reviewed by Felicity Bennett McKendry.’
Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain. We often see him pass through the islands as captain of the Canadian Empress. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website:“Seaway News”. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.