God may have been her co-pilot, Or, The remarkable career of a remarkable pilot, Vera Elsie Strodl

Vera Elsie Strodl wearing the leather flight jacket she wore during the Second World War. Glennis Zilm, “Only Canadian honored – Long love of flying brings award to aviatrix.” The Gazette, 1 February 1972, 8.

Hej, min læsekammerat. Hvordan har du det i dag? Indeed, hello, my reading friend. How are you today? Yours truly thought that a few words in Danish might an appropriate way to dive into this week’s topic of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Let us therefore begin without any further ado.

Vera Elsie “Toni” Strodl was born in July 1918, in England. She was, however, the daughter of a Danish couple which had moved to the United Kingdom to run a cattle farm. Sadly, this business ran into financial difficulties, a problem confounded by Mr. Strodl’s struggle with alcohol.

In 1929 or 1930, our young friend made a brief flight in an airplane, quite possibly an Avro Type 504 – a type of aircraft found in the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. The headmaster of her school had loaned her the money to pay for the flight. Strodl had to toil really hard on her father’s farm for 6 months before she could pay back the loan. In any event, already deeply envious of the seagulls she often saw, Strodl was hooked. She wanted to fly, and become a pilot.

Would you believe that Strodl and at least one of her brothers built an airplane of sort slightly before of after that flight, using some sacking and apple boxes? The first and only test flight was not successful. The budding pilot, Strodl, of course, was not injured.

Not too long after, from the looks of it, Strodl’s mother, Maren Sophie Christine Strodl, born Holst, was injured by an overly aggressive cow. By then, jolly olde England had lost all its luster. In 1930, Strodl returned to Denmark with her mother and 4 siblings, to live with her recently widowed maternal grandmother.

Incidentally, Strodl’s maternal grandfather was the portrait painter Johan Peter Holst. One of her rather older cousins was Bodil Louise Jensen Ipsen, one of the great stars of Danish cinema.

Strodl’s first (paid?) job was to translate the words of Danish pilots for the captains of (British?) ships / barges, which was not always easy given the technical nature of these words. One foggy day, she said starboard when she should have said port, or vice versa, and the barge ran into a sandbank. Its captain was beside himself with rage. Strodl was fired on the spot.

In April 1934, Strodl’s mother allowed her 15-years old daughter to go back to England to train as a pilot. For one reason or other, Strodl chose to train with the Sussex Aero Club, the second such club bearing that name, the first one having gone under in March 1922.

Strodl found a job as a waitress in a backstreet café in order to save the money required to pay for her flying lessons, but was soon fired. The teenager found a job at another café, however. At first, she scrubbed floors, then waited at tables. Strodl began her classes in 1935. Two weeks of hard labour gave her 20 minutes of flying time, during her lunch hours, which meant that she had toil very hard for a rather long time to achieve her goal.

Like many trainees of the time, Strodl received her lessons from a Royal Flying Corps / Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot who had served during the First World War. She actually trained on a de Havilland Moth, another type of aircraft found in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Strodl got her pilot’s license in January 1937. Is the collection of that institution still incomparable, you ask, my reading friend? Yes, it is, for ever and ever. Amen. Sorry.

Before too, too long, Strodl got herself a job with Philips & Powis Aircraft Limited and later qualified as an inspector. Interested in learning about metal aircraft, which Philips & Powis Aircraft had little experience in but which clearly represented the future of flight, she got a position at Gloster Aircraft Company Limited.

By 1939, Strodl had decided to emigrate to Australia. The imminence of war forced her to rethink her plans, however. Strodl thus joined the staff of Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited, the recently-founded (1938) British subsidiary of an American aircraft manufacturing firm, Taylor-Young Airplane Company / Taylorcraft Aviation Corporation. Over the next two years, she worked as an aircraft inspector and production test pilot.

At the time, the small firm produced light / private airplanes which were very similar to the Taylorcraft BC found in the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

One of Strodl’s first, if not her very first assignment with Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) may, I repeat may, have been a demonstration flight in front of government officials. The aircraft seemingly stalled, upside down, before its engine cut out. Strodl managed to right the aircraft which, according to her, pretty much landed itself as she hung on for dear life.

In 1938, Strodl received 2 glider pilot licenses. Indeed, she earned both the same day. She also joined a British paramilitary organisation, the Civil Air Guard, whose aim was to encourage and subsidise pilot training in the United Kingdom’s flying clubs.

Unable to serve in the RAF as a pilot, not even as a flight instructor, because she was a woman, but eager to help the war effort, Strodl joined a most interesting civilian organisation in December 1941.

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) had been formed in 1939 to transport mail, personnel, supplies, etc. destined to the British armed forces within the British Isles. It was soon made responsible for the ferrying of new, repaired and damaged aircraft of the RAF and Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm between the various factories, maintenance units and bases. The ATA proved all but indispensable throughout the Second World War.

And yes, my reading friend, that was dangerous work. ATA pilots had to deal with bad weather, the odd German aircraft and the sometimes trigger-happy anti-aircraft gun crews of the British Army. Mind you, the large formations, or barrages, of tethered balloons used to protect important locations from air attack could also prove fatal. Like many, if not most ATA pilots, Strodl had her share of close calls during the Second World War.

As an increasingly more adept ATA pilot, Strodl flew a variety of military aircraft, from single seat fighter planes like the Supermarine Spitfire to heavy bombers like the Avro Lancaster – two hyper known types of British aircraft found in the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. A very incomplete list of British and American combat aircraft she piloted includes other museum machines, namely the Bristol Beaufighter, de Havilland Mosquito, Fairey Firefly, North American Mitchell and North American Mustang.

It is worth noting that whenever she got to pilot an aircraft she had not flown before, Strodl wrote its name on the leather flight jacket seen in the photograph at the beginning of this article. On her right sleeve, for example, one can read the words Spitfire and Tiger Moth. And yes, there is a Tiger Moth in the incomparable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Actually, that national museum of Canada has a Menasco Moth, but let us not worry about such a teeny tiny peccadillo.

Incidentally, said flight jacket may, I repeat may, be on display at the Nordfyns Museum, a small museum located in Bogense, Denmark, the town where Strodl had lived with her mother in the early 1930s.

All in all, Strodl made 200 or so ferry flights during the Second World War.

Strodl was one of the few Scandinavians, female or male, to fly with the ATA during the conflict. That fact was well known at the time. Indeed, she made the cover of the May 1943 issue of the clandestine paper Frit Danmark, published by the Danish resistance movement of the same name, where she could be seen in the cockpit on an aircraft.

Strodl may well have spoken (in Danish?) on one or more British Broadcasting Corporation radio programs, on London Calling Europe perhaps. According to some, she may, I repeat may, have dropped leaflets over Denmark, which was then suffering under German occupation.

Although demobilised in November 1945, Strodl joined the Women’s Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1946 or 1947 and briefly served as (chief?) flight instructor. She provided flight instruction to the teenage members of the Women’s Junior Air Corps, a British cadet organisation formed in 1939, for example.

What happened afterward is a tad unclear. Strodl may have returned to Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England), a firm which became Auster Aircraft Limited in 1946, before joining the staff of a small Swedish civilian operator, Ostermans Aero Aktiebolaget. Among other things, in Sweden, she flew passengers and freight into logging camps located both below and above the Arctic circle. Strodl even laid powerlines from the air. In other words, she was a bush pilot through and through. Indeed, Strodl may herself have worked as a lumberjack for a few months.

It is possible, I repeat possible, that Strodl learned how to fly seaplanes during a visit to the United States in 1946.

Would you believe that Ostermans Aero, then known as Aero Service Aktiebolaget, had the general agency for Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) / Auster Aircraft in 1946? Well, you should. Indeed, Strodl delivered, in January 1946, the first of many Taylorcraft / Auster light / private aircraft registered in Sweden after the Second World War.

At some point, around 1946, a ferry flight to Sweden turned into a rescue operation of sort. Two of Strodl brothers and a sister-in-law had pretty much wrecked the sailboat they were using to sail from England to Denmark. Choosing family over the need to deliver the aircraft on schedule, Strodl picked up one of her brothers in Hamburg, Germany, and dropped him in Denmark. She then delivered the aircraft to its Swedish owner.

Strodl became quite the celebrity in Scandinavia. Indeed, she made the cover of several magazine issues. Photographs usually portrayed her wearing her leather flight jacket.

At some point, around 1950-51, Strodl joined forces with another ex-ATA female pilot and friend, who had become the founding manager of the Isle of Wight Flying Club and the managing director of a small English airport, in 1950 – a European first for a woman. And yes, Strodl became the chief flight instructor of the club. Incidentally, she became a British subject / citizen in 1948.

As Homo sapiens went / go, the managing director in question, Mary Wilkins, was as interesting a character as Strodl. Hooked on flying as a result of brief flight around 1925, when she was 8 years old, she got her pilot’s license in 1939. After the Second World War, Wilkins became one of the first women in the world to fly a jet aircraft, more specifically a Gloster Meteor fighter plane of the RAF. After her demobilisation, she became an automobile rally driver and won many competitions, but back to our train of thought. Choo, choo. Sorry.

Strodl was perusing an aviation magazine one day when she saw an advertisement for a flight instructor position in Lethbridge, Saskatchewan. Yes, the Lethbridge Flying Club advertisement allegedly said Saskatchewan, not Alberta, where Lethbridge was / is really located. In any event, Strodl applied for the position and got it. She emigrated to Canada in 1952 and was teaching pilots by May of that year.

Strodel was one the pilots involved in the Royal Canadian Air Force’s instructor refresher course program aimed at wartime flight instructors. She was the first female flight instructor in Alberta, and one of the first, if not the first, in Western Canada.

A brief digression if I may. The first Albertan pilot who soloed after being trained by Strodl was David “Scott” Kinniburgh, one of the co-founders, in 1952, of Kinniburgh Spray Service Limited – an aerial application firm, based in Taber, Alberta, which still existed as of 2022.

Strodl moved to Edmonton, Alberta, around 1957, where she also worked as a flight instructor, at the Edmonton Flying Club.

And yes, she may have taught aerobatics in both Lethbridge and Edmonton.

By then, Strodl held commercial pilot licenses issued by no less than 4 countries: Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Around 1958-59, as a follow up to the missionary work she had done since 1955 or so, in small towns around Lethbridge, Strodl began to fly out of Edmonton to remote communities in the Northwest Territories and the northern regions of Canada’s western provinces, to carry the gospel to the indigenous populations. Mind you, she had also volunteered at a mission helping people who struggled with alcohol.

Strodl’s switch from commercial flying to evangelical work initially proved difficult, especially when she all but put commercial flying aside, around May 1958. All but broke, she could not afford to buy the small yellow airplane she had in mind, until an anonymous benefactor loaned her the money that is, money she had repaid no later than the fall of 1959.

Incidentally, Strodl’s machine bore inscriptions like “God is a good God” and “Jesus saves and heals today.” Yours truly cannot say when, or if, she replaced it at some point.

Strodl usually spent a couple of weeks in each location, then left. Unaffiliated with any particular protestant church, this dedicated if self taught flying evangelist left her converts in the care of a local pastor, if there was one. If there was none, she wrote to said converts until a pastor could be sent out.

Strodl may have been relatively well known in the United States as a result of a Christian comic book, issue 111 (September 1958) of Oral Roberts True Stories, entitled The Sky Ranger. In case you did not know, Granville Oral Roberts was an American Christian televangelist who died in December 2009. Indeed, he was one of the most recognised, and controversial, American preachers of the Cold War period, but I digress.

Strodl got married in 1963, to one Standford J. “Stan” Dowling, but kept on flying as an instructor until 1987. She may have kept on flying for fun until 2000.

In 1971, Strodl began to work at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, in Edmonton, as a Ministry of Transport ground school instructor in the private pilot, commercial pilot and instrument flying courses. The same year, that ministry sent her a citation in recognition of her contribution to civil aviation in Western Canada.

In 1972, the government of Alberta gave Strodl an award in recognition of her outstanding achievements in the field of aviation. The same year, the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, a British organisation known in 2022 as the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, gave her its prestigious Award of Merit. She was the first Canadian, and the 9th Homo sapiens on planet Earth to be so honoured since the creation of the guild, in 1929.

In 1982, the International Northwest Aviation Council of Edmonton awarded Strodl its Amelia Earhart Medal. Does Amelia Mary Earhart need any introduction? I thought not. In 1987, the Western Canada Aviation Museum of Winnipeg, Manitoba, awarded her its Pioneer Aviation Award. In 1993, the Alberta Aviation Council of Edmonton awarded Strodl its Molly Reilly Memorial Trophy. Moretta Fenton Beall “Molly” Reilly was a renowned pilot, deceased in November 1990, with a number of Canadian firsts to her credit.

In 2000, Strodl was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in recognition of “her extraordinary enthusiasm for and life-long dedication to aviation, in wartime and peace, particularly her dedication to flight instruction[.]”

In July 2003, on her 85th birthday, Strodl jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft. In other words, she made a parachute jump while strapped to an expert jumper. She may, I repeat may, have repeated the experience in 2004 and 2005.

This remarkable human being left this world in January 2015, in Edmonton. She was 96 years old.

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Rénald Fortier