Mary de Klerk
by Julie de Vries
Born in Durban in the late 50’s into a family of hardworking KZN South Coast hoteliers, Mary de Klerk matriculated at the age of 16 from Maris Stella Convent. She was very active in the Drama Dept often taking lead roles as a singer & dancer in the high school productions.
She went on to study at the University of Natal and before the age of 20 had graduated with a BA HDE majoring in English and Speech & Drama. At the same time she also achieved her Advanced Associate and Membership Status in Modern & Tap Dancing. She was offered a dancing slot on TV in the early days and packed her bags with all of R200 in her purse and a sewing machine in her boot, to seek her fame and fortune in Johannesburg. There she danced
professionally and taught dancing at various studios including Roedean Girls school for 12 years. At the same time and to make ends meet, Mary started a Dancewear manufacturing company called Mary-Ellen Designer Dancewear and built it up to a large CMT factory in the heart of Johannesburg City employing over 40 machinists.
It was on one of her many getaway visits with friends into the Botswana Delta, that Mary’s life changed forever. Footloose and fancy free she and a friend needed to get from an island to Xaxaba Camp but the water was too high to travel by road. One of the guys suggested that
they stand on the little grass runway the next day and wait for the plane to come in, and then ask the pilot to hop them across to the camp. It was over the Easter Weekend in 1989 at about 09h00 when a Cessna 206 buzzed once, then landed. The passengers alighted and drove away in the game drive vehicle. The only person left was a young girl in her khaki bush outfit. Mary asked her where the pilot was and she replied “I am the pilot”. Rather taken aback, Mary then asked if she would mind flying her and her mate over to Xaxaba Camp. “No problem” replied Alison, the bush pilot. Well the next 20 minutes altered the course of Mary’s life forever. Mary’s mother, Doreen Roberts, was a little 4’8” packet of Pure Irish Dynamite. She was a significant role model in Mary’s life. Everything she tackled she did to
the best of her ability – be it politics, religion, history, wild life, property or business. She was not a fussy mother. Although she provided Mary and her 3 siblings, Charles, Sheilagh and Julie with every possible opportunity to learn and grow, she pretty much left them to manage stuff on their own. Eg Mary loved her dancing and was always performing in shows. In those days the costumes were very elaborate, and her dancing teacher, Norma Madgin, insisted that every sequin be individually stitched on with a bead. Her mother could not sew, so from a very early age, she knew that if she wanted pretty costumes like the other girls, she had to do it herself. Due to her mother being a busy Hotelier, running 7 hotels on the South Coast and working odd hours, Mary and her siblings often had to fend for themselves. Doreen used to say “a little bit of healthy neglect, never did my kids any harm!” This was the beginning of the lessons in becoming independent. Doreen also taught her children to “Learn all you can – it’s no weight to carry” So indeed they did. One very powerful lesson she taught them all
was about seizing every opportunity and believing in their own ability to succeed at it. She would say:
“If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not – you don’t
If you want to win, but you think you can’t
It’s almost a cinch – YOU WONT!
Life prizes don’t always go
To the strongest or fastest man
But the man in the end who always wins
Is the man who THINKS HE CAN!”
Mary’s Irish grandfather, Jack Cunningham, added to the above saying : “If the other silly buggers can do it, so can you!”
Mary had by now made up her mind that she wanted to learn how to fly and when Mary makes up her mind about something there is no stopping her. So in April 1989 on her return from Botswana to SA, she called her mother who still lived in Durban announced that she no longer wanted to teach dancing or run her CMT factory, she wanted to become a pilot. Needless to say, her Mom was rather concerned that she might have consumed something “undesirable” on her last trip to Botswana, but nonetheless she called Natal Flight Centre and booked Mary in to commence her PPL. Mary booked off work for a month and on 3rd July 1989 took to the skies for the first time in ZS KXN (C152). She went solo on 12th July and 20 days after her first flight, she achieved her PPL on 23rd July 1989 under the tutelage of Dennis Stuart and Guy Dixon at NFC. By 4th August she had a C152, C172, C182, PA 28/181 and a Pitts on her license. The next life changing event happened one Friday evening whilst sitting in the famous Durban Wings Club pub. A certain Andre Fourie asked Mary if she would like to fly a Rally the next day. As you can imagine she accepted without hesitation, thinking it was some sort of a job coming her way (little did she know….). Andre told her to book an aerie, find a partner and bring her plotting tools to the briefing the next morning. She arrived with all three but without a “cooking clue” as to what was expected. After a 30 minute briefing she and her mate got airborne and headed out towards the Greytown area. One leg required them to follow the railway line and identify the pictures en route. Not knowing the rules, they found all the pictures but only after flying up and down the railway line about 6 times! They arrived back about an hour late to much consternation, coming stone last, but the seed had been planted and Mary was destined to make Rally Flying her “unpaid” career. Heading back to Johannesburg she completed her Night Rating in a Mooney with Val Humphries. In 1991 she met and married her then husband Dave de Klerk, moved back to Durban, and progressed to achieve her Commercial Pilots Licence and Instrument Rating. She was heading for SAA but was advised that unless she could conduct the job interview in fluent Afrikaans, she was wasting her time. By now very entrenched in the Durban Wings Club, she participated in numerous Club Day Events, always walking away with most of the trophies including Best Female Pilot and Pilot of the Year every time. In Feb 1992 and by now having participated in many local Rally and Precision competitions, she competed in her first Provincial Championship at FAVG in Durban. She only came 6th and was made 1st Reserve for the KZN Team, but when one of the guys pulled out she received the honour of being invited to join the Natal Precision Flying Team. In March 1992, she competed in her first National Precision Flying Championships in Brits. It was at this event that Barry de Groot took her under his wing, clearly recognizing some aviation talent blossoming. He politely asked her husband, Dave, if Mary could be his official Navigator for the next Rally Season… another huge honour! This incredibly successful partnership was destined to compete both locally, nationally and internationally for the next twenty years. In 1991 Stellenbosch had hosted the World Rally Flying Championships under the directorship of Captain Colin Jordaan. Mary was still too fresh to compete at this level, but in Dec 1992 and by now almost 8 months pregnant with her first daughter, Chelsea, she navigated for Barry over the Stellenbosch mountains in the searing Dec heat in a C152. As her pregnancy grew, Barry had to cut her plotting board shorter and shorter until there was hardly anything left to plot on. Having achieved her Provincial Colours it was now time to shoot for National Springbok Colours and join the Team heading for the World Rally Flying Championships in Chile in 1993. The Championships were to be held in Grahamstown late in February of that year. Having a brand new baby only a couple of weeks old, did not deter Mary from participating. There were no cell phones in these days and communication was limited. The briefing was held the night before but Barry agreed to stay as Mary and her family were staying with friends on a nearby farm. “See you at 8 tomorrow morning” and off she went. Unfortunately at the briefing that night it was announced that due to a cold front coming through the next day, the competition was being brought forward by one hour. There was no way to contact Mary and so when she and hubby and baby arrived at the airfield at 8am there was a deathly silence and only one aerie on the ground. Barry was nowhere to be found, blowing off steam at the far end of the runway. The Competition and the chance to get into the Springbok Team had been dashed! Disappointed prevailed. But it did not last long. Two years later at the next available opportunity Barry and Mary were successful and in 1995 Represented South Africa at the World Rally Flying Championships in Herning, Denmark. This heralded the beginning of 25 Years of International Flying Competitions the most recent of which was with her ANR flying partner Thys van der Merwe in Portugal in September 2019. The die was cast and competition flying was pumping in her blood. Mary went on to achieve her Protea Colours in all the sporting disciplines including Rally Flying, Precision Flying, Air Navigation Racing. She has since competed at national and international level in South Africa, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Italy, France, Poland, Germany, Austria, and Slovakia several times. In addition to winning the National Precision Championships a few times she has pegged her name on the Winning National Rally Championships Trophy every year (besides two) from 2005 to 2019. She also won the National Landing Championships in Stellenbosch in 2016. More recently in 2018 and 2019 she has won the National Air Navigation Racing Championships. In 2006 Mary flew her first air race in Klerksdorp and has since competed every year in the Presidents Trophy Air Race, Race of Champions, and Race for Rhinos. She won the Race of Champions out of 100 Racers in Tzaneen in 2007 and the Presidents Trophy Air Race out of 105 Racers in Rustenburg in 2010. She has now added the Speed Rally Circuit to her long list of accolades, coming third in the first Season in 2019 out of 86 Racers, and more recently in 2020 winning the first ever Grand Prix Race with Nigel Hopkins in his RV7. During this illustrious career in sport aviation, Mary has brought up her two daughters and one step daughter (now with 2 granddaughters) whilst running her own very busy marketing company, Expanding Branding. Remembering her mother: “A good deal of healthy neglect never did them any harm” she still says with a wink whilst proudly watching over the beautiful women they have all grown into. “Whenever I could, I would take the girls with me on the International trips. They helped and marshalled and loved being around with the Team. It gave them all a terrific sense of independence.” Her step daughter, Leigh, now lives in the UK, her youngest, Braidy has emigrated to Australia. Chelsea, her first born, is walking in her mother’s footsteps and running the business, giving Mary the opportunity to exit gracefully and concentrate her efforts on the administrative side of Sport Aviation. Mary is described by close family and friends as ‘Superwoman’. Like her Mom, everything she takes on she does to the best of her ability. Her batteries seldom ever need re-charging, but she manages this by rising early and jogging five kilometres with her dog Oakley before the sun rises. Little time to sleep when there is work to be done. But with her strong work ethic comes an incredibly kind, compassionate, generous soul who will go out of her way to help anybody in need. It is Mary’s sole intention in her future retirement years to put back into the Sport of Aviation all those years of experience and knowledge that she has gleaned. There was no one in the early days to teach and mentor the teams. They had to learn by making their own mistakes. She now wants to fast forward the process of introducing new fresh young blood into the sport and to this end dedicates a lot of her time to training the new entrants. Mary will act as the Competition Director for the 22nd FAI World Rally Flying Championships which will be
held in 2021 in Stellenbosch. The wheel turns…