Written By: Ryan Lee
In 1954, Vera Strodl Dowling etched her name into history, becoming Alberta’s first female flight instructor after two decades of flying. Her legacy, marked by over 30,000 flight hours and numerous accolades, stands as a testament to her pioneering spirit. Born in England in 1918 to Danish parents, Dowling’s journey intertwined a difficult childhood with a divine revelation that would shape her destiny.
In a moment of despair, she lay in a field praying for release, only to experience a radiant light and a voice foretelling her future as a pilot. From that juncture, Dowling’s dual passions—Christianity and aviation—propelled her forward. Despite familial moves, language challenges, and job losses, her unwavering determination led her to her first flying lesson at the age of 15.
Dowling’s initiation into the world of aviation, recounted in a 2001 interview for the Alberta Aviation Museum’s Oral History Project, painted a vivid picture of her early experiences:
“The instructor was a World War I pilot, and I sat in the back of a Gipsy Moth. Wooden propeller, no self-starter, no hood, nothing. A borrowed helmet, and these Gosport tubings that you plug into. And when he took me up, he did stalls and aerobatics, all those things I didn’t like. I just hung on for dear life — I was terrified! And I thought, I’d never do that to a student!”
“We came down, and he showed me all the parts of the aeroplane. Ailerons, elevator, tailplane, fuselage, all the names. The airspeed was told by listening to the wind in the wires. And on the strut was a triangle piece with the airspeed marked on it on the left-hand side. And a little piece of tin on a wire that, when it blew back, would give you the airspeed, so you had to look at that all the time. He said, ‘After 150 feet of the ground, you do not look at the airspeed — you look where you’re going.’”
Dowling’s initiation into the world of aviation occurred on a grass field surrounded by power lines, trains, a river, and hangars. Between the hangars, she had to navigate and land, aiming for a big white chalk circle in the middle. Reflecting on those challenging early landings, she recalled, “Every landing was a forced landing, or landing without power. You just throttle back, but he’d cut the power and say, ‘Now, get in!’”
“We used crosswind glides or S-turns to get at the right height, and we were also taught side slips, so you could slip the aeroplane in. You apply the aileron first, you bank the aeroplane first, and you keep it straight with the rudder. Opposite rudder to where the wing is down, and then you straighten up and you land according to what you can see. But that was my trouble — the instructor’s head was right ahead of me, and I couldn’t see!”
Despite the challenges, Dowling found a unique cue for perfect landings: “But the grass grew to be about a foot or so off the ground. And when the wheels, they were skimming the grass, I would know it was time to bring the control column back. And I’d do perfect landings! But then they went and cut the grass, and then I couldn’t land!”
Her training included practicing recoveries from spins, unusual positions, and forced landings on the airport before she was allowed to go solo. The day the instructor exited the cockpit, signaling her freedom to fly solo, was “a beautiful day—it was all free in front, and I could see!”
With strict instructions not to throttle back too much, the instructor released Dowling for her first solo.
“I took off, and friends who’d said, ‘Think of me when you’re up there alone,’ I thought of them. Perhaps I wasn’t concentrating on what I was doing, but anyway, I throttled back too far on the downwind leg, and the prop stopped. Coming into land, I thought ‘I’m too low! No, I’m too high… no, I’m too low, I wonder if I’ll make it? No, I’m too low – but I’m straight, and there’s no cows. Always look where you’re landing, not the obstacle. So, I was looking right where I wanted to land: before the circle. And I landed, and they said it was a beautiful landing.”
After three hours of solo flight, accompanied by a barograph – a barometer that recorded changes in barometric pressure, Dowling was cleared to venture further than 3 miles from the airport.
“I said, I know where I’m going all by myself – I’m going over to that café where I worked so hard as a waitress and a floor scrubber and whatever, and I’m going to see what it looks like from the air. And so, I climbed up through a hole, went over the clouds. I went ‘down sun’ going there, and I thought, then I can go ‘in sun’ coming back. The hole that I had come up through wasn’t there anymore. So, I kept flying into the sun, found a hole, unwound, and there was a railway line, so I thought I’d follow the railway line – and the railway line led to the airport – good for me.
But I was very late. I was very late. And although my landing they said was beautiful and nice and soft, they said, ‘Where have you been?! You are X minutes overdue. You must be precise when you say you’re coming back at a certain time! I was barred from flying for three months for that. I didn’t mind. I could just work harder, get some more money, fly longer.”
Vera Dowling’s story encapsulates a life lived with resilience, faith, and an unyielding love for the skies. Her story will continue in the next issue of From the Hangar.