Our Kind of Peopleby John and Sylvia Plant.
AVIATE, PROCREATE AND EMIGRATE.
John and Sylvia were born in central England in the industrial cities of Birmingham and Sheffield. After completing education and early employment, each volunteered for the Navy and left their respective homes, Sylvia to become a WRN telephonist and John a Fleet Air Arm pilot.
Both were posted, some time later, to Royal Naval Air Station Eglinton in Northern Ireland on the green and rain covered shore of Lough Foyle, about 10 kms west of Londonderry. It was a lovely place to be, with glorious countryside and although there were "troubles", there was none of the harsh bitterness and bloodshed that was to follow.
Sylvia did watch-keeping duties on the switchboard of the air station, while John rattled around the sky in a Barracuda Mk III with 815 squadron, initially as a rating pilot, that is no rank at all. This scheme was thought up by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to keep the Navy confused and it did!
Later, after being left swinging in his hammock, while the rest of his squadron flew off the aircraft carrier, because in the wardroom they had forgotten about their rating pilot, John was commissioned in the Warrant Officer rank and known as Commissioned Pilot.
After previously meeting in the Salvation Army Canteen, John and Sylvia spent many happy off-duty hours pottering over that dampy but lovely country on an ancient Norton motorcycle. The joy of the quiet open road was tempered by fear that the elderly motorbike may decide to cease functioning. An unauthorised night spent away from base would reap severe repercussions from the WRN Officer in Charge. The "Queen Bee" watched over her brood with an ever weary eye.
Two years later with Sylvia out of WRNS and John now flying a Firebrand MK V with 827 squadron from Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire they were married in Sheffield Cathedral on an icy cold Easter Saturday and then away to the relative warmth of Jersey for honeymoon in splendour and the commencement of married life.
Naval life continued in fun and excitement, with its changes from air stations, aircraft carriers, cocktail parties, arduous duties, grand summer balls and mess bills that sometimes left very little to pay the groceries, but life was exhilarating and laughter was always there. Except, when the Captain placed John under close arrest for unauthorised low flying along the beach. Who would have expected the Captain to have been on the beach? However, that was all reconciled later.
The 12 years in the navy culminated with the 1957 British Nuclear Tests in the Pacific, with three megaton devices exploded off Malden Island, south of Christmas Island (the other one) now re-named Kirimati. Flying a helicopter from H.M.A. Warrior and being involved throughout, to John the true meaning of the word AWESOME stands loud and clear. That without doubt this horrendous scourge should never be inflicted upon the inhabitants of our planet and further testing, including the current French intentions is against humanity both present and future.
Changing to civilian life in 1959, now with son and daughter, Sylvia spent most of the time bringing up young John and Pandora on her own, because husband John as a commercial pilot was away from home either in the mountains, swamps or islands abroad and all over the U.K., where a considerable amount of crop- spraying was also undertaken.
A contract to inspect the power lines by helicopter was to be completed in Southern Rhodesia and because there was a chance of permanency, if the contract proved successful, the company Helicopter Services Limited was pressurised to allow the family to also come along.
Sylvia and the children embarked on the "Southern Cross" at Southampton while John climbed aboard a DC4 at Heathrow, as a change-over of helicopter pilots at Salisbury was urgent. Disembarking at Cape Town, the "Southern Cross" proceeded on to Australia with its ten pound Poms. Sylvia commenced the arduous train journey north, spending three nights on the train, whilst the children perhaps appreciating they were in Africa, spent most of the time rolling around under the seats getting as black as possible. Arriving in Salisbury to find husband John away at Mongu in Barotseland. Fortunately, good friends were awaiting at the railway station to scoop up the much travelled trio. John "choppered" around Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Mocambique and South Africa while Sylvia and the children resided in Salisbury. In 1962 came the chance to return to a normal married life by reverting to fixed wing flying and participating in a new company resurrected from a bankrupt light aircraft maintenance company.
A difficult decision to make, which would give and improved home life but AT HALF THE PREVIOUS SALARY. It took a lot of careful calculating on household costs and schooling etc. but there seemed to be no alternative, so in they went, with every penny that could be gathered from all sources to obtain 20% in the new company, to be called Techair.
The company was to be involved in charter flying, aircraft hire and maintenance, but the main aim would be aircraft sales with flying training to facilitate the sales. Rhodesia with its agricultural sector extending into remote areas was ideal for expansion into this type of activity.
Sales escalated and the piper Aircraft dealership surged ahead. Sylvia joined John in the company, taking over all the clerical side. It looked as though their ambition of buying out the other shareholders would soon be realised.
Leisure time would find John sailing on Lake McIlwaine from Salisbury Sports Club or the whole family, when possible tramping throughout the Chimanimani Range, complete tranquillity and ice cold streams combined with the magnificence of burnished copper sunsets make this a very special place.
On November 11th 1965, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was promulgated. The ensuing sanctions and exchange control regulations brought aircraft sales to a stand-still and the company ownership dream faded away.
The Rhodesian Government initially stopped all fuel supplies to Techair and the outlook was very bleak. After frantic meetings with various officials, finally limited fuel supplies were re-instated and the long flog began, first to maintain and later to expand the charter operations.Flights increased with each pilot carrying an automatic weapon in order to guard his aircraft while landed at remote airstrips and while the passengers were away and about their business.
John joined the Police Reserve Airwing (PRAW) early in 1966, as a member of the Salisbury Flight, later progressing to Flight Commander of the Standards Flight and then in 1979 to become PRAW Unit Commander. During this time being privileged to be associated with all the pilots and observers of all Flights of the Police Reserve Airwing. These men and one woman, all private pilots, flew their own light aircraft whenever called upon, in support of both the police and security forces under difficult conditions, frequently heavily laden from short primitive airstrips both day and night.
Their flying costs were off-set although not completely recovered, by being paid by the Police on a flying hour basis for each hour flown on duty. Everyone was a volunteer and they were splendid people.
Bullet holes in the rear of aircraft happened only occasionally as by and large those firing from the ground had not mastered the art of "laying-off" to allow for the aircraft's forward flight.
Medical support was a frequent requirement and one flight was to take a black member of our security forces who had been 'volunteered' to supply blood to a fellow soldier who had been shot and was at a mission station desperately requiring a blood transfusion. The whole flight was taken up by the pilot trying to explain to the uncertain donor that he would not be short of blood for the rest of his life, nor would he need to be "topped-up" later on.
Then the anguish of flying a young black girl who was between 8 and 10 years old. She had found a metal object in the bush, had been playing with it when it exploded. It was a phosphorous grenade. The young army medico was with her and ministering to her throughout the flight, to the same mission station and went with her still holding her hand as she was lifted from the aircraft and stretchered to the mission hospital.
The "Tiger and Fearless" talks had come and gone; why this had not brought the anticipated Rhodesian acceptance many found difficult to understand. Techair now also leased aircraft and pilots to the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the leased aircraft painted all white and displaying huge red crosses many flights were flown and landed in sensitive areas, the pilot armed only with a Red Cross badge felt extremely vulnerable. However, the only untoward incidents were on two separate flights, when the aircraft sustained damage from ground fire.
On their small-holding John and Sylvia were now running a few sheep, only a small flock of about 150 but progressing as members of the Dorper Sheep Breeders Association to market Stud rams.
Political manoeuvring continued and two Air Zimbabwean Viscount aircraft loaded with fare-paying passengers were shot down by ZIPRA with heat seeking missiles; the world responded with "deafening silence". as referred to by the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral John Costa in the subsequent memorial service. Later followed Lancaster House and official independence. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
The controlling interest of Techair had by now passed to a large multi-national company, who wanted to sell off most of the assets and just wind it down to a one aircraft division for transporting their own personnel. John and Sylvia as minority shareholders eventually agreed and left the company in 1982 after ensuring that every member of the staff had alternative employment.
The sheep on the small-holding had not proved profitable, so were phased out and market gardening was attempted, but financially was only marginal, due to insufficient irrigation facilities.
Sylvia now went into ladies clothing acquiring 'Rich Rags' boutique at the Montague Shopping Centre, later adding 'Little Harrods' at Fife Avenue and 'Tatters' of Newlands. The intricacies of the Rag Trade now took up Sylvia's whole time and very interesting and absorbing it was. Tact and diplomacy being frequently required as certain ladies fondly believed themselves to be size 10 or maybe 12 when actually they were size 16.
John, between jobs, was referred to as the official Peeping Tom, whilst renovating clothes rails and fitting rooms among other interior renovations.
A Mazoe Orange kiosk was taken over on the Lomagundi Road, where large pockets of oranges were sold to passing motorists and truck drivers. A great time was had here, meeting many nice people and adding vegetables to the oranges on offer. Hard boiled eggs and jars of SUMU made with plenty of Piri-piri proved most popular with the transport drivers and at their request each batch of SUMU was made with more and more Piri-piri, until the later batch seemed more like nitro-glycerine rather than a food relish; still the African drivers consumed the whole jar before climbing back into their trucks. Mind you, most of them were unable to speak as they went on their way.
Sylvia fluttered happily from shop to shop, while John worried about the increasing costs of the stock, so decided to leave it all to Sylvia and took up an appointment in a security company and then later as Factory manager with a chemical company.
Daughter Pandora, now married with children in South Africa and son John, also married with children, a dentist practising in Harare announced within a short time of each other, that they would be emigrating to Australia. Happiness, that opportunities for the grandchildren would be improved was, of course tempered by the division of the family across the Indian Ocean. Relief was forth- coming when each family decided to settle in Western Australia, one in Perth and the other in Busselton.
The Zimbabwean Authorities refused to re-new Sylvia and John's Zimbabwean passports until British citizenship had been revoked, with proof of this to be provided by the British Embassy. After due and careful consideration it was decided to reject the Zimbabwe citizenship and a further impetus was now added to commence application procedure for migration to Australia.
After allowing time for their children and families to settle themselves in Australia, John and Sylvia visited for three months holiday. It was to be a L.S.D. trip (look, see and decide). John was convinced that it was time to move as they now approached retirement. Sylvia not so certain, but family affinity prevailed. Now resident in Mandurah and with recently acquired Australian citizenship, they reckon to be dinki-di Aussies.
Nevertheless, 33 years in Africa leave an indelible mark and two pieces of music always cause quiet reflection, namely Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" and the theme music form "Out of Africa".