My old mate Bob Ilsley the Vagabond Pilot – or Vagabob – has flown his last. His undercarriage buckled, he ran out of runway.
All his stories I’ve heard since 1979 came out at his memorial service. I met him at Addington hospital when the army sent me to Out Patients Dept ‘B’ (called ‘Oh Pee Dee Bee’ by all). He was there to fix legs and I was there to fix eyes. “You get them to see where they’re going, and I’ll get them to walk straight there” he’d say. As luck would have it years later I bought a practice in Montclair in 2000 that’s just two blocks from his home, and we could renew our OPDB friendship.
He built his own Piper Vagabond in his garage (hence his email moniker vagabob – and wife Barbara’s vagabarb), and he was repairing it there when I first saw it after their only prang.
He inspected home-built planes for the Experimental Aircraft Association for years. Up to February this year. Planes couldn’t fly till Bob said so. He would punch holes in the fabric and break the ribs, saying to the distraught owner-builder “You can thank me. Rather now than in the air”.
On their first flight with Bob next to or behind them they’d quite often have something go wrong in the air, only to find it was him pulling a cable or stopping it from moving, or turning off the fuel (he knew where everything was!). “Just testing” he’d say with his “innocent look” as they tried to calm their hearts down from going 800 beats / min. That ‘innocent look’ of his was a killer! How often I saw him say something outrageous to people with that innocent look!
He flew all over. KZN and the wild coast he’d talk about most often to me, landing on remote strips (Port St Johns, Creighton, Scottburgh, Ixopo are some of those I remember).
He only took to plummeting once, when the Vagabond gave up while taking off from Maritzburg’s Oribi airfield. His wife Barbara came out of it with her arm in a sling and all bruised. Bob untouched. How’d you do that? he was asked. “Hard right rudder” he said. “I thought it would be softer to land on top of Barbara.”
Often wore T-shirts that made Barbara walk a good few paces behind him (“If its got tits or wheels it’ll give you shit”; “Please ask your boobs to stop staring at my eyes”; “Recycled Teenager”). A very quiet guy, he would stare intensely with twinkling eyes at people to see their reaction, seldom smiling until they did. If it was cold he would wear frayed old jerseys (and by the sounds of it at the service, maybe the same one always). Still short pants, though.
Every flight physical he would come to me for his eyes, muttering “They’ve referred me for my heart again. Every time the same thing”. He had a little heart anomaly on the ECG that always raised a query but always got passed in the end. I don’t think modern medicine could cope with his big, generous, genuine, honest heart. His Private Pilot’s Licence was valid for 60 years! He had very little time for religion. “They’re all just travel agents trying to sell you a ticket to the same place”, he’d say, cheerfully deadpan. The American dominee at his funeral used Bob’s quote to do a little pitch for how his church is different! Bob would have loved disputing that.
I made his glasses for about 32 years and the Rx stayed exactly the same: About -3,50 cyls in PGX glass executive bifocals, the worst lens in creation. In a thick old square plastic Safilo frame with monster flex hinges and his home repair with acetone to build up the bridge. Three times I changed him: Once the Rx and twice the lenses, a multifocal once and a flattop once. All three times he came back and stated “Good try, but I think we’ll go back to what works, OK?”. In the end I just tricked him, making up a lovely new lightweight plastic frame with thin flattop Transitions lenses for free “as a spare” while I “fixed” his ancient ones. The “fixing” took so long and he got so many compliments with the better-looking frame from all his many girlfriends on his jaunts around town that his vanity (“vain!? me, never!”) made him quietly continue wearing them.
Once though, he came in wearing his old ones and in front of everyone in the practice he moaned loudly that “These new glasses are TERRIBLE; My old ones are MUCH better” to the consternation of my ladies who made the mistake of trying to tell him he was wearing the old ones. Constant comic theatre with Bob. Then they’d make us tea and we would retire to look at the internet or his pictures of his travels.
Bob left Zim when his first wife split, bringing his four sons to Durbs in about 1973. He met Barbara in about 1976, I think. She had four daughters! They raised them well. Many grandkids followed and to the daughters’ and daughters-in-laws’ horror (and the kids’ delight) he called them by number in the order they arrived. “Number 10 skyped us last night” he’d tell me.
Loved hiking and hiked many of the famous trails: The Otter, the Whale trail in de Hoop Nature Reserve, the Fish river canyon in Namibia, the Fanie something trail in Mpumalanga, and more. Always with a full backpack. It’d be him at 70 to 80 and some 30 to 50 year olds. “We had to wait for the old people to catch up” he’d tell me without a trace of a smile as he showed me his pics. He’d usually have at least one tale of a prank he’d play on someone, too – usually the prettiest or spunkiest young lady present! Fell in love often, did our Bob. Barbara would just watch and marvel.
Loved mangling Afrikaans with his Zim and Durbs background, so if there was an “Africana” there he’d have a field day. His favourite camping was in his Opel station wagon, using the back as a double bed.
Three times he went to the big airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, camping out on the airfield and revelling in the aircraft, spacecraft and especially the simulators where he could test his skill. He flew the Wright brothers craft and could only keep it aloft for a few seconds, so went straight to the back of the queue again and the second time flew it for longer than they had! After Oshkosh he would appear in the practice doorway and say nothing. My practice manager would say Uh, Oh! and put the kettle on for coffee and postpone a few appointments. She knew he’d brought a memory stick and we’d spend an hour in the back de-briefing Oshkosh.
Now he’s gone.