My old mate Bob Ilsley the Vagabond Pilot – or Vagabob – has flown his last. His undercarriage buckled, he ran out of runway.
Many of his stories which I have heard since 1979, came out at his memorial service, and it was lovely listening to people who knew and loved Bob as I did. 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 in 2000, I bought a practice in Montclair 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. If you built a plane on your porch you couldn’t fly it 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 boom-biddy-boom at 800 beats per minute in the shade. 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. Some of those I remember are Port St Johns, Creighton, Scottburgh and Ixopo.
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 that showed up 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!
Bob had very little time for religion and, of course, had a pithy saying about it: “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, the worst frame in creation. With his own 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 with his earnest and innocent face on: “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!” – but notice he removed his specs for the pic!) 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. These were pop-in visits, which sometimes caused havoc with practice manager Raksha’s scheduling. For his actual appointments she would book a double appointment at lunchtime.
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 Ten skyped us last night” he’d tell me. “Number Four has finished school.”
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 seventy to eighty and some thirty to fifty 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 ZimBARBwe and Durbs background, so if there was an “Africana” there he’d have a field day. Especially with ladies.
His favourite holidays were road trips, camping 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! Determined bugger, Bob.
After Oshkosh he would appear in the practice doorway and say nothing. Raksha would just 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.