It's an illusion that aviation is about aircraft. Anyone who flies knows that. Aviation is about people; passionate people who love the sensation of flight and the culture of aviation itself. They are part of aviation and aviation is part of them. Particularly there are people who are intrinsic to the culture that we all share because they helped create and foster that very culture. One of those was Senja Robey BEM.
A pillar and icon of the Australian Women Pilots Association (AWPA), a flying instructor of extraordinary ability and empathy, a true pioneer of general aviation in Australia, Senja folded her wings this week, dying at home on Tuesday at the age of 93.
A friend and mentor to many women pilots, Senja Robey was a living treasure of aviation in Australia, and her death has created a hole that is unlikely to be filled for many years yet.
Sydney pilot Cathy Hobson remember Senja as someone who was always looking to help out other people when she could.
"When I was starting out I'd just gotten a CPL I was living in Perth and doing my instructor rating in Sydney and Senja was extremely helpful," Hobson told Australian Flying. "I was doing that at Illawarra. I'd met Senja a couple of months before and she said if I was having any problems ... and I had some issues, so she helped me out a lot.
"I had moved into a co-share with a couple of girls and they were not the nicest to share with. I couldn't concentrate and study, so Senja said 'move in with me.' I was there only for about a week, but I was able to have peace and quiet and concentrate and talk over meals with people that understood aviation.
"Senja will be remembered for being there when people needed; she was a good friend to a lot of people."
Senja's importance to aviation can't be overstated. She was a foundation member of the AWPA, for many years flew the shortest RPT route in Australia from Bankstown to Mascot and by her own account taught notorious police detective Roger Rogerson to fly. She also helped Deborah Lawrie (then Wardley) challenge Ansett Airlines in the late 1970s when the airline refused to employ Lawrie because she was female.
"She didn't go tooting her own horn," Hobson points out. "When you spoke to her she was more interested in where you were up to. She was always looking out for the younger people."
Greg Hood, Chief Commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, paid tribute to one extraordinary aviator.
“I have known Senja for several years having been introduced to her through the Australian Women Pilots Association," Hood said whilst extending condolences to the family. "She exuded an aura of yesteryear – of having been there and done that before many of us were born, but with modesty and humility.
“Senja was renowned for her ability to fly with extraordinary accuracy and steadiness. She held endorsements on approximately 60 aircraft types, both single-engine and multi-engine, ranging from the Tiger Moth to Aero Commanders and Aerostars.
"Senja Robey was a remarkable aviatrix whose life, achievements and almost 14,000 flight hours needs to be remembered, savoured and celebrated.”
Senja Havard was born on 25 January 1927 in Sydney. Her father was a physics teacher, who started a flight of the Air Training Corps at Sydney Technical High, which has been attributed as the genesis of his daughter's love of aviation. One of Senja's first jobs was with de Havilland at Camperdown in the Accounts department and stayed with the company as it moved first to Botany and then to Bankstown. Her very first flight was in a prototype Drover with another aviation legend at the controls, Brian "Black Jack" Walker.
Walker would later take Senja for a memorable flight in a de Havilland Mosquito.
In March of 1949, Senja started flight training with the Royal Aero Club of NSW, and soloed only one month later. The same year, Nancy-Bird Walton suggested she join the fledgling Australian Women Pilots Association, which held its first official meeting in 1950.
Senja juggled work and flying as she worked towards a commercial pilots licence, to satisfy the flying bug that she once described as a disease for which there is no cure. She qualified for her CPL in 1953 and the following year married fellow pilot Keith Robey. By 1962, she was a qualified instructor, which was the beginning of a long and productive career in the right seat. She was so prolific and so dedicated to aviation and instructing that in 1976 she was awarded an Order of the British Empire Medal (BEM).
She would continue to contribute for another 44 years, leading to her being inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014 and winning the 2019 Col Pay Award for a Lifetime of Service to General Aviation.
In 2005, Robey put her thoughts on the changes in aviation over time to interviewer Rob Linn for the EA Crome aviation oral history project.
"From my point of view it's been an evolution," she said. "Not so you've got to ... rules, regulations, more recently, and I think this applies to everything, it's not just flying. But covering your backside. Everything we do these days is to make sure that if something goes wrong, it's not our fault. And, and I think that that's not just flying. It's everything we do.
"Unfortunately, as I see it, bureaucracy has stepped in, overseen aviation and what thou shalt do in aviation, without having a clue how it works or what its success means to the success of this country. It's like the bean counters. They come in and say, 'Right, that's how it will be,' without having the vaguest idea how the system works. Very sadly."
Senja's 60-year career may have come to a close this week, but her legacy will be with general aviation for decades to come.