Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Virginia Rabung, 94, pioneering pilot flew to Batista’s Cuba

From Chicago Sun-Times: Virginia Rabung, 94, pioneering pilot flew to Batista’s Cuba
In 1943, Virginia Rabung, a secretary from Chicago, trekked by bus to a small airport in McCook, marched into the office in her high heels and told the men that she wanted to fly.

“They looked at her like she was from another planet,” said Shelley Ventura, governor of the North Central Section of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots.

But they eventually agreed, and Ms. Rabung earned a private pilot’s license. A female pioneer in aviation, she piloted a single-engine airplane in a cross-country race, flew over the ocean en route to Cuba and took an aerial safari in South Africa. She also performed search-and-rescue missions as a major in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol.

Ms. Rabung was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998 and earned the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in 2004 from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Ms. Rabung, 94, died of natural causes Jan. 27 at an assisted-living facility in Aurora. She was a former resident of Mundelein.

Born March 3, 1917, in Chicago to a German-Bohemian family, Ms. Rabung grew up with two brothers and a sister on the city’s North Side. Her father, a bricklayer, built a cottage in the Fox Lake area where the family enjoyed summers on the water.

After graduating from Waller High School, Ms. Rabung landed a clerical job during World War II for the U.S. Navy and trained with an equestrian group that was formed to assist in emergencies.

She later worked as a secretary for more than 30 years at the International Minerals & Chemical Corp.

In 1953, Ms. Rabung participated in the All Women Transcontinental Air Race, a 3,000-mile flight from Massachusetts to California. She had logged only about 200 flight hours; most others in the race had more than 1,000.

“She was pretty much fearless,” said Dave Stadt, a friend and fellow pilot. “That would be like a 16-year-old getting her driver’s license on Friday and then taking off cross-country that Sunday. That’s the kind of person she was.”

While most planes today have automated controls, Ms. Rabung had to have her hands on the wheel, feet on the rudder and eyes on the instruments at all times. She had to monitor aerial traffic and watch the fuel gauge.

That same year she bought a single-engine plane, a pale blue and gray 1946 Cessna 140, which she owned for more than 40 years.

Ms. Rabung flew solo in the 1955 All Women’s International Trans-Ocean Air Race, a three-day course from Washington, D.C., to Cuba. It was the first race of its kind over the ocean, and she had to wear a life jacket. She was received in Havana by former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, who threw a party for the pilots. The next year, Ms. Rabung participated in a second race to Cuba — this time starting in Canada.

In the 1960s, she flew to the Bahamas, where the runways were made of crushed seashells, and to New York City, where she soared over Broadway and circled the Statue of Liberty.

In 1968, she traveled with a group to Africa, where they flew miles over South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, exploring the Namib Desert and the Black Hole diamond mine, and spotted giraffes, ostriches, elephants and baboons below. While attempting to land in South Africa, she encountered a group of wildebeests grazing on the runway. She flew in low and gunned the engine several times to scare them away. The animals bolted, and she landed safely.

“There were very few women that were as adventurous as she,” Ventura said. “She had a real zest for life.”

Flying gave her a sense of freedom, said her niece, Sheila Rodiek: “That was her love.”

About four years ago, Ms. Rabung was attending a Ninety-Nines meeting when she spotted a pilot getting ready to go up in a small biplane with an open cockpit and an extra seat. She ditched the meeting and went flying instead.

Ms. Rabung never married. She is survived by many nieces and nephews. Services have been held.

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