Senja Raymond Robey has been described as an Australian aviation icon, a professional pilot and extraordinary instructor who has been, and continues to be, an inspiration to all. Born in Sydney on 25 January 1927, Senja Robey (née Havard) says her interest in aviation was piqued when her father, a physics teacher, started the Air Training Corps Flight out of Sydney Technical High. He would bring home charts and maps for aircraft identification. Then, while she was attending North Sydney Girls High during World War II, the school held a dance for fourth year girls and invited boys from Air Force House. By the time she matriculated in 1943, the seeds had been firmly sown.
The following year she started work at de Havilland Aircraft Company at Camperdown in the Costing and Accounts department. After 18 months, it moved to Botany and then later out to Bankstown where the Mosquitos and Vampires were being produced. Her first air experience was as a passenger on a test flight in a prototype de Havilland Drover with World War II ace pilot Brian ‘Blackjack’ Walker.
In 1949, Senja Robey applied to join the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales and in March of that year, began her flying training. She flew solo one month later and obtained her Private Pilot Licence (No. 5273) in September. At the time, Senja was earning £3 a week at de Havilland and a “dual” with an instructor cost 3 guineas an hour. Solo cost £1/18/3. She worked overtime on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings to get the extra money.
That same year, Nancy Bird-Walton invited her to attend a gathering at Mascot of women pilots who had flown or were flying. Twelve months later, the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA) was formed and Senja Robey is now one of a handful of original members.
While continuing to work at de Havilland, Senja studied part-time towards her Commercial Pilot Licence, which she gained in 1953. In October 1954, she married fellow pilot Keith John Townsend Robey.
She began training for and obtained her ‘C’ flight instructor rating followed by her ‘B2’ rating in 1962 and that same year became an instructor at the Illawarra Flying School at Bankstown, where her husband was the Chief Flying Instructor. It was around that time that the Qantas cadet training scheme came into being and there was high demand for instructors. The Illawarra Flying School was one of the biggest commercial schools. By 1969 Senja had accrued around 3,500 hours of instructing and some of her students had gone on to become airline captains.
She became part owner of a Cessna 172 in 1970 and formed her company, Photographic and General Air Charter Pty Ltd, where she held the position of Director, Manager and Chief Pilot. She flew for a variety of individuals and organisations, including professional photographers, newspapers and TV stations, government departments, beach patrols, and charter work. Her involvement in the aerial photography business continued until 1983. Senja was renowned for her ability to fly with extraordinary accuracy and steadiness.
Throughout this period, Senja Robey continued instructing and doing charter work in different aircraft. She achieved her Class IV instrument rating (NVFR), a multi-engine command instrument rating and obtained endorsements on approximately 60 aircraft types, both single-engine and multi-engine, ranging from a DH82 to Aero Commanders and Aerostars.
On 12 June 1976, Senja was awarded the Order of the British Empire Medal (BEM) for her contribution to aviation.
When Deborah Wardley challenged Ansett Airlines in the late 1970s for her right to be an airline pilot, Senja Robey, National President of AWPA at the time, made submissions to the courts on her behalf. The Wardley case opened the door for other women pilots in Australia.
In 1980, Senja became a volunteer with a group of women pilots from AWPA running courses for the general public who had a fear of flying. She is still actively involved in this project. In 1985 she was a partner, flight instructor and charter pilot in Robey Air. Since 1985 she has worked in association with Phoenix Aero club (formerly the NSW Police Aero Club) as a flight instructor.
Senja Robey has instructed continuously for 52 years. Her reputation as a professional pilot and extraordinary instructor has seen students come from far to learn from her. In general aviation in a career spanning more than 60 years she has accrued almost 14,000 hours in single and multi-engine aircraft. She has given a lifetime of service to aviation and is recognised throughout the industry for her high level of professionalism and unstinting generosity in providing practical guidance to less experienced and potential aviators.