A few months ago, a notice in the newspapers announced the death of Isabella Ribeiro De Cabral. The name may have meant nothing to many of this generation, but Isabella Cabral was a famous Trinidadian, a woman who opened for others a whole new world, long dominated by men. She was the first woman in our history to fly a plane and get a pilot’s licence. In Biographical Sketch of George Cabral CBE, former Mayor of Port-of-Spain, Aubrey E James (former Alderman and Member of the Legislative Council) the writer dedicated the last chapter to the mayor’s daughter: “A Woman in the News,” the first woman to qualify in this country for a pilot’s licence, Isabella Cabral.
Born on March 11, 1918, to George and Isabella (nee Ribeiro), this pioneering woman who is believed to have been the first woman to fly a plane in the Caribbean, passed away on November 6, 2005. Isabella married Frank de Freitas on January 1, 1949, and had two children, Francis and Isabella, both of whom live in England. Having travelled extensively by plane, she became fascinated by flying and when the Light Aeroplane Club was established in Trinidad in 1939 and her father became one of the first life members, Isabella followed suit, and immediately declared her intention to obtain a pilot’s licence. However, war was declared and the club confined its activities to training young men for service overseas.
Through the war years, James wrote of Isabella, that she was a “a career girl” who “did a fine job” working with a leading insurance company: “Miss Cabral confined herself to fighting on the home front, giving valuable aid in her many social activities.” After the war the club resumed its training facilities in 1947, using mostly ex-Royal Air Force pilots who had been trained here in Trinidad at the club. She began her training for a pilot’s licence and after successfully passing the qualifying test of three hours solo flight in her first attempt, received the licence in 1948. Not to be outdone, her husband Frank obtained a licence one year later. Isabella’s instructor was former RAF Pilot Neville Pereira. She was soon followed by Yvonne Lange, daughter of Maurice Lange the builder of the original Piarco Airport, whose instructor was RAF veteran and former BWIA Captain Esmond Farfan.
Isabella learned to fly an “Auster” plane and at one time had dreams of being able to fly larger planes. She told James: “I’d love to own a plane but at present have no definite plans.” When he asked about hangar accommodation, she replied with assurance: “Yes, of course there would be a small rental. How well, and with so little monetary aid, our club looks after its members.” Louis Delmas, one of Isabella’s many nephews, relates that she placed second in a Light Aeroplane Club competition where he seems to remember that the pilot was required to drop a little bag of flour on a target. Her nephew and godson, Dennis Gonzalez, remembers that two garden beds at her Goodwood Park home were designed in the shape of aeroplanes.
“She was a very active person” says Delmas “and brought out Carnival bands when we were small, and always did things to keep her three older sisters’ children occupied — the Gonzalez, Marquez and Delmas nieces and nephews. For my grandfather’s birthday she would have a fun concert.” Isabella flew often enough, got the flying bug out of her system and then gave it up. But she was involved in other things, such as the production of cabarets, and adult Carnival bands for competitions with her brother, George, when he came back from England where he had studied law.
Many other women have since followed in her footsteps and today BWIA employs female commercial pilots. Grace Anthony-Rose, a former flight engineer on the L-1011, was the first on September 1, 1985, while Captain Wendy Yaw Ching, the first to be appointed in command of a de Havilland Dash 8 aircraft in 1999. Wendy is currently a Captain on the Boeing 737. Other female first officers are Monique Nobrega and Karen Siu Butt on the B-737 and Kristianne Gomez on the Tobago Express Dash 8.