Angelika Helberger Frobenius remembers the exact date she assumed the command of a DC-4 as the first female commercial pilot in the Americas, along with all the other red-letter days of her life, like watching the explosion of allied bombs during her childhood in Frankfurt am Main.
After growing up in post-war Germany, Angelika went to study sociology in Paris and admits that she was not interested in mapping out her life, but that “plans just came naturally.” From France she moved to Cambridge, England, where she fell in love and married an Indian-born medical student.
First milestone: November 11th 1958, Corinna Chand, her daughter is born.
With a 3 month-old baby in her arms, Angelika left England on a “strange impulse” to look for her mother who was living on a farm in the eastern plains of Colombia. Arriving in Colombia on March 20th 1959, as a recently separated woman, she headed for a cattle ranch in the town of San Martín, Meta. After a few quarrelsome months, her mother threw her out, and Angelika, her 1-year-old daughter and the fired maid moved to Cali. When asked what she planned to do in Cali, Angelika responds: “My profession is ‘Phoenix Rising.’”
1959 wasn’t a great time for her next step, a poultry farm in Roldanillo, Valle del Cauca. Colombia was still in the throes of a violent conflict between the Liberals and Conservatives, known as “La Violencia”, which left 200,000 victims, historians say.
Although Angelika doesn’t recall (like she does the important dates) which side did more of the killing, she recalls how the Cauca river was filled with dead bodies. “One had to put lemons in the river water just to be able to drink it.”
The violence in the countryside and the hassles of having to take in German “globe trotters” who shot pigeons for her sancocho soup justified Angelika’s shutting down the chicken farm. “I understood that I needed to change my life.”
But the change Angelika searched for didn’t depend on Cali. Although she had primetime roles as a television actress, did modeling for catalogues and worked as a sales agent for Air France, Angelika, after meeting a fellow European immigrant at the Guaymaral Aero Club who invited her for spin, realized that “the only way I could deal with humanity was in the sky.”
The sixties were the golden age of aviation. The insignia of inter-continental travel, Pan American, was rivaled by carriers such as TWA, Eastern, and the Calder-painted Braniff. Colombian Avianca, the world’s second oldest carrier (after Royal Dutch KLM) and founded in 1919 as a Colombo German partnership -SCATDA or Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transporte Aéreo was expanding with routes to the United States and Europe.
For a German wanting to be in control of a DC-4, this airline seemed a remote possibility, even though by today’s conditions, Angelika, with her command of four languages and love of aviation would easily be sitting at the front of a wide body. But flying in the Sixties was a male dominated career and women who took to the skies were known as Stewardesses, never called Captain. So Angelika decided to make flying history in Colombia.
As President of Avianca in 1964, Juan Pablo Ortega received a proposal from a German woman who was willing to knock down every door in senior management to earn her pilot’s license. The offer was simple: Avianca would finance Angelika’s flying lessons and once she graduated with a license, Avianca would hire her and reimburse itself the money. Ortega didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The proposition seemed ludicrous, yet credible. The president and the wannabe pilot came to an amicable arrangement. If Angelika would earn her license, he would pull some strings to get her hired.
In 1965, Angelika got her pilot’s license and began flying Piper Aztecs for Taxi Aero Caldas, a commuter airline operating between Medellín’s Olaya Herrera airport and the coffee capital, Manizales. As we sit down for a tinto in Bogotá’s bohemian La Macarena neighborhood, Angelika recites short descriptions of some of Colombia’s airports, having landed in each and every one and in all types of meteorological conditions. “Pasto: got to love it for the drop offs. Manizales: a very short runway.” Angelika flew for the regional airline until another landmark date: September 1st 1970, when after Ortega put through a recommendation, Angelika got a job flying DC-4s for Medellín’s SAM.
Puddle jumping from the capital of Antioquia – Medellin – to Planeta Rica, Monteria, El Bagre and the oil town of Barrancabermeja was all in a day’s work for Helberger, a woman who fought hard for her right to sit in the cockpit of a DC-4. What Helberger most likely didn’t grasp was that she was the first woman commercial airline pilot in South America, and unless historians can prove otherwise (Angelika has been researching this issue), the first commercial airline pilot in all of the Americas. From SAM, Angelika officially joined parent company Avianca in 1977 and took control of the Boeing 727 jet. With Avianca she racked up 7,000 air hours flying from Colombia to destinations such as San Jose, Miami, Quito and New York. The Phoenix had not only risen from the ashes, but was cruising at 30,000 feet and responsible for the lives of many. “I needed to fly to feel alive.”
Although Angelika had found one of her many vocations as a pilot, she was always questioning the reason for her existence. Wanting to be a mother again, she became pregnant in 1980. Of all the red-letter days in Angelika’s life, April 15th 1990 was perhaps the most painful. Avianca “kicked-out” Angelika after she finished her maternity leave and, considering this move as unjust, she took the case to court. “In those times, my emancipation wasn’t being a pilot, but being a mother.”
Being grounded didn’t limit Angelika. She married a Colombian and raised two children: Kira and Marvan. Life pulled her out of the sky, but she yearned to understand the holistic relationship between the land, the stars and plants. She returned briefly to Germany to study biodynamic agriculture and started an organization in defense of farmers and their communities: Fundacion para el Progreso Integral del Hombre (Foundation for the Integral Progress of Man). And to best raise awareness of her agrarian objectives, Angelika organized a road trip from Colombia to the “promised land” of Argentina.
Angelika is not rebellious, but does carry a wide range of causes. While helping farmers and land distribution near Bogota, she received her share of death threats. While defending the right of women to be mothers in the work force, she was criticized by radical feminists. After years of struggle in Colombia, working to raise her family and share her beliefs, Angelika departed Colombia with her ‘Descubriéndo América 500 Años Después’ road trip to arrive in Argentina on May 1st, 1990. At the border crossing between Chile and Argentina in the Aconcagua mountain pass, Angelika realized that everything in her life came to that specific moment. “I knelt down and looked towards the sky. It was here. I had to be here.”
The City Paper recently met Angelika as she settles into a new life in a country where, in many ways, her strange journey first began. After twenty years among the gaucho, she has given up the “promised land,” to return to Colombia to work on her writings and be close to her children. At age 72, Angelika has gone from pioneer to environmental activist. She is a woman of many “firsts” who now is embarking on another study of humanism: the legacy of her grandfather Leo Frobenius in Africa.