Guy Leitch

Too often we only present tributes to remarkable people when they have died. This article is a tribute to a man who is very much alive, yet who has already made a greater impact and touched more lives in general aviation in South Africa than anyone else I can think of.

This brings to an end a remarkable formal career of a man who was far more than a teacher – but a genuine educator, driven by a passion to share his knowledge and wisdom with the countless thousands of boys lives he taught. He is a teacher who added much more to his pupils’ lives than simply teaching his subject; history, a profession he holds a cum laude Masters Degree in

It is not just through teaching that John Illsley has made an enormous contribution. He is an accomplished author and subject expert. His book, ‘In Southern Skies’ is a pictorial history of early flight in South Africa; from 1816 to 1940. Another notable work is his comprehensive Aero Club of South Africa Centenary Yearbook. Both these books are works of excellence, thanks to Illsley’s profession as a history teacher.

John Illsley is not just an armchair aviator as he owns and flies two vintage aircraft – which he restored himself.

In Southern Skies is a seminal reference on aviation in South Africa

The greatest impact John Illsley has had on aviation in South Africa was through his formation and running of the Pretoria Boys High School Aviation Society 28 years ago. He continued this during his tenure as the Deputy Headmaster of the School, when he also took on large projects such as a new library and a book celebrating the school’s centenary.

John poured his passion for aviation into the aviation society and planted the seeds for many who went on to become successful professional pilots. He was indefatigable in his work to expose his pupils to the inner workings of flying, arranging visits to airports and air shows.

Our previous helicopter columnist George Tonking was a protege of John Illsley’s. He writes, “My teacher and now friend John Illsley has completed a career. Not in the way you might think, thoroughly completing his duties to the tee and then some in the corridors of a fine school, but rather with the very passion that brought him to teach.

[At his farewell function at;] “A gentle afternoon at the local flying field; yes, he was also teaching there: teaching us to be considerate of all. Teaching us to respect our heritage. Finally, like a skilled surgeon, extracting the flying gene from our DNA and bringing dreams to flight.”

“Today was the high point of my journey as a pilot, as a student and as a friend. Sweet it was to see the man cry. John, you’re a gentleman, a friend and more than that, a man who has mastered education, caring over his flock like a father. Enjoy the rest John, knowing your job is done, complete and with an incredible legacy.”

John Illsely flying the Aeronca C3 he rebuilt. Image Willie Bodenstein


  1. Mr Ilsley was my history teacher at Pretoria Boys’ High School. What a legend. Sad to see you go Sir, what a blessing it was to be n your class.

  2. Small correction, the PBHS Aeronautical Society is 30 years old this year. Founded in 1993 by Mr John Ilsley

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