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As condominium lobbies go, the one at Daphne Schiff's building in Hogg's Hollow is easier on the eyes than most with soaring ceilings, plush furniture and marble accents in soft gold tones.

A few weeks shy of an unlikely 81, Ms. Schiff blends in perfectly to such surroundings; her dress impeccable, her refined manner befitting her Rosedale roots and academic background.

It's hard, in this light, to picture her sleeping rough in the wilds of West Africa after touching down in her single-engine plane with a load of relief supplies. But, as any pilot knows, the light can play tricks.

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Ms. Schiff, thankfully, is qualified to fly in all kinds of conditions, so she knows how to find her way regardless of how things might look on the outside.

"They brought me up to believe a girl could do anything if she put her mind to it," says Ms. Schiff, referring to her British-born parents -- her father, who was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, and her mother, who worked as a school teacher before the couple moved to Canada.

That belief, and at times, other people's skepticism of it, has propelled two major aspects of Ms. Schiff's life: her flying career -- now at 35 years and counting -- and her academic career, which began far earlier and continues today at Toronto's York University.

At a ceremony this afternoon, York will acknowledge the long-time professor, who used to land her plane on campus to inspire her science-of-flight students, with an honorary doctor of laws degree. "It's a delight; it's a surprise and I'm very honoured," Ms. Schiff says, seated amid the elegance of her Yonge Street building's foyer. Her voice, measured and soft, belies the blunt clumsiness of the men who once doubted her improbable ambitions.

First to make that mistake was a U of T professor who grilled the young Ms. Schiff, then known as Daphne Line (as in "straight line," she says), before she began her studies there in the mid-1940s.

"My father got me an interview with three professors to help me decide what I was to take," she recalls, adding that she had been wavering between languages and science or mathematics.

When she told the panel she thought science would make her a better living, one of them said, "That's for boys. Don't you want to get married?"

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"I couldn't see the relevance of that," she says, and off she went into the science program, where, incidentally, she met Harold Schiff, her future husband.

The seed for her subsequent interest in flying was planted a short time later, thanks again to a verbal challenge from a man, a military flying veteran in a chemistry class the young Ms. Schiff, then a graduate student, was teaching.

When she handed him back a paper covered in red ink, "He said, 'You might know your chemistry, but could you chart a bomber across the Atlantic?' " It would take Ms. Schiff another 20 years to get around to her answer.

In the meantime, her work took her to the National Research Council's atomic energy facility in Chalk River, Ont., and her husband to Montreal, where he was a professor at McGill University. She took time out from her career to raise their two children.

The family returned to Toronto where Harold Schiff became dean of science at York. When he took up flying in the late 1960s, Ms. Schiff thought, "This is great, we can take our children anywhere," but her husband said she would have to learn to land the plane first in case of a medical emergency.

"I started taking the lessons, and after the first six hours, I was scared stiff," she says, recalling the brusque instructor at the Waterloo-Wellington Airport near Kitchener, Ont., and his discouraging assessment: "She'll never be a pilot," he told her husband.

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"That was all it took," she says.

Ms. Schiff swallowed her fear and headed to the Buttonville Airport in Markham, where she earned her wings in 1970. She went on to earn certifications to fly at night and by using only her instruments.

Ms. Schiff also obtained a commercial air-transport licence, the same type held by pilots of passenger jets.

She had returned to academia in 1967 as a professor on York's science faculty, and brought her passion for flight to the courses she taught and the studies she pursued, including meteorology, which enabled her to chart her own flights.

As a member of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, she met Adele Fogle, who runs a small airfield in Guelph, Ont. The pair became fast friends and were soon competing in major rallies.

They've encountered engine failure off the coast of South America, a pair of Iranian military F-16s over the Middle East, and an internal fuel spill that forced them to turn off the heater for the duration of a five-hour flight from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to Nome, Alaska. The temperature was -40C.

Their racing gave way to humanitarian work in 2000 when they joined France's Air Solidarité on annual aid missions to Africa.

As she does each year, Ms. Schiff, widowed in 2003, is beating the drum for donations to cover the $40,000 cost for her and Ms. Fogle to take a commercial flight to France, then lease a single-engine plane for their mission.

Today, though, she'll savour the honour that awaits her at York and look forward to the rest of her career in the cockpit, as well as the classroom.

"It's my love, yes," she says of the pastime that frightened her all those years ago.

Asked what would scare her these days, she replies, "To have to stop."

areinhart@globeandmail.ca

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