Early Women Pilots

Aviatrix Lores Bonney

Australia has had a few distinguished airwomen. One was Nancy Bird-Walton who had a distinguished career as an aviatrix. However long before Nancy was flying, another Australian was paving the way for pioneer women pilots. Her name was Lores Rubens. Her real name was Maude Rose Rubens but she adopted the name 'Lores'.

Rubens was born on 20 November 1897 in Pretoria, South Africa and moved with her family to England then to Australia. She was educated in Melbourne then spent three years at a finishing school in Germany. When she graduated, she was fluent in German and French and an accomplished pianist. She also had a burning desire to challenge the accepted views of what a woman should or shouldn't do.

In 1917, she married a leather goods manufacturer, Harry Barrington Bonney and moved with him to Brisbane, Queensland. Lores now had a carefree existence with no financial worries but she was bored with her uneventful life.

A relation of Harry Bonney was Bert Hinkler. Bert had set a solo England to Australia record in his Avro Avian biplane. After a joy flight with Bert in 1928, Lores was smitten with the pleasure of flying and was soon having secret lessons. While her husband spent his weekends playing golf, Lores was hitching a ride with the milkman (she hadn't learnt to drive a car) to nearby Eagle Farm airport.

When she eventually told her husband of the lessons, he gave her a pair of custom-made leather flying suits and bought her a de Havilland DH 60 Gypsy Moth. She named her plane 'My Little Ship'.

Lores BonneyCredit: Wikimedia

After qualifying in 1931 and to celebrate her good fortune, Lores set off to fly 947 miles (1524 kilometres) on her first solo cross-country flight. The idea was to do the distance in a day – quite a challenge with an aircraft which cruised at about 80 mph (129 kph). This trip was from Brisbane to Wangaratta in Victoria for a Boxing Day dinner with her family. At the time, this was the longest one-day flight by a woman. The plane was DH 60G VH-UPV. Some years later, this plane was requisitioned for the war and eventually scrapped.

During those times, it is rather unusual that her husband would support her passion. For most men and many women, a woman's place was believed to be in the home and, in the field of aviation, there was strong prejudice against women pilots.

In 1932 Lores became the first Australian woman to gain a commercial pilot's licence. Intending to fly right round Australia (the first such attempt by a woman), she approached Kingsford Smith to discuss the flight. He dismissed her plan and refused to offer any suggestions or advice.

Lores went ahead and completed the 12,800 kilometres flight in 95 hours flying time spread over six weeks. Some of her adventures during the trip was coping with the collapse of her landing gear on a makeshift outback airstrip and fracturing a wing spar in turbulence. Then the disintegration of a piston caused a forced landing. On her final leg, a plane carrying a press photographer collided with Lores' Moth and crash-landed. Despite a damaged wingtip, Lores carried on. She was awarded the Qantas Trophy for the flight dubbed 'the most meritorious performance by an Australian pilot during 1932'.

In 1933, she was the first woman to fly from Australia to England. She left from Brisbane, Australia and flew to Croydon, England, a distance of 20,000 kilometres. King George V awarded Lores an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for this achievement.

At the time, this was a tremendous achievement. Lores had no radio. There were no navigation aids and only sketchy maps. She spent months in the Qantas maintenance hangar as an unofficial apprentice. Once she left Australia, she took care of most of her own maintenance and repairs along the way.

Lores left Brisbane's Archerfield Airport on April 10, 1933. The idea was to get through the tropics before the monsoon broke. However she was delayed in Singapore for two days after eating contaminated food at the famed Raffles Hotel.

Close to Ranong, Thailand, after ten hours flying, she struck a barrier of dark, threatening clouds and torrential monsoonal rain. Lores had no choice but to continue. She didn't have enough fuel to detour the six hours to the nearest alternative airfield.

The rain was so heavy that she couldn't see her instruments or even see through her goggles. A downdraft swept her towards the water. Regaining control just 50 feet above the water, she turned back and headed for a small island where she had noticed a good strip of beach. When flying with Bert Hinkler he had impressed on her the need to notice any good landing grounds in case of emergencies.

The tide was out and Bonney brought the Moth in on a long, straight, powered approach. Making a series of bounding hops along the beach, a water buffalo suddenly lumbered out in front of the plane. The tail of the plane was still up, there were no brakes so Lores jammed on the rudder and swerved. Before she could straighten, the wheel hit the edge of the water, slewing the plane into the breakers. The Moth flipped, leaving Bonney suspended upside down, held by her harness.

She thought she was going to drown but she was actually only submerged with each wave. She was able to release her harness and dragged herself up onto the beach. The local natives at first backed off but after some time she was able to cajole the villagers into dragging the plane onto the beach.

Eventually the Moth was taken to Calcutta and on May 1933, she set off again. As any hope of beating Amelia Earhart's record had long gone, Bonney made a leisurely trip landing at Croydon Airport on June 21, 1933. The 12,300 miles had taken her 157 hours flying time. Although she didn't break the record for speed, Bonney was the first to make the trip from Australia to England rather than the other way round.

Lores' achievements went largely unheralded. She was seen as a wealthy woman financed by her husband. Hinkler and Kingsford Smith caught the public imagination as Aussie battlers. She faced the same apathy in 1937 when she set off for Cape Town in My Little Ship II, a German Klemm L32 monoplane. The epic journey of 18,200 miles across Asia, the Middle East and Africa would still be a daunting venture in a single-engine machine even today. But the press treated the departure more as a society event.

Again she was lashed by storms. Over India, the heat from the rubber pedals melted the gum on the soles of her shoes. She flew through sandstorms over the Middle East and was badgered by officials who refused to give her permission to fly up the Nile, saying it was too dangerous for a woman.

Klemm vintage aircraftCredit: Wikimedia

South of Khartoum, after damaging her plane during a bush landing, she steamed back to Khartoum on a paddle-wheeler towing the Klemm behind on a small barge. This time she talked Royal Air Force personnel into repairing the machine.

Before reaching Cape Town, she was forced to replace a blown engine gasket, patch a wing and rebuild collapsed landing gear. Near Nairobi, Lores was forced to fly blind because of the clouds. Suddenly coming into the clear, she found herself 30 seconds away from flying into the side of a mountain. Later, her altimeter was found to be over-reading by nearly 2,500 feet.

In Pretoria, her birthplace, the Royal South African Air Force awarded Lores ceremonial pilot's wings. A week later, she landed in Cape Town.

The advent of World War II effectively ended her career. She had been planning a circumnavigation of the world via Japan, Alaska and the USA. However VH-UVE was destroyed in a fire in a hangar and My Little Ship I was requisitioned.

The Australian government refused to take her on as a flight instructor or ferry pilot. By the end of the war, Bonney was 48 years old and out of practice. She had finally learnt to drive a car, again having had lessons in secret.

Bonney and Harry separated soon after the end of the war. In 1963, Lores canoed up the headwaters of the Amazon. Later she spent some years in Japan learning bonsai which she then taught at the University of Queensland.

In 1988, aged 90, Bonney was invited to launch the Hinkler Australian Bicentennial Air Race.

Lores Bonney died on 24 February 1994, aged 96. She died at home in Miami on the Gold Coast of Queensland.

Lores Bonney received more recognition from the UK and USA than she did from Australia, although the Australian Women Pilots' Association has now established a trophy in her honour. Queensland's Griffith University awarded her an honorary doctorate for her services to aviation.

The Bonney Trophy is awarded annually to an outstanding British woman pilot. Her name has been placed in the Flyer's Chapel at the St Francis Atrio Mission in California. Other plaques in the chapel include Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Charles Kingsford Smith. Queensland's Griffith University awarded her an honorary doctorate for her services to aviation. Bonney was inducted into the 'Ninety-Nines', a American society of women flyers who had pioneering roles in aviation.