Early Women Pilots
Aviatrix Nancy Bird-Walton
Australian Nancy Bird-Walton was a ground-breaker in the realm of aviation in the days when women were restricted from many professions.
She was born in Sydney, New South Wales in 1915. Her imagination was fired after hearing about the great England-Australia Race, at the age of four. She would play at 'eppy planes', standing on the backyard fence and jumping off with arms outspread.
Nancy left school at 13 to help her father in a country store at Mount George near Taree. At that time, planes were a great novelty and, if one touched down at a country show or race meeting, there would soon be a crowd staring in wonder at the strange machine. Some would pay for their friend to have a ride but would not risk a flight themselves. At the age of 13, Nancy had her first ride in a plane at an air pageant. In fact, she had not one but two flights, paying extra to persuade the pilot to do some aerobatics on the second. She was well and truly hooked. She bought a book on flying and saved for goggles and a helmet.
Soon she was on her way to Mascot, New South Wales. On 11 August 1933, Nancy arrived at Mascot Aerodrome. She walked the last mile of her journey to keep her appointment for a flying lesson.
Nancy was five foot nothing (150cm) and 17 years old when she had her first flying lesson at the Sir Charles Kingsford Smith Pilots' School. Her teacher was none other than the great Sir Charles. She paid thirty shillings and had a lesson every weekday until April 1935. Kingsford Smith had already secured his place in aviation history in 1928 as the first pilot to cross the Pacific from America to Australia.
Smithy was an exceptional pilot but a hard taskmaster and had little patience with beginners. There was no syllabus, no radio, no control tower. Aircraft coming in to land had priority over aircraft taking off. If you wanted to practise flying through cloud, it was sufficient to let someone know that that was what you were going to do.
At the time the requirement for an airstrip was that a Model T Ford should be able to comfortably drive down the strip at 20mph. Away from established strips, pilots would be forced to land on whatever patch of ground looked most suitable.
She gained her commercial pilot's licence in 1935, becoming the youngest woman to do so. She then barnstormed around New South Wales for a few months, landing in paddocks at race meetings and shows and giving joy flights.
While her father had disapproved at first of her determination to fly, her first plane was purchased for her by her father and a great-aunt. The Gypsy Moth had been refurbished after a crash. Nancy did the barnstorming circuit and transported passengers on charter. A fellow aviatrix, Peggy McKillop, joined her. They embarked on a barnstorming tour as 'Australia's First Ladies Flying Tour', staying with friends and trying to earn enough to live on.
They also performed at race meetings and on the agricultural show circuit, becoming known as Big Bird and Little Bird.
For Nancy to continue flying, it needed to become her career.
In 1935, the Far West Children's Health Scheme hired Nancy (and her plane) to operate an air ambulance service in outback New South Wales. Nancy became the first Australian woman to work in commercial aviation.
Because a woman pilot was unheard of, most people thought they would be covered in grease and wearing overalls, although wearing pants was considered very unladylike. Nancy went to the other extreme and always wore a frock or skirt. She sat on cushions so she could reach the controls.
It was also during 1935 that the State defence leader, HVC Thorby said that women were not 'biologically suited' to flying – whatever that means!
Navigational instruments at the time were very basic and often a road map was used along with following telegraph lines, roads or fence-lines. There were few airstrips in the outback areas where Nancy was expected to land her plane. Landings were often on a clay-pan or a hastily levelled paddock dotted with rabbit warrens. A few circuits of the 'strip' would clear cattle from the area and sometimes the plane had to be fenced in to keep cattle from licking salt off the aircraft fabric.
If the weather was foggy, the plane would be flown low enough to read the name on the railway station sign. It was the days when a spirit level would be fixed to the floor of the plane to indicate if the plane was flying level or not.
Pressure was put on her to stop flying and she went to England to do some aviation research. On board ship when returning home, she met and fell in love with Englishman Charles Walton. They married, Nancy became a mother and flying was put on hold for a number of years. She retained her maiden name of 'Bird', enjoying the connotation.
In 1936 she flew in a Brisbane to Adelaide air race. She had the fastest time of all entrants in the Melbourne to Adelaide leg. The overall winner was Reg Ansett who was able to set up Ansett Airlines with the 500 pound prize money.
World War II put a temporary stop to women flying in Australia. However, the Women's Air Training Corps was formed with Nancy as commandant. This was a voluntary organisation. Despite some opposition, the Women's Royal Australian Air Force eventually got off the ground (pardon the pun).
In 1950, Nancy founded the Australian Women's Pilot's Association which now has over 500 members. Its motto is 'skies unlimited' and Nancy remained president until 1990.
In 1958, she became the first non-American to win a trophy in the All Women's Transcontinental Air Race across America, more commonly known as the Powder Puff Derby. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1966. In September 2008, the Qantus Airbus A380 was named after Nancy Bird Walton.
Nancy died in 1990. She wrote two autobiographical books – My God! It's a Woman and Born To Fly. The title of the first came about from a remark made by a grazier, Charles Russell. When Nancy was put on the phone to be given landing instructions at Russell's property, there was dead silence for a moment before the bewildered man said 'My God! It's a Woman'.