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Cross-posted at Hoyden About Town

Nancy Bird Walton
Image credit: The Age

Nancy Bird Walton, AO, OBE, DStJ, Dame of the Knights of Malta, was a legendary pilot and about as hoydenish as it gets. At age 19, she became the first Australian female pilot to receive her commercial license. She went on to be instrumental in running early outback air ambulance services in New South Wales and commandant of the Women’s Air Training Corps during WWII as well as founder and long-time president of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. I’m tearing up as I tell you that she died on Tuesday afternoon in her home in Mosman, northern Sydney.

She meant an awful lot to me as a girl growing up in Australia. Before it ever occurred to me that I was a feminist, I was pleased and proud to have Walton as a countrywoman. She was a pioneer and a symbol. She was a reminder that I could reach for anything I wanted, no matter the sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious pressures acting against women’s progress.

In her teens, she saved up 200 pounds for flying lessons on a wage of one pound per week. At the age of 17, she was taught to fly by fellow aviation icon Charles Kingsford Smith, even though he was not at all fond of female pilots. Her father was initially unhappy about her chosen career, but when she couldn’t afford a plane following her flying lessons, he and Walton’s great aunt helped her out. She bought the first plane she was ever a passenger in, a Gypsy Moth. It was in this very plane that she earned her nickname “Angel of the Outback” while running the Far West Children’s Health Scheme in country NSW.

From 1938 to 1958, she stopped flying, focussing on family life, promotional work with a Dutch company and training women to assist men in the Royal Australian Air Force. In 1950 she founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association, of which she was president until 1990. It’s fitting that their motto is “skies unlimited”.

The National Trust of Australia declared her an Australian Living Treasure in 1997. She became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire as a result of the charitable work she was invested in throughout her life. She was very pleased when Qantas, Australia’s main airline, recently named their first Airbus A380 after her. In all her life, she never had an accident, even in highly dangerous country that hadn’t seen many planes. She said that from her first time in a plane, ‘learning to fly was the ruling passion of my life.’

One of my favourite stories about her is that her height – she was one and a half metres tall – meant that she had to be supported with cushions in order to reach the controls and see her way forward. I also like her sense of humour; she named her second autobiography My God! It’s a Woman after the reaction of grazier Charles Russell on seeing this female pilot. It seems that I’m far from being the only one charmed by her and feeling her loss: praise has come from all quarters.

Read this from “Air race rekindles memories of 1936
” by Thom Cookes, The Age, 17 Feb. 1996:

When Nancy Bird-Walton flew in the first Brisbane-Adelaide air race she won the women’s section. But that was in 1936 when she was 21. Sixty years on, she is taking part in the race for the third time, along with a few planes as familiar with the routine as she is.

And this from “Nancy Bird-Walton
” by Jo Arblaster, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Oct. 1995:

“I mostly flew in dresses. Because everyone thought I would look like a grease monkey and be masculine, I went the opposite way and I wore the most unsuitable clothes – floral dresses, mostly hand-me-downs from my sister. I never wore pants because it wasn’t considered ladylike.”

Being a woman pilot had its disadvantages and the girls had to maintain strict bladder control when flying in the outback. “We were very careful about what we drank in the morning because there were no facilities to go to the loo. We’d land in a place, people would come right away, and I think we must have been constantly dehydrated.”

I think Nationals leader Warren Truss put it very well. ‘Nancy-Bird Walton was an extraordinary pilot, adventurer, businesswoman and humanitarian, and the nation is poorer for her loss.’

Note: I found her Wikipedia page and the interview here very interesting, although I can’t say I’ve read the interview in detail.

Nancy Bird Walton
Image credit: State Library of NSW