Flying with Nancy-Bird: The Australian Aviatrix

carolCarol Devine

9780732273705Nancy-Bird Walton (born Nancy Bird, 1915) is celebrated for smashing the glass sky for Australian women in aviation. She also is respected for running a medical air transport service to the outback. Bird died in 2009 at age 93.

I learned about her at the cool Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) museum in Albion Park. A historical image of a female pilot jumps out amidst those of male pilots, especially one in foxy leather aviation gear. I had to buy Bird’s book, My God! It’s a Woman (HarperCollins, 2002). I like to read about women who break the mold. Indeed Nancy-Bird tells of a passenger who got a shock when he discovered a woman pilot. Nothing stopped her from getting into the cockpit.

Nancy-Bird was the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s license (at 19) and the youngest female commercial pilot in the British Commonwealth. “I had to have a career if I was to stay in aviation,” she said, “I couldn’t afford it as a hobby.” Nancy-Bird did it against prejudice, including in her family, against women flying.

Since age four, she wanted to fly. A joy flight in a Gipsy Moth when she was thirteen sealed the deal.

“There was always a magnetic attraction for me of an aeroplane in the sky … I remember [one] landing on Dee Why beach – a forced landing. The girls I went to school with tell me I was always talking about aeroplanes.”

It was a heady period in aviation with long distance flights to Europe and Asia in single engine aircraft.

Nancy-Bird saved for lessons.

Charles Kingsford Smith, the first to fly across the Pacific, accepted her, reluctantly at first, to his flying school in Mascot, 1933. She was 17. Nancy-Bird called his flying technique “beauty and precision exactly timed, judged and balanced.”

Her skills must have been similarly amazing. At that time pilots had to be fearless and technically impeccable. Aviation technology included wristwatches, a compass and road maps (aviation maps weren’t yet made). Flying was dangerous; aeroplanes were airborne machines of fabric and wood. Weather reports were unreliable. Nancy-Bird wrote of pilot friends in fatal crashes and her awareness she could be next.

Her family helped her buy a fourth-hand Gipsy Moth. Nancy-Bird was hired by The Far West Children’s Health scheme to run an air ambulance to transport people to hospitals and take nurses to outback sheep and cattle stations or remote settlements with no medical or maternity care. She went to places not yet reached by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Often there were no airstrips and Nancy-Bird landed in paddocks filled with rabbit holes.

She did this service for four years.

I love her vantage point: “You haven’t seen Australia unless you see it from the air. The coastline, the colours of the inland. The claypans, the forests. It’s just all so beautiful. You’d never see that from the road. People climb mountains to see these things.”

Women weren’t supposed to wear pants. They weren’t “biologically suited” to fly either, according to State Defense Leader H.V.C. Thorby in 1935.

“I mostly flew in dresses. I went the opposite way and wore the most unsuitable clothes – floral dresses, mostly hand-me-downs from my sister,” said Nancy-Bird.

470nancy,0She spent a year in Europe invited by the Dutch East Indies airline to study the aviation industry. Nancy-Bird flew to 25 countries and was entertained as a VIP apparently by Lufthansa, Air France and other airlines. In photos taken at the time she looked glamorous.  On the ocean liner return to Australia Nancy-Bird fell in love with British born businessman, Charles Walton. She married at 24 and had two children, pausing from flying.

Nancy-Bird reminds me of strong and determined women who didn’t appear to self-identify as a ground-breaker or a feminist because they were busy doing what they were compelled to, even if risky.

I wanted more detail of her time in Europe – did she fall in love with another aviator or did one profess love for her? After her marriage I wondered her thoughts on juggling motherhood and her interest in community work, politics and flying again.

Nancy-Bird modeled how to cut a path (of lantana) for those of us eager to feed our dreams. Her life’s achievements says to me, you want to fly, spread your wings.

• In 1950, Nancy-Bird Walton founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA). Motto, “skies unlimited”.

• She received the Order of Australia (1996)

• The National Trust of Australia declared her an Australian Living Treasure (1997).

• Qantas named the airline’s first A380 superjumbo after her; she joined a test flight (2007).

“I think, just the exhilaration of flying. The freedom of the air. The freedom of flight. And you completely remove yourself from the world. And you can voluntarily remove yourself from all those … everything that’s near and dear to you. And you voluntarily return.”

Carol Devine – Activism + Culture
Carol is a Canadian writer, researcher and humanitarian with insatiable wanderlust. For Doctors Without Borders she defended humanitarian principles in Rwanda, Sudan and East Timor. For the Diplomacy Training Program, University of New South Wales, she co-trained Aboriginal, Tibetan and Burmese youth. Carol also led the first Antarctic civilian volunteer ecological expedition. Carol is currently trying meditation, to learn more physics and get back on her skateboard. Carol can be contacted at:
Life Balance = Run. Explore. Laugh.