Australian aviation pioneer Nancy Bird Walton died today (January 13 2009) at her Sydney home, aged 93. Named a Living National Treasure by the National Trust of Australia in 1997, she was one of Australia’s aviation pioneers, and the first female pilot in the Commonwealth to carry passengers.
A love of life above the clouds, took Nancy around the world, fulfilling dreams that began in childhood.
Born in Sydney in 1915, Nancy wanted to fly almost as soon as she could walk. “I had this reputation of climbing fences and trees and calling myself an eppy plane. You know, jumping off fences and waving my arms.”
Nancy left school early to work in her father’s general store in the country. “With my hard-won savings I bought myself a leather coat, helmet and goggles, because I was going to learn to fly.”
Nancy was thirteen years old when she flew for the first time while at an air pageant. She paid the pilot a bit extra to do some aerobatics! “My sister said I came down a little green – but on the other hand it became the ruling passion of my life.”
Five years later that passion drove Nancy to take flying lessons, and not with any old instructor. Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, the first man to fly across the mid-Pacific, had just opened a pilots’ school near Sydney, and Nancy was among his first pupils. She was so tiny she needed cushions to reach the controls!
Most women learnt to fly for fun, but Nancy planned to fly for a living. “When I got my licence, I had to think about doing something with it.”
Having a commercial license meant Nancy could carry passengers, but she needed wings. Family members came to the rescue, and bought Nancy her first plane, a Gypsy Moth.
Nancy and a friend soon took off on a barnstorming tour, dropping in on country fairs and giving joy rides. It was the first time some people had seen a plane, let alone a female pilot. “They didn’t intend to go up. That was my job, or Peggy’s job, to persuade them to go up.”
While touring, Nancy met Reverend Stanley Drummond. He wanted her to help set up a flying medical service in outback New South Wales. Nancy bought a better-equipped plane, and began covering territory not yet reached by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It was rewarding but lonely work.
“One of the things that came into one’s mind was the fear of being lost and never being found. You would have perished before being found in the summertime in that country.”
In 1936, Nancy entered an air race from Adelaide to Brisbane, and won the Ladies’ Trophy. “It was a wonderful opportunity for me to come from that back country and meet other flying people. You see, I was isolated out there. Nobody even spoke the same language.”
After working in the outback for more than four years, Nancy knew she needed a break from flying. When a Dutch airline company invited her to do some promotional work in Europe, she accepted.
World War Two broke out soon after Nancy’s return to Australia. She began training women in skills needed to back-up the men flying in the Australian Airforce.
In 1950, she founded the “Australian Women’s Pilots’ Association”. Eight years later Nancy decided she wanted to fly again. Nancy was back in the pilot’s seat after a twenty year absence.
Her entry in a famous all-women race in America, called the Powder Puff Derby, made headlines. It was the first time a woman from overseas had competed.
Throughout her life Nancy has supported charities, and people in need. This generous spirit earned her the Order of the British Empire in 1966. Ms Walton became a Dame of the Knights of Malta in 1977 and in 1990 was awarded an AO by the Australian government.
Although she’s never crashed a plane Nancy admits flying, especially in those early days, was risky. Taking risks, says this adventurer, opens up opportunities.
She was also Commandant of the Women’s Air Training Corps from 1940-45, the founder and longtime president of the Australian Women’s Pilot Association and Emeritus Patron of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
In October last year, she attended the inaugural Australian landing of Qantas’ first super passenger jet the A380, named the Nancy Bird Walton in her honour.
“There’s a wonderful quotation ‘whatever you can do or dream, begin it’.”