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Aviatrices - Australian women of the air

Freda Thompson

Unknown photographer, Freda Thompson (1906-1980), Pictured here in 1934 just before take off at Lympne Airport when she became the first Australian woman to fly solo from England to Australia, 1934. Courtesy of National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame.

The early 1900s was a time when the thrill of flight captured the imagination of people around the world. Flying was seen as daring, courageous and modern and the people who flew were the celebrities of their day. Records for speed and distance were strived for and closely followed by the press and celebrated by the public.

Australian women and men were equally excited by the thought of air travel and, even more, by the possibility of actually flying an aircraft.

The early 1900s was a time when a handful of aviatrices rewrote traditional definitions of 'womanhood'. They redefined what women were thought to be capable of and interested in, as well as what women envisaged themselves doing, alongside recognition of their recently granted suffrage, or right to vote. Aviatrices also influenced Australian national dress and modern Australian fashion, with the early adoption of trousers by Australian women as part of their dress code.

At first the sky seemed to be the limit. However, for the next fifty years, it was more of a case of the sky being 'off-limits' for many women. Until the 1980s, the skies over Australia were still a place where women's capability and determination often collided with dominant social expectations and traditional roles.

Women Airborne! - Florence Taylor and Emma Shultz, 1909

 George Taylor flying at Narabeen, N.S.W., [1909, 1] [picture].

George Taylor flying at Narrabeen, N.S.W. , [1909, 1], photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an24152644.

On a summer's day on a Narrabeen beach in 1909, architect Florence Taylor took to the air in a glider built by her husband, George. Later, their friend Emma Schultz also flew the glider and together, they were the first Australian women to fly. Florence later recalled 'My dressmaker never realised I was a budding aviatrix' as she had to tuck up her long skirts in order to fly.

Australian women were not allowed to fly until 1927, 17 years after many other countries had women charter pilots and flying instructors. Saddest is the story about a young nursing sister in London, Hilda Hope McMaugh, the only woman among 400 getting their wings in 1919. On return to Australia Hilda was forbidden to fly and never got an Australian licence.

Millicent Bryant - licensed pilot, 1927

On March 28, 1927, 49 year old Millicent Bryant was awarded pilot's licence number 71. Millicent was the first Australian woman to be awarded a licence. Interested in machinery and cars, she was also one of the first women in New South Wales to get a driving licence.

Millicent died just a few months later in Sydney's 'Greycliffe' ferry disaster. At her Manly funeral she was honoured with a fly past of five aircraft - a rare event at the time and one that was much reported in the media.

Within two years, a further 18 Australian women had qualified for their pilot's licence.

England to Australia solo flights, 1930s

Amy Johnson arrives at City Hall to a rousing reception, Brisbane, May 1930

Amy Johnson arrives at City Hall to a rousing reception, Brisbane, May 1930, 29 May 1930.
Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 72883.

Australia was impossibly distant to people in the Northern Hemisphere and seen as one of the ultimate endurance and distance challenges for setting new aviation records. Foreign aviators and aviatrices arrived here in pursuit of records and fame while daredevil barnstormers amazed thousands of Australians with their aerial tricks and rides.

The 1920s and 1930s was a time when increasing numbers of Australian women became qualified pilots. By May 1930, the arrival in Australia of British aviatrix Amy Johnson (who was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia) had spurred a further 10 women to qualify.

The first Australian woman to fly solo from England to Australia was Freda Thompson (1906–1980) in 1934. Thompson was also the first female flying instructor in Australia and the British Empire, gaining her Instructor's Rating in 1933.

Around Australia and solo to England and Africa

Lores Bonney

Lores Bonney. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 49962.

Maude Lores Bonney, the wife of a wealthy Brisbane leather manufacturer, first started taking flying lessons because her husband forbade her to drive a car. The lessons were taken in secret at Eagle Farm airport, with Bonney getting a lift with the local milkman.

When her husband, Henry, found out he was more supportive of her than she expected. In 1931, when she gained her license, he even bought her a plane, which she called 'My Little Ship'. In August/September 1932, Bonney became the first woman to circumnavigate Australia. She was also the first Australian woman to fly solo to both Africa (1937) and England (1933).

She later recollected an encounter during a refueling stop at a remote cattle station in 1932 during her trip around Australia.

'I was met by two bush cockies complete with grass stalks hanging from their mouths. They slowly looked me up and down, and one drawled 'Yer know mate, can't be much to this flying business, if a woman can do it.' I gave him a pitying smile.'
Lores Bonney in 1977, quoted in a HistoryNet article

Nancy Bird, London, 1939

Nancy Bird, London, 1939. Courtesy of State Library of NSW.

Nancy Bird-Walton

Nancy Bird Walton (1915–2009) was a determined woman and a skilled aviator. She was the first woman to work in commercial aviation in Australia and later, in 1935, pioneered an air ambulance service for people living in remote areas of Australia.

'as a four-year-old, my mother told me I was climbing the fence, jumping off and calling myself an 'eppyplane' ... I bought books on aeroplanes, I followed everything in the newspapers about aeroplanes. Amy Johnson flew to Australia in 1930 - why couldn't I do something like that? '
- Nancy Bird Walton in an interview with George Negus on George Negus Tonight, 8 March 2004

Nancy Bird Walton and Peggy Mckillop embarked on their own barnstorming tour - Australia's first 'Ladies Flying Tour' - in an attempt to make a living from their love of flying.

'Other women who flew were women of independent means. But I had to do something with it.'
- Nancy Bird Walton in March 2004

In 1950, Nancy Bird Walton formed the Australian Women's Pilot's Association, an organisation that thrives today with over 500 members. Eight years later, she became the first non-American woman to win a trophy in the All Women's Transcontinental Air Race across America, an event more commonly referred to as the 'Powder Puff Derby'.

The new QANTAS Airbus A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, acquired in September 2008, has been named after Nancy Bird Walton.

Civil aviation 1980s - 90s

The adventure of flight remains a powerful one that does more than inspire dreams of a different life.

In 1986, champion cross country skier Janine Shepherd was involved in a truck accident and told she would never walk again. Shepherd resolved to fly instead.

While still in a wheelchair and body cast, she was lifted into an aircraft for her first flight.

A year later she had earned her private pilot's licence, which was followed by a commercial pilot's licence, an instrument rating, twin engine rating and her instructor's rating. Not stopping there, Shepherd went on to become a fully qualified aerobatics instructor and was the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Commercial aviation, 1970s - 80s

Ansett trainee pilots, Deborah Wardley and Felicity Bush

Ansett trainee pilots, Deborah Wardley and Felicity Bush, 1981.
Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A6180, 12/2/81/8 .

As in many other divisions of aviation, the acceptance of women as pilots has taken many years. In 1970 Mary O'Brien became the first Australian woman to work as a pilot overseas (with Singapore Airlines). Mary's distinguished career includes being the first woman in Australia to captain a Lear jet, in 1983. Four years later, she was made Examiner of Airmen (with the then Department of Transport and Communications) - one of the highest aviation appointments in Australia.

In 1974, Christine Davy, MBE, became the first woman in Australia to be employed as a pilot of a passenger airline, Connair, which was based in Alice Springs. Christine flew DC3s and helicopters around the outback and internationally.

Just a few years later, Deborah Wardley, a qualified pilot and flying instructor, sent in the first of many applications to Ansett Airlines. It was not until after a prolonged battle through the new Victorian Equal Opportunity Board (now VCAT) and later the Supreme and High Courts of Australia that Ansett was ordered to include her on their next pilot training program. Even then the company was uncooperative until its new owner, Rupert Murdoch, whose brother-in-law had been taught to fly by Wardley, intervened.

Deborah Wardley recalls that on one occasion as a pilot for Dutch airline KLM, she had to leave the cockpit to talk to a passenger who was concerned for his safety because a woman was piloting the plane. When she spoke, the man recognised her Australian accent and remembered that he had, in fact, flown with her before. She asked him if he'd arrived at his destination in one piece and he agreed that this was so. Her response was a simple one: 'Well, what are you complaining about, then?'

1990s and beyond

In 1992 Sharelle Quinn became Australia's first female international captain with Qantas airlines.

Today, a growing number of women are working as commercial pilots for major Australian airlines. Women are still in a minority and, just as it was almost one hundred years ago, it seems prejudices still exist despite the endless possibilities that flying offers women.

Useful links

Look, listen & play

Australian women's involvement in military flying

Nancy Bird Walton AO, OBE

Lores Bonney MBE

Janine Shepherd AM

Some other Australian aviatrices

  • Rosemary Arnold - Australia's first female helicopter pilot
  • Allana Arnot - the first woman to circumnavigate Australia solo in a helicopter
  • Shirley Adkins, OAM - aerobatic and formation flyer
  • Doris Carter - Wing Officer, Director of the Women's RAAF, and the first woman to fly both the Canberra Bomber and the Vampire Jet

Last updated: 9 June 2015
Creators: Kathryn Wells