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Women in air defence

'Keeping them flying': Women, aircraft and the Second World War

Two members of the Austalian Women

Two members of the Australian Women's Flying Club pose beside an aircraft. Camden, NSW, 1940.
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P01857.005.

Women's involvement in air defence forces in a flying capacity was highly limited until the 1970s. For decades, women's roles in air defence were restricted to jobs on the ground and within Australia. This was despite the relatively large number of aviatrices who had flown extensively as part of Australia's civil aviation since the 1930s

Women's Air Training Corps, 1939

Australian women's involvement in air defence services commenced in April 1939, when Mary Bell, the wife of Air Force Group Captain John Bell, established the Women's Air Training Corps (WATC) in Brisbane . This group included a number of Brisbane women who were trying to train themselves for aircraft work at Archerfield airfield in the event of war being declared. Once war was declared, the WATC quickly grew nationwide.

Walter Jardine, Keep them flying!, 1942, photolithograph.
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: ARTV01114.

WAAAF, 1941

In March 1941 the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed from the WATC. It was the first female non-nursing branch of the defence forces. At its peak in 1944, the WAAAF was the largest of any of the services with 19,000 members.

Like all women's wartime organisations, their role was to backfill jobs usually undertaken by men, who were needed to serve overseas or in combat positions. Although many members of this voluntary organisation were qualified pilots, none were permitted to fly aircraft in the service of the WATC or later, the WAAAF.

W.A.A.A.F. women [picture]

W.A.A.A.F. woman, gelatin silver photograph.
Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: an008040.

WRAAF, 1951

The WAAAF was disbanded in 1947 and reformed as the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) in 1951. For the next twenty five years, the role of the WRAAF continued to focus exclusively on ground duties. Women were enlisted for four years, received two thirds the pay of their male counterparts and were discharged on marriage.

Wing Commander Mary Anne Whiting (now of the RAAF) is someone who has seen the changing face of the role women play in air defence services, as she was one of the last women to join the WRAAF in the 1970's.

'We may have been in the Forces, but we were all trained to eventually become good housewives and mothers in the end ... We were entirely segregated from the men ... We ate in the Mess at different times to the men and we were literally marched with blinkers on so that we didn't see them.'
- Wing Commander Whiting in a RAAF news article, 2001.

Engagement in Korea and Vietnam

When the Korean War began in 1950 and a skills shortage was identified, the WRAAF were employed in roles as cooks, drivers, clerks, medical orderlies and teleprinter operators within Australia. Women filled positions in Australia to allow men to be deployed to overseas combat areas. Some WRAAF service-women were deployed as nurses to Korea and Japan but no women were deployed in combat roles. Women were enlisted for four years, had to be single and were discharged when they married.

During the Vietnam War, although women were considered part of the Airforce, none were sent to Vietnam in combat or combat support roles other than traditional nursing posts. In the early 1970s, many non-traditional areas were opened to female recruits, with women being accepted as engineering cadets.

Equal pay and the first female pilots in the RAAF, 1970s - 1980s


Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams

Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams standing next to a Royal Australian Air Force A7-90 Macchi MB 326H at RAAF Base East Sale. Image courtesy Department of Defence.

In 1977 the WRAAF was integrated into the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and women soon received equal pay and conditions to their male colleagues. Ten years later, the first women pilots were enlisted in 1987 with Robyn Williams and Deborah Hicks the first to graduate. In that year, only 18 people graduated out of 34 candidates - including 4 women. Robyn was the dux of the course.

Robyn went on to have an impressive career with the RAAF which includes becoming their first female test pilot and working as a flying instructor before being posted to the USA as a project test pilot for the C-130J Hercules.

Wing commander Linda Courbould

Wing Commander Linda Corbould OAM, Commanding Officer of No 36 Squadron, at the controls of the Air Force's C-17 Globemaster aircraft.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defence: 20070324raaf8201782_0038.

Wing Commander Linda Corbould

Another senior pilot currently working in the RAAF is Wing Commander Linda Corbould. After successfully completing flying training she became a C-130 Hercules captain. In 2003, Linda received the Medal for the Order of Australia for planning and commanding a flight into Baghdad in April 2003. Three years later she was appointed Commanding Officer of 36 Squadron, becoming the first woman to lead an Australian flying unit.


The Royal Australian Navy also uses aircraft in their operations.

In 1998, the first female RAN pilot, Sub Lieutenant Natalee McDougall graduated from the Australian Defence Academy's helicopter training facility. She later joined 723 Squadron, flying S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters.

Today, around 5% of all Navy and Army pilots are female; and, with many more women currently undergoing training, that proportion is set to increase.

Air defence today

In 2008, the Royal Australian Air Force has 14 female pilots, ranging in rank from Pilot Officer to Wing Commander, including women who fly AP-3C Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft.

In the twenty-first century, female aviators are still reshaping the roles women play in society and in the workplace. Thanks to these trailblazers and adventurous spirits, the sky is no longer 'off-limits'; instead, it represents endless possibilities.

Useful links

Australian women's involvement in military flying

Last updated: 10th July 2008
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd