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Introduction

For Nancy Bird-Walton, with a maiden name of 'Bird', some say that the woman who became Australia's youngest female commercial pilot was aptly-named. No one knew just how far this pioneering aviatrix would fly and how much she would achieve along the way.

Her life and accomplishments

Born as Nancy Bird, she entered the world on 16 October 1915 in Kew, New South Wales. In what would almost appear as her knowing what her destiny would be, Nancy Bird-Walton wanted to fly from before she could even properly pronounce the word 'aeroplane.' A popular memory is of how, as a child, she would jump off the back fence declaring that she was an 'epiplane.'

As a teenager during the Depression in Australia, Nancy Bird-Walton found herself in the same position as many other youths of the time: she left school to help out her family. Her brothers and sisters stayed with her mother in the city, while she moved to the country with her father to work in his general store and be his housekeeper. Her life was never going to be ordinary, with her original passion for flying reignited at a Wingham air pageant. It was here that 13-year-old Bird-Walton spent what hard-earned money she had on a joy-flight. The flight itself cost ten shillings but in a desire for more she gave the pilot an additional pound, a week's worth of wages, in exchange for the performance of some aerobatic manoeuvres. From that day on, Nancy Bird-Walton's passion for flying escalated.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who was at the time, the first man to have crossed the Australian mainland on a non-stop flight, as well as the first to have flown from Australia to New Zealand, opened a flying school in August 1933. Nancy Bird-Walton, who had met him prior to its opening, had informed him that she intended to become of his students. Her father did not approve of his daughter's intentions, but did not forbid her to go. Having saved up two hundred pounds, she moved into her mother's house in Sydney. From here, she would travel to Mascot where she would begin flying lessons.

On 11 August 1933 Bird-Walton commenced her flying lessons in the type of aircraft called a Gipsy Moth. Using a pillow which enabled her to reach the controls, in a little over a month, on 28 September, she had earned her 'A' licence. To qualify for the licence it did not involve studying or training like it does today. They did not have any runways, detailed maps, radios or even brakes. The plane to be taken to 1500 feet before the pilot turned off the engine and glided the aircraft in a succession of turns safely back to the ground. In that same year she obtained her 'Advanced A' pilot's licence. In the following year, at the age of 19, she earned her title as Australia's youngest commercial licensed female pilot. See image 1

Flying as a mode of transport was very unpopular during this time, with airline companies regularly going broke. Without the advantage of modern technology, flying was not as safe as it is today and every time that there was a crash, the public became nervous. As a result, pretty much the only way for pilots to make a living out of flying was through what was known as 'barnstorming.' This was where pilots flew to the fairs and racecourses of country towns, landing in nearby paddocks to attract the attention of potential paying customers. Many townsfolk had never even seen an aeroplane before, let alone ridden in one.

Immediately after obtaining her commercial licence Bird-Walton and her co-pilot Peggy Mckillop, who had finished her training at the same time, embarked on their own barnstorming tour: Australia's first 'Ladies Flying Tour.' They charged the same price that Bird-Walton herself had paid for her first flight which was ten shillings. This amount allowed them to be to cover their expenses but not much else. The plane they flew while barnstorming was a Gipsy Moth. It had been given to Bird-Walton as a gift by her Aunt Annie and her father, who now gave her his full support.

While barnstorming, Nancy Bird-Walton met Reverend Stanley Drummond who was from the Far West Children's Health Scheme. He wanted her to help him set up a flying ambulance and baby clinic service that could reach the isolated and remote areas of New South Wales. She took out a loan to upgrade to a Leopard Moth aeroplane which cost 1800 and began working from Bourke for the Far West Service. Moving to Queensland in later months, she took up a similar position with the Queensland Bush Children's Health Scheme, which was on a voluntary basis. While she loved her job, it was not an easy one. It was dangerous and lonely, especially for a young woman in her twenties. See image 2

Nancy Bird-Walton was not only charitable, but also competitive, taking out the Ladies Trophy in the 1936 air race from Adelaide to Brisbane. She was beginning to become worn out from the physical and emotional stress of flying and needed a break.

That break came in 1938 when Bird-Walton was invited by the Dutch East Indies airline to travel the world studying aviation, in return for some promotional work for them. She sold her aircraft and took up the offer, knowing that she would never have been able to afford this opportunity herself. While in France, she attended the Paris Aviation Exhibition. There they were showing a prototype aircraft which was, unbeknown to her at the time, capable of enormous destruction and would later be used in World War II.

On a ship travelling from America in 1939, Nancy Bird-Walton met the man who would become her husband, Charles Walton. After World War II ended, they had two children, Anne Marie and John.

During World War II, Bird-Walton turned her attention to assisting Australia's war efforts. No longer having a pilot's licence, she could not fly. This did not matter because no women pilots were allowed to fly in Australia in the War. Instead, she became commandant of the Women's Air Training Corps of Australia, and helped in recruiting and training women to serve in a women's auxiliary air force in case one was ever established. They were also cooks, drivers and clerical workers.

In 1950, Bird-Walton formed the Australian Women's Pilot Association and became its president.; Not wanting to be the president of a pilot's association when she could not fly, she decided to renew her private licence in 1958. She then went on to be the first woman from overseas to compete in several of the all-women 'Powder Puff Derbys' in the United States.

She turned to writing in her latter years, publishing her autobiographies Born to fly, in 1961 and My God! It's a Woman, in 1990. Nancy Bird-Walton was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1966 and the Order of Australia in 1990. Australia's airline, Qantas, recently declared that it will name its first Airbus A380, due to arrive in 2007, after the woman who pioneered aviation in Australia. See image 3, see animation

Why were her accomplishments so important?

Nancy Bird-Walton will forever be officially known as the British Commonwealth's youngest female commercial pilot. She is revered not only for her contribution to aviation but also for the way in which she used her knowledge and experience to support those less fortunate than herself. During her time, aviation pioneers were ambitious and wanted to fly faster and further than their peers. In competitions for prizes and trophies, making world records was considered the ultimate achievement. However, barely into her twenties, Bird-Walton began to use her aircraft experience and flying skills to do something which saved the lives of many Australians. Knowing that a doctor and supplies could reach them in even the most remote of areas put the minds of many people more at rest. It was certainly not as glamorous a life as the lives of those who devoted their time to breaking world records. She had to endure forty-degree heat, the danger of flying and the loneliness of complete isolation, particularly from those who shared her love of flying. Making life equally difficult for her was the response from other people at the time. As a young woman who, of necessity, spent much of her time in hotels and interacting with commercial passengers, there were some who made vicious assumptions about her.

Her family also did not originally support her wholeheartedly. Her father's lack of support was primarily based on the fact that he did not want to be without the assistance of his daughter who had been an immense help to him. It could also have been an instinctive reaction of paternal protection for his daughter. Regardless of his reasoning, it did not take long for his selfish concerns to be overshadowed by his pride for his daughter who had obtained her licence and was determined on doing something useful with it.

Although a woman's place was considered to be in the home, the flying schools were one place that did not attempt to restrict Bird-Walton from becoming a pilot. However, the reason for this was that business had been affected by the Depression and the flying schools did not care who was taking lessons, as long as the lesson fees were paid. In fact there were a number of women who flew, but only ever as a hobby or for sport. This made Bird-Walton a pioneer for women in aviation as well. Her achievements and her mere presence in the field of aviation, changed the future for women. Women are now working as airline captains, search and rescue pilots and are currently serving as pilots in the Australian Air force and Navy.

The Australian Women Pilots' Association which she established over half a century ago is still running today. As a voluntary organisation it has encouraged women from all over Australia to obtain their pilots' licenses, while providing a secure platform from which they can do so. Financial support in the form of scholarships is also available.


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1. Which to capital cities was the 1936 air race between, in which Bird- Walton took out the Ladies Trophy?

Sydney and Perth

Sydney and Brisbane

Brisbane and Adelaide

Adelaide and Melbourne

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