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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Mary Philomena O'Brien (1940–2004)

by Shane Nichols

Mary O'Brien, who has died in Sydney at 64, was a pioneering woman aviator.

When she took up flying in the 1960s, aviation was still a male preserve, dominated by ex-military pilots. Career prospects for women were limited, but although airlines and the military flatly refused to employ them, general aviation companies were more enlightened.

O'Brien, who was born in Walgett on September 13, 1940, made her mark by becoming the first female member of the town's flying club. She came from a longstanding farming family in the district, although she had been educated in Sydney from the age of nine.

After completing her commercial pilot licence and instructor's rating in NSW she worked as an instructor with Navair in the late 1960s. In 1970 she took a job as an instructor with Singapore General Aviation Services and her flying in the next four years included ferrying an aircraft to Africa, dropping payrolls into isolated mining camps in Asian jungles, searching for ships lost at sea and transporting freight and passengers.

There were no other women commercial pilots in South-East Asia at the time and O'Brien was the first Australian woman to work as a pilot overseas. With persistence, hard work and a sense of humour she overcame considerable resistance by the Singapore aviation authorities to her obtaining local licences. In doing so, she became not only a pioneer but a role model for the next generation of women pilots.

From Singapore, O'Brien went to the United States, where she took further qualifications and flew extensively in light aircraft, from Alaska to Guatemala. In 1980 she brought the first Grumman Cougar aircraft to Australia, crossing the Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East and India on the way.

Returning to Australia, O'Brien worked as a flying teacher and was part of the crew that ferried a Nomad aircraft to the US. She joined Wards Express, flying a fast, twin-engined Lear jet on night freight runs all over Australia and occasionally to New Zealand, and became the first woman in Australia to captain a Lear jet.

In 1985 O'Brien began a 15-year career with the Department of Aviation, where she became the first woman operational examiner of airmen. Later, as district flight operations manager at Bankstown Airport, she was the first woman appointed to an operational management position. During this time she completed a BSc (Aviation) at the University of Newcastle.

When the University of Western Sydney's aviation degree program offered O'Brien an opportunity to teach in 1999, she welcomed the chance of a return to her first love. In recent years she studied for a Master of Education in Higher Professional Education.

She was a role model, teacher and mentor to many people. Her annual Dine with the Aviators events at Bankstown, which paid homage to well known figures in aviation, demonstrated her sense of history.

She took particular interest in fostering women's recognition and advancement — she was a committee member and national president of the Australian Women Pilots' Association; a member of the Ninety-Nines, an international organisation of women pilots; was awarded the Nancy Bird Trophy for her contribution to aviation by women; patron of the Mary O'Brien Wing of the Australian Air League; and a board member of the Zonta Club of Sydney, an international organisation that seeks to raise the status of women.

O'Brien is also featured in the Stockman's Hall of Fame at Longreach, and in the Powerhouse Museum photo exhibition and publication Women With Wings (2002).

O'Brien's implacable nature and organisational zeal made her a valued member of many organisations. Though she became a resident of Sydney's inner west — where locating one of her many favourite but obscure Asian eateries on a rainy night hardly tested her navigational skills — she was truly a person of the world.

Her friends within aviation and beyond enjoyed her country girl's forthright nature, her intelligence and larrikin spirit. She was open-minded, non-judgemental and maintained a vast network, people who would never have crossed paths but for O'Brien's many gatherings.

Her loyalty and generosity were limitless and her home was a waypoint for any friend who needed a place to stay.

To the Irish-Australian clan who raised her, the slender red-haired girl was "Splinter"; to her Singaporean students she was Dear Red Pen; to her Aviation Department colleagues she was Auntie Mary. The last helped during her recent stint in hospital when friends, making inquiries of the switchboard sentinels, would ask to speak to Auntie Mary; the hospital staff assumed they were relatives.

She never married — though not for lack of suitors — and is survived by her brothers Bill and Frank, seven nephews and nieces and 11 great-nephews and great-nieces, so there were also many who called her Auntie Mary who were genuine relatives.

Her daring and spiritedness were matched by a pilot's diligence and capability. The air is an unforgiving element for anyone careless, incapable or neglectful, as she was known to remark. And although she was a natural leader, one of her gifts was the ability to find consensus among people and take them with her. She would simply say, "Let's just do that, then", and everyone would know she was right.

But she didn't take herself too seriously, and loved to tell a yarn. In Singapore she used to drive a Fiat Bambino car. One day she lent it to a friend who happened to be driving it when it caught fire. At a loss for water, he urinated on the engine to put the blaze out. For weeks O'Brien was reminded of this as the reek from the hot motor filled the cabin. "How dare you pee on my car!" she rebuked her friend, but it was just the sort of thing that amused her.

She would have chuckled too at the recent misfortune of her old chum Ray Clamback, who had to be fished out of the Pacific after ditching a Cessna he was ferrying to Australia just a few days after her death. It was his second rescue. "Oh dear, Ray ... !"

She lived a large life, in the air or teaching aviation. The mystique and adventure of the air caught her young and never left. She told the author of Women With Wings: "The take-off is always a thrill: the massive acceleration, followed by the rapid rate of climb out into the night sky, takes your breath away. Some think there is nothing to see at night, but the night sky has its own magic. There are times when the incredible aurora australis stretches across the southern sky like a magic carpet, and the view from 39,000 feet is the best."

Original publication

Citation details

Shane Nichols, 'O'Brien, Mary Philomena (1940–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

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