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Nancy-Bird Walton (1915–2009)

by Malcolm Brown and Harriet Veitch

Nancy-Bird Walton, by Jack Mulligan, 1961

Nancy-Bird Walton, by Jack Mulligan, 1961

State Library of New South Wales, 87240

The title of Nancy-Bird Walton's autobiography was pretty much the story of her early life, My God, It's A Woman! The title was the response of one grazier, trapped on an outback property, when told that the pilot flying to his rescue was called Nancy.

The young pioneering aviator, philosophical about the response, picked him up. She had started flying when a female pilot was still called an aviatrix and constantly surprised people when a tiny (she was 150 centimetres tall) person wearing a dress emerged from a cockpit and took off her helmet.

Although Bird Walton was not the first woman in Australia with a pilot's licence – that was Millicent Bryant in 1927 – she was the first, in 1935, to have a licence allowing her to carry passengers, and she held a licence for most of the rest of her life.

She handed it in only in 2006. Unlike many flyers of her time, she survived to a fine old age. She died yesterday in Mosman, aged 93.

Nancy was born in Kew, near Taree, one of six children of William and Fanny Bird. The family moved to Sydney when she was small.

She attended a private school at Collaroy but left at 13 when her father set up a general store in Mount George, near Taree, and chose Nancy, the practical daughter, to help him.

One day in 1930 everything changed. Nancy went to Mascot for a trial flight, which convinced her that she wanted to fly. She returned to work at the store, saved £200, bought a jacket and flying helmet, and enrolled as one of the first pupils at Charles Kingsford Smith's new flying school at Mascot.

She started lessons on August 11, 1933, had an A licence on September 27 and then an Advanced A. But she had to wait until she was 19 and had 200 solo flying hours before she could sit for a licence to carry passengers.

There were few jobs in aviation for men then, let alone women. Her parents bought her a Gypsy Moth and she took off around the country, working at fairs and race meetings with a co-pilot, Peggy McKillop, a rich young woman happy to work for free flying time.

Their joy flights cost 10 shillings a go. McKillop was so tall and Bird so short that they became affectionately known as Big Bird and Little Bird.

Reverend Stanley Drummond of the Far West Children's Health Scheme hired her to fly nurses around the outback to help mothers and babies – the first time a female pilot had worked commercially in Australia.

Bird navigated with a watch and a compass, often following road maps because there were no aviation maps, and landing on bumpy strips, sometimes on one wheel when the wind was blowing from the side rather than the preferred behind.

After a year she moved to Cunnamulla in southern Queensland and bought a Leopard Moth, picking up more commercial work with a private charter and operating as an aerial ambulance service.

She often asked people on the ground to drive a truck over a prospective landing strip ahead of her so she could judge the wind, and make sure there were no stumps in the way. The smell of a dead horse was once powerful enough to reach 450 metres above ground, telling her she was on course for Cunnamulla.

She won the Ladies Trophy in the South Australian Centenary Air Race from Brisbane to Adelaide in 1936, before taking a two-year world tour studying civil aviation. The trip was paid for by the Dutch East Indies Airline, later KLM, which wanted to break into the Australian market.

On her way home from the US she met an Englishman, Charles Walton. They married in 1939 in a ceremony conducted by the Reverend John Flynn (Flynn of the Inland).

When World War II broke out Nancy-Bird Walton – the spelling the couple preferred – recruited and trained women for a women's auxiliary air force, if and when one was created.

When the WAAF was formed later that year she could not join because she was married, so she stayed as commandant of the Women's Air Training Corps.

Although British female pilots delivered aircraft from the factory to the Royal Air Force, Australia did not manufacture aircraft until later in the war, and the country already had enough male pilots for wartime needs, so the WAAF women were mostly support and ground staff.

After the war the Waltons had two children, and in 1950 she founded the Australian Women's Pilots' Association, of which she was president until 1990.

In 1958 she came fifth among 61 entries, with her co-pilot Iris Critchell, in the Powder Puff Derby in the US, officially known as the All Women's Transcontinental Air Race.

She had become interested in politics and helped to form the Women's Movement Against Socialism, which was aimed, she said, at educating Australian women in politics generally, and rallying them not to vote according to their husbands' wishes.

She helped with national campaigns for heart health and the air ambulance and, in 1961, after the accidental discovery of her teenaged diary, published Born To Fly.

In 1990 she published My God, It's A Woman! Walton received an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 1966 and became an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours in 1990. The National Trust named her as a living national treasure in 1997. The terminal at Bourke Airport is named after her and last year Qantas named its first A380 after her. She had joined a test flight in 2007 on one of the giant aircraft.

In 2006 the Royal Far West Children's Health Scheme presented her with its first lifetime membership and achievement award. She also received the John Flynn Outback Pioneers Award.

Charles Walton died in 1991. Nancy-Bird is survived by her children, Anne Marie and John; grandchildren Scott, Anna, Paul and Baron; and great-grandchildren Lachlan and Zoe.

Original publication

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown and Harriet Veitch, 'Walton, Nancy-Bird (1915–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 5 March 2024.

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