Birds of a feather
17 December 2014
People climb mountains to see the same view that pilots see every time they take off. There is beauty at all altitudes. – Nancy Bird
Women who have gone against common social convention and pioneered adventure and exploration have always intrigued and captured our hearts—Gertrude Bell, Valentina Tereshkova, Junko Tabei and perhaps the most famous of these, Amelia Earhart. Mystery surrounding Earhart’s disappearance still plagues investigators today and debris found in the west Pacific Ocean still pored over in efforts to match them to Earhart’s missing Lockheed Model 10 Electra. These stories fascinate me.
Australian women of the early twentieth century were no different. Australia’s first female pilots—Millicent Bryant, Maude 'Lores' Bonney, Freda Thompson, Peggy McKillop, Nancy Bird-Walton and Gaby Kennard—were daring, vivacious and laid a foundation for young women everywhere. Their stories culminated in the establishment of the Australian Women Pilots' Association on 16 September 1950. They lived the extraordinary lives that many of us dream of, and the evidence is in the Library’s collection.
Lores Bonney (1897–1994)
Lores Bonney was known for her love of music and her hatred of discipline. In an effort to curb her rebellious nature and foster her talent, she was sent to a women’s finishing school in Germany. Here she bloomed; learning new languages, she fell in love with flowers and gardening, and developed a strong desire to travel and be amongst other cultures.
In 1926, at a time when Bonney had become the wife of successful businessman Harry Bonney, and was living in Brisbane, she discovered she was bored. In 1928, she met Bert Hinkler and was enthralled by his discussion of flight. The next day Hinkler took her to deliver flowers to her friend in Yeerongpilly by air. Two years later, she learnt to fly. First in secret, but when her husband found out, he bought her a de Havilland DH.60 Gypsy Moth. She began to set records: first woman to circumnavigate Australia; first woman to fly Australia–England, first woman to fly Australia–South Africa.
Bonney is known as the first lady of Australian aviation. The Library’s collection comprise diaries, papers, silver tray and poster relating to Bonney's life and aviation career, including her pioneering Australia–England flight, and involvement in the search for the missing Stinson aircraft.
Mrs Lores Bonney overhauls her machine, a DH 60G Moth, My Little Ship, VH-UPV, at Darwin on arrival 11 April 1933 nla.pic-vn3723110
Freda Thompson (1906–1980)
Like Bonney, Freda Thompson was talented: exceptional musical abilities, she played tennis and was an excellent skater. She was free-spirited with a dry sense of humour and although engaged twice, was never attached. Thompson’s father—knowing there was no stopping her—agreed to allow her to learn to fly.
She gained her private pilot’s licence in 1930, commercial license in 1932, and was awarded her Instructor Rating in 1933, the first female instructor in the British Empire. Thompson was the first Australian woman to fly England–Australia, led Girl Guides and, at the outbreak of war, became an ambulance driver with the Australian Womens’ Army Service.
The Library’s collection includes Thompson’s diaries, log books, correspondence, newspaper cuttings, citations, certificates, invitations, air schedules, aircraft manuals, pilot's certificates and licences, passports, aircraft account cards, flight maps, radio scripts and other papers, medals, a slide rule, a photograph of Thompson beside her aircraft, and her pilot’s cap and goggles.
Nancy Bird-Walton (1915–2009)
Nancy Bird lacked the financial backing others enjoyed. She lived with her father, helping him in his store in the Manning River district, NSW. Here, she followed the stories of Bert Hinkler and his pursuit of flying closely from a young age. In 1928 Bird had her first joy-flight, and henceforth saved the one pound she’d earn each week for flying school while studying Frank Swoffer’s Learning to Fly by night.
Bird’s chance meeting with Charles Kingsford Smith led her to her first lesson with him in 1933 when she was 17. From then onward—‘I would fly with anyone who was game enough to give me instruction,’ she says. From her teens, Nancy operated an air ambulance service to the outback. A trapped grazier was shocked to see the 150cm tall young lady jump out of a cockpit in a dress, his response led to the title of her autobiography My God! It’s a Woman. When reading Nancy’s biography, I found she consistently sang the praises of other pilots.
The Library’s collection relating to Nancy’s aviation career is extensive, and she remained a friend of the Library until her death in 2009. The collection includes photographs (1935-1990), manuscripts, two commemorative stamp sets entitled ‘Centenary of Wright Brothers...1903-2003', letter from Australian-born astronaut Andrew Thomas, portrait of Nancy specially printed for her 90th birthday, together with short typed speech by Nancy (December 2005). We also have an autographed copy of her autobiography My God! It's a Woman.
Nancy’s headway inspired future generations, including Gaby Kennard who was the first Australian woman to circumnavigate the globe in 1989, following as closely as possible, Amelia Earhart’s route. She did this in 99 days, earning her the Harmon Trophy. Gaby used this fame to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor's Service.
These women are made of the same gumption; champions of courageous conviction, determination and adventure.