In 1933 Nancy-Bird Walton AO OBE was aged just 19 when she became the then youngest female commercial pilot in Australia – beginning her career and a lifetime in the air. Among her many achievements, she was the founder of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association which was formed in 1950.

Portrait of a smilin woman wearing a pilot's cap and googles
Russel Roberts, Portrait of Nancy Bird Walton, c.1930, nla.obj-136210338 

Thanks to a generous donation by the Dick and Pip Smith Foundation, the National Library recently digitised the records of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. The scrapbooks in this collection make for fascinating reading and reveal the stories of many other adventurous Australian women pilots whose names might be less well-known today.

Black and white photo of 21 women of various ages smiling, standing in front of a plane. Below the image is a list of these women's names and where they're from.
[Black-and-white group photograph from the first Annual General Meeting of the Australian Women Pilots Association with list of attendees], 1951, nla.obj-3116965008 

Millicent Bryant 

In 1927, Millicent Bryant became the first woman in Australia to hold a category ‘A’ private pilot’s license. Proving it’s never too late to find new passions, she was 49 years old when she took her first solo flight. Millicent undertook her training in a De Havilland Moth biplane at the Australian Aero Club of New South Wales at Mascot.  

Unfortunately, Millicent was not able to enjoy her time in the air for long as she died later that year in the Greycliffe ferry disaster. In her honour, five aircraft from Mascot airfield flew over her funeral procession and one descended to 150 feet to drop a wreath near her grave.

Black an white photo of a woman in a pilot cap standing at the front of a plane with a man with a moustache. Below the image are two paragraphs of text about the woman's career as a pilot.
Photo of and information about Millicent Bryant from the Records of the Australian Women Pilots' Association, circa 1950-2005, nla.obj-3118840857  

Maude (Lores) Bonney MBE AM

The scrapbooks in the records of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association list many of Maude (Lores) Bonney’s achievements including her 71 day journey from Australia to England in 1933. She was the first woman to make the trip solo and detailed the adventure in her diary. A few weeks after leaving Brisbane Lores was heading towards Alor Setar (Malaysia) when she encountered a terrible storm. She wrote:  

Bad weather ahead. The weather grew steadily worse. I kept out to sea, then I was enveloped in it and I was now flying very low I was afraid of banging into the many small islands that dot the sea. I flew round and round trying to get back to land and went through terrific weather as it was lightening very badly ahead and as black as ink.

Lores circled above a nearby island a few times to determine the best place to land and decided on the beach ‘as the were too many bushes on the land’. It would be a tough landing: 

There were several bunch of buffalo on the beach, and I side slipped down between the herds and was just flattening out when I noticed the herds of buffalo walking right into the path of the plane. It was not possible to use the engine again as there was not enough room, as I landed I tried to swing a little to the left, but unfortunately the beach sloped away, as I landed the wing caught the water and swung her round, the next thing I felt a terrific bang on my forehead and my face was under water. I tried frantically to get the pin out of my harness but for several jerks it would not release, then at last it came away, fortunately I was only under water as the waves broke so that I was able to breathe between times. I scrambled out and when I looked at the machine I thought my heart would break.

With the help of some local people, Lores was able to pull her aircraft from the water. The plane was salvaged and shipped to India for repairs. She resumed her journey on 25 May and landed at Croyden, England on 21 June.  A few years later in 1937 Lores became the first person to fly from Australia to South Africa. 

Handwritten text about the career of pilot Maude (Lores) Bonney with black and white image of her in a jumpsuit with pilot goggles cut out from a newspaper
Photo of and information about Maude (Lores) Bonney from the Records of the Australian Women Pilots' Association, circa 1950-2005, nla.obj-3118841512  

Jean Burns

In 1937 Jean Burns found an unusual way to fund her dream of buying a hat shop – by making parachute jumps at air shows along the east coast of Australia! Jean was a pilot and was reportedly the first woman to make a parachute descent in Australia. In November 1937, aged only 17 and having obtained her pilot’s license earlier that year, she jumped from the DH4 plane Spirit of Melbourne at a height of 3,200 feet. Jean went on to make many more jumps up and down the east coast of Australia to fund her hat shop, a dream she achieved just before war broke out in 1939. The account in the scrapbook tells us she was ‘terrified’ before each jump, but ‘desperately wanted the hat shop’.  

Article with large photos cut from a newspaper showing a female pilot and parachute jumper. Below is a handwritten sentence about her career.
Newspaper article relating to and information about Jean Burns from the Records of the Australian Women Pilots' Association, circa 1950-2005, nla.obj-3118842166 

Find more stories 

These are just some of the aviators whose stories you can find in the Australian Women Pilots’ Association records. Some others you might also want to learn more about are Beth Garrett, the first female pilot for the Royal Flying Doctors Service, or Nancy Ellis, the first Australian woman to work as a chief flying instructor (at Dubbo Aero Club).

Let us know what you discover about these remarkable women, whose adventures are detailed in the collection.