Australian Biography: Nancy Bird-Walton
A fully qualified pilot by the age of 19, Nancy Bird - Walton (b.1915, Kew, NSW) went from being the youngest commercial licensed woman pilot in the British Commonwealth to becoming Australia's "First Lady of aviation" in the 1970s. She became known as "Angel of the Outback" for her work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and received an OBE in 1966. In 1977 she became a Dame of St John (Knights of Malta). She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 27, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
I was born in a little country town thirty miles north of Taree. It's so tiny you'd shoot through it in a motor car without realising it was there, but it's a little town where my father had bought a country stall and my sister and I were the first two children of what later became a family of six children. We moved a mile away to Kendall, named after the famous poet, within a year or two and that's what I remember most - a beautiful part of Australia. I don't think we realised, as children, what a beautiful part it was. But I was born with the aid of a midwife. There were no doctors: thirty miles away and sulky drive for the doctor. I was nearly lost but this wonderful woman Mrs. Ritchie was a person that went through storm and tempest, flooded rivers, flooded creeks, to help the women in that district to deliver their children. And she saved my life.
Yes that's true. Yes it was indeed. The women were completely dependent upon her to deliver their children. Born in my mother's bed in a little tiny house.
No, no, no. We left there when I was about oh I'd say five or six, because we moved to Collaroy and that's where I first went to school so I must have been five or six. I went to a little school called the Collaroy Private School run by two old maids, who taught us how to be little ladies and we had a house which now is in the midst of Collaroy, but it was in the back streets of Collaroy that my father had built himself, which was called 'Tarenaki' because my mother had been born in New Zealand.
No, we looked out to the sea when he built another house, on the hill overlooking Long Reef and out to the Pacific Ocean that was when I got that feeling of the distant view, and the most vivid memory of my childhood is of an aeroplane making a forced landing on Dee Why beach. Even today I can see that aeroplane on Dee Why beach. It was an old wartime First World War aeroplane and it seemed to have a magnetic attracting for me. Every morning mother used to count the black swans on Dee Why lagoon, sometimes there were eighty and ninety of them.
I'd say about eight.
Well there was always ... I don't think whether I thought about flying then, but there was a magnetic attraction in that aeroplane. There was like a straight line between me and that aeroplane and I remember when I went to school in Manly, to Brighton College, one day an aeroplane was doing sky writing above the school and that to me too is a most vivid memory and it was like a magnetic line between me and the aeroplane. And I was doing ... I was going into a sewing lesson, the bell went, everybody else went in - I stood watching that aeroplane. I got into trouble because I was a bit late getting into school and to continue with the dirty pillowslip I was making.
Well I don't know. I once thought I might be a nurse and wrapped a tea towel around my head and sat ... sat studying a book on all the things a nurse should know. But it was ... when I was in the country ... You see I left school really early, the Depression hit Australia and my father bought a country stall and I was taken out of school early to manage the household for my father, such as it was, and to be the housekeeper, bookeeper and look after my father and my uncle. My mother stayed in the city for the education of my brothers and sisters and so I, aged fourteen, was standing on my own two feet quite firmly in the country. I left school just before I was fourteen.
Yes, my elder sister was the student. She liked school and was a good student. I was the practical one who liked to help in the house and do all the things to help mother and ... and I didn't like school very much either. And so I was asked and stayed away because mother needed help. We couldn't afford hired help and mother really just needed an extra pair of hands. With five little children it's quite understandable.
Only when I liked the teachers! [Laughs] I was really rather perhaps a little bit of a rebel at school and I remember once with my maths teacher I'd get very low marks and then we got a teacher I liked and I got ninety-eight per cent for that teacher, so I obviously responded to ... to a person.
No we didn't think so at the time. I was used to doing things. At the age of eight, I had given a fete outside of the fence for the Collaroy Children's Hospital. I was a very practical sort of person. No, no I didn't mind. It wasn't hard at all it was very primitive. We had no electricity. Oil lamps that had to be cleaned every morning. We had a fuel stove. We had great big bathtub that was put in front of the fire every Saturday night to have a bath. We carried water in four gallon kerosene tins to the laundry. I did the laundry. I did have an old black lady to come in to help and to scrub the kitchen floor sometimes, but I wasn't above doing it myself. I just did everything that was expected of me. In fact I liked to be able to say I have served potatoes at my father's country stall and I have been a guest at Buckingham Palace. So if you can ... can do those things and not lose your head - it's a jolly good idea. It keeps your feet on the ground.
No children helped those parents in those days. All the dairy farmers around that area had children who helped. You know they started in the dairy at five and six in the morning before they went to school. That's what happened in those days and in the Depression people didn't asked whether they were trained to do a job or not. They did it. Everybody helped they had to. People lived on the river bank and their children walked to school and helped in every possible way. Children went to school early. You'd see a bullock team driving along the road and probably the twelve-year-old son walking behind his father looking after the rear part of the team. People did things, people grew vegetables in their own garden so that they could ... Well of course there were no shops in, that they could buy them in that district anyhow, and this was up in the Manning River. By that time my father had moved there so children pulled their weight in the family.
Yes it was. Yes, my father used to send horse teams right up into the mountains to buy gold and rabbit skins and people had streamed out of the city during the Depression to search for gold, to live on rabbits and golden syrup up in the mountains, trying to scratch a living out of the soil. And he would go up there with his horse team, up to places like Cooplacaraba, which you now see in brochures as been a wonderful place to go to as a rest ... rest cure, to get out of the city, but in those days of course there was no way of crossing the rivers except by horse team. There were no cars up there. Very, very few cars. You could count on one hand the number of cars in the entire district. That was a great luxury anybody who owned a car. We had a cream truck, my father sent the cream truck up to collect the cream for the Wingham butter factory and then he rode ... [INTERRUPTION]
Oh absolutely. Yes, he would ride a horse way up into the mountains to Cooplacaraba station and collect orders and then he would send his horse team - four horses. And incidentally that horse team was driven by a First World War pilot, who had been grounded because he had buzzed a sulky somewhere and there had been an accident and he'd been grounded for it and in the Depression he had taken this job with my father. He used to terrify the locals. He'd race the horses down the mountains with the brakes off, and swim the flooded rivers with the horses, but he was the man who taught Ulm to fly. And after Kingsford-Smith flew the Pacific, in 1928, they must have given him a present because he bought an aeroplane and went back into flying and went barnstorming around the country like so many of the First World War pilots did, and he was killed in a motor car.
No I didn't know him very well. I went there just after he left but I heard he had flown back to that district and landed in the paddocks opposite my father's country store.
Yes it was a glamorous story about Bill Wilson and how he had come back to the district in his aeroplane. He inspired quite a few people I think, including a man who became a great trainer of pilots in the last war years, George Campbell, who stationed himself at Mudgee after the war and was highly regarded in aviation circles as being one of the great instructors of the war years and post-war years. But Mt. George was a beautiful country town, with the Manning River running through it, orange trees growing along the river. We swam in the river, swinging ourselves out on the weeping willows and jumping into the river. It was a good life but we worked hard. We got up early in the morning. My father was a workaholic and expected everybody else to be. You started at six or seven o'clock in the morning with a cold wash from the tank. You'd tap the tank to see how much water was in it. That was very important and started work, and at the end of the day, well when I got the dinner at night it was too late to get out in that beautiful sunshine and I think in my heart, when I was doing the books and I'd look out that little window, this is probably [when] I felt with flying I could get out in the open air. And when I was thirteen, I went into Wingham on the cream truck, rattling cans behind me and went to an air pageant, and that's where I first got the desire to fly.
At the air pageant yes. I went up for a flight, a ten shilling flight and then I gave a whole week's wages two dollars - one pound - and asked the pilot if he'd do some aerobatics with me and he did some aerobatics and that became the ruling passion of my life. I then bought a book on flying. I studied and everybody laughed at me of course. My father said he wouldn't mind if I learnt to fly, but of course that was about three years before I started learning to fly. He felt differently about it later on.
Well first of all he said couldn't afford to keep a crippled daughter . Then it would kill my mother if anything happened to me and of course aeroplanes did crash a bit in those days. You know I was one of six. Surely you could take a chance on one! And also I'd become a bit indispensable to him as a book keeper and a house keeper.
I just told him that I had saved up 200 pounds. Finally I had 200 pounds. Kingsford-Smith had come barnstorming around the country too, and I met him at Wingham giving flights, and I went up with Pat Hall, his chief instructor, talked with Kingsford-Smith and he told me he was opening a flying school and I said that I would come down to the city and become one of his pupils, and I think that I was one of his very first, if not his first pupil, when he opened that flying school in August 1933 at Mascot. And Dad wasn't at all pleased. He wasn't at all pleased that I was leaving him, but my elder sister, and my younger sister, also later went up there and as I say 'did time' at Mt. George.
No because it was just after the Depression, or just coming out of the Depression and the flying schools had had such a bad time that they would willingly teach anybody to fly who had enough money to pay for lessons. And so, both the aero-club and the flying school were very keen to get pupils. Women did fly. They flew for pleasure, they flew as a sport and they were ... but everybody who flew, with the exception of one woman pilot - an engineer pilot, May Bradford - and myself, was of independent means and they flew for the pleasure of it.
Well I got some insurance too, when I was sixteen. My father had bought insurance policies for all of us and that helped considerably too. And I went without everything that young girls like. You know, I'd throw material on the floor and cut out a pattern myself. I knew very little about sewing but I would make up a dress or something for myself, and I was economical. We were very economical in those days and I'd do without things.
That's true. I was coming down to live with mother and go out to Mascot and learn to fly. After all I'd told Kingsford-Smith I would do it. I would be joining him so I had to keep my word, didn't I? [Laughs]
Well she accepted it. I think that's one of the advantages of being a member of a big family, you can do things a little independently that you can't do if you're an only child, you're too precious, and I'd made up my mind and mother ... mother was interested but she didn't try to stop me. My parents didn't try to stop me and that's why I'm grateful to them - very grateful, because I know many people who would have liked to learn to fly in 1933, but their parents wouldn't allow them to.
Well, perhaps, perhaps I would say if there is a job to do, get in and do it. Don't say it isn't my job and don't avoid ... avoid doing things that have to be done. If the potatoes have got to be peeled, then get in and peel them. If the napkins have to go out on the line go and put them out. If there is something to do, do it - not just hang around waiting for somebody else to do it. I think that that's probably what I learnt and I learnt that because I was one of a family.
Well I just rang up and made the appointment with Charles Kingsford-Smith. I took the tram out to Mascot, walked from the station after the post office, about a mile, to the aerodrome and had my first lesson with Charles Kingsford-Smith on the 11 August, 1933.
Well there was his engineers: Tommy Petherbridge, who died with Charles Kingsford-Smith. Bruce Cowan, who was a just a boy, an apprentice, a little boy who used to sweep the hangars out, and Charles Kingsford-Smith his secretary Marg McGrath, and also Marg McGrath and John Stanage, his manager ... John Stanage, who was married to Kingford-Smith's niece. That's all.
Well, they just came and went. There weren't any other pupils at that time. Jack Kingsford-Smith was learning to fly, I think, as the guest of his uncle. I don't think he was a paying guest and paying pupil. Another woman came out and started learning to fly but she couldn't learn to fly. They just couldn't teach her. She was a nurse. Then others: some civilian Airforce pilots, people that belonged to the Civil Airforce. There was a boy by the name of Peter Bjelke-Petersen and Bill Perton, a delightful young man, and I later fell in love with [him] and [laugh] a ... you just ... an old First World War pilot, Harold Durant, who had flown in the First World War. A man, who owned his own aircraft from Mr. Massey and Mr. Born and there were people like that, that would just come out to do an hour or so's flying and Jim Broadbent, a famous pilot. He kept his aeroplane there and often asked me to fly with him and just people who came out and took lessons. A man by the name of Chapman, who later learnt to fly with the Southern Cross, and became a Flight Superintendent of one of the airlines. I think it was then [the] Australian National Airlines.
Well I started on the 11 August, 1933, and I had my 'A' license on 28 September, 1933.
Well I flew in the mornings and I flew in the afternoons. When you get to Mascot from Manly you might as well stay there for the day. It would take you the rest of the day to get home. So I used to go off and Kingsford-Smith would pick me up at the Manly Wharf, or John Stanage, and they'd go ... I'd go out with them.
Sometimes Charles Kingsford-Smith would pick me up from the Manly Wharf when he was in Sydney and of course he had this beautiful silver Armstrong Siddeley and of course all of the people that came off the boat would look and say, 'Oh Charles Kingsford-Smith ...'. After all he'd already flown the Pacific, circumnavigated the World, crossed the Tasman and he was famous. Very famous. In fact, sometimes when we drove in from Mascot and we drove alongside the tram, people and the tram guard would turn around and shake hands with him, and people in the tram would all sort of stand up and look out at Charles Kingsford-Smith in his open topped Armstrong Siddeley, you know. That was quite a sensation so I felt very important then in such company. But when I drove with John Stanage in his third hand Chev jalopy, nobody took any notice at all. But I very seldom had to walk back to the tram. I used to stay there while I tried to learn what I could about aviation. You see there was no syllabus in those days. You learned what you could by talking with people, by looking at maps asking them how you plotted a course and so on. There was no syllabus. There was no training like there is today, and for the 'A' license test all we did was go up to 1500 feet, cut the motor of the aircraft and come in a series of gliding turns. See we had no brakes so you had to come over the fence as low as you possibly could to get in and sit down on the paddock that was called Mascot. [There was] no runways or anything like that; no radio or anything of that sort, and then we did a series of figures of '8' over the windsock and the building that was the aero-club and that was part of the test too. You know you ... People say it must have been hard then. I think it was a lot easier than it is now. Now there is a lot of air legislation to learn and a lot of study to do.
It was a Gipsy Moth and prior to that a Cirrus Moth: a Gipsy or a Cirrus Moth. That's the grandmother of the Tiger Moth. Everybody knows about the Tiger Moth but it was the Gipsy Moth in those days. It was the aeroplane prior to the development of the Tiger Moth that all our boys learnt to fly in, in the Second World War. But if the Gipsy Moth would ring a bell with you when Chichester named his yacht 'Gipsy Moth'.
Well, it was an ambition and it was a dedication to aviation. We were all very defensive about aviation in those days. People didn't want to fly. People who flew were daredevils or people who took risks and aviation hadn't been accepted as a means of transport in Australia then. Kingsford-Smith was trying desperately to introduce flying as means of transport. He'd started his airline in 1929 and they went broke when the Southern Cloud disappeared and wasn't found for twenty-nine years. And then other companies started up, but they all went broke. People weren't ready to fly and we were very defensive about aviation. Whenever there was an accident it was always the pilot's fault, never the aeroplanes. And you know we ... we were just so dedicated to aviation.
No I didn't feel it was love, but I just ... you know we were just so determined to continue, to make it a success to fly and to keep flying. I know that when we arrived at Mascot every morning we'd look around the perimeter of the aerodrome to see who'd spun in on the 'S' turns and often there was somebody on the edge of the airfield in the Chinese Gardens with the tail in the air, or one day there was Sergeant Brown, who built a beautiful Moth to fly in England-Australian 1934 air race, and he'd had engine failure on takeoff and gone straight into Cooks River. He was killed of course instantly but ... One day it was Dr. Lee Brown in the first Tiger Moth to come into Australia and you know you could feel it as you got near the airport there'd been an accident, so we all rushed round to Kiama, where he'd crashed the Tiger Moth, and I remember seeing the blood all over the cockpit. But they'd rushed him off to hospital and of course, he didn't survive either. But he and his wife, Ainslee Brown, had been the first people I'd ever gone out to Mascot with.
No, No. It never had that effect on us at all. Never had that effect at all. And when the press wanted to take pictures of crashed aeroplanes, we all ganged up on them. But the very same people, you know, wanted the support of the press when they wanted to do any long distance flying, like Charles Kingsford-Smith or Jean Batten or anybody else, who did those long distance flights. They needed the help of the press and the oil companies, who were the real pioneers of aviation in Australia. They were the people who supported Charles Kingsford-Smith and Ulm and so on.
The oil companies and the newspapers. The newspapers for the stories. The oil companies always helped those people too.
They were more far-sighted than any government I can assure you: the Vacuum and the Shell Oil Company and Castrol by way of Lord Wakefield you know sponsored many flights. They all were the people who pioneered aviation. There is a string of petrol tins all through Australia where the service of aviation ... great service was given to aviation by the oil companies.
I suppose what I'm wanting to understand is what it was about aviation that got this dedication and loyalty, rather than a sense that it really was very dangerous. I mean, what was it about it that was so attractive?
I just don't know. I just don't know. [INTERRUPTION]
I can't put my finger on it. I just don't know. I grew up in the 1920s. My teenage was through the 1920s, when aviation was developing. The pilots of the First World War came back. They brought aviation to Australia, and even before that, we had a history in aviation going back to Hargreaves, and so on, lifting himself off the cliffs of Stanmore Park before the turn of the Century. So we were trying to fly and there was something we just believed in: aviation. We just believed in flight and it was possible. It had been proved possible during the War by the Wright Brothers in 1903, and for some reason or other, I was just enthused by those people. But perhaps ... perhaps Amy Johnson's flight in Australia in 1930 ... I can remember being a bit jealous of her. In fact I was very envious of her flying from England to Australia. Then she was followed by the German Aviatrix, Ellie Beinhorn. I had already had my first trial instructional flight when I went to hear her speak in 1932, and saw her little aeroplane that she'd flown all the way from Germany in and I just thought she was the most marvellous person I'd ever seen. My ambition was to be like Ellie - to be as attractive, as feminine, to be able to fly an aeroplane. Now she's one of my best friends so it's really rather wonderful how the wheel turns. And then Jean Batten of course. I was already flying when Jean Batten flew to Australia and she, I think, was the greatest aviatrix of the early pioneer days. Of all the aviatrix of the world I think she was the greatest because she did everything in a single engine, low horse powered aeroplane, a ninety horse powered Gipsy Moth. Twice she started out from England and crashed, then she achieved it, and the whole of Australia was thrilled to pieces, and then she got 200 horse power Percival Gull, flew the Atlantic and flew from England to New Zealand and the record stood for forty-four years. So I was inspired by those people, but all the records had been broken. There seemed no future in aviation for long distance flying, even if I could have got the sponsorship for it, so I decided to go barnstorming in my Gipsy Moth, which my father and my great-aunt had put up the money for me to buy. It was a rat-trap aeroplane that had been rebuilt from a crash, but I started out on a barnstorming tour because there was nothing else you could do in flying. There was no other way you could have a job, and that was the first time a woman had thought of barnstorming. The boys from the First World War ... The men from the First World War, and the boys who had learnt to fly because they'd had nothing else to do in the Depression, said there was nothing in it, but I was prepared to give it a shot because what else could I do? I had nothing. I had nothing to lose once I had an aeroplane. At least I could try flying from town to town following the shows and the race meetings and gaining experience and making enough to fly on to the next place.
Well, I don't think I ever made any money, but I probably ended up with my original capital. But I had a co-pilot, because that was essential because with a Gipsy Moth you've got to have somebody to swing the propeller and somebody to sell the tickets and get the person into the aeroplane without them putting their foot through the wing because you know that it is only a fabric wing and has a piece of board on it, and they had to put their foot in the right place, and you had to convince them to go for a flight to start with.
Oh yes, yes. I had received my commercial license in, I think, it was April, 1935 and immediately planned this barnstorming tour. I went to the Shell Company. We got out a map of New South Wales. I got a list from Country Life newspaper of all the shows and race meetings and where they were: Tamworth, Inverell, Moree, and planned that I would land in the nearest paddock and hope that I would get some paying passengers. Now I had to have a co-pilot because you can't stop the engine of a Gipsy Moth every time you've got a passenger to put in, so I looked around to see if any other woman would come with me and I found a wonderful co-pilot in Peggy McKillop. She'd been flying for two years longer than I had but she was doing the same commercial license exam and I asked her, and of course Peggy would fly with anyone to get some free flying so she was delighted. I told her I'd give her ten per cent of the takings and she said, 'You don't have to worry about that. I just like to fly for free'. She was very wealthy. She had a private income of five pounds a month, but she had another great advantage that I didn't realise at the time: she'd gone to Rose Bay Convent from the age of six.
Well I had to go to the aero-club to do blind flying, because Kingsford-Smith didn't have the hood that they put over the Moth and that's when George Littlejohn started giving me some lessons, and of course he was the man who perished with Ulm when they tried to cross the Pacific again. But I wanted to learn ... I had to learn navigation. I had to go to the aero-club to learn more about engineering and night flying, and Peggy McKillop and I were the first two women to ever fly by night. We had to do half an hours flying over Sydney by night solo. But the navigation ... The boys went to Captain Ballen, a marine navigator, but I couldn't afford the lessons so I asked P.G. Taylor at the aero-club one day if he would teach me something about navigation. Of course I couldn't have picked a better person. He was the greatest aerial navigator of the time - absolutely wonderful. It was P.G. Taylor who navigated Charles Kingsford-Smith across the Tasman to New Zealand on the second and third trips. It was P.G. Taylor who climbed out on the wing ... on the strut and took oil from one dead engine and transferred it to the other engine, which literally saved the lives of Charles Kingsford-Smith, and the Southern Cross limped back to Mascot and he did that six times - not once, six times behind the slipstream of that great motor that Smithy held it in the air with, because he had to cut back the other motor. It was the most courageous thing that had ever been done. And then he navigated ... he pioneered the Indian Ocean just after the war. [He was] the first man to fly from Australia to Africa via Clipperton Island ... no not Clipperton Island ... Cocos Islands and Mauritius and then he pioneered the South Pacific Ocean: Australia to Chile in the flying boat. So he was a very, very great man. Next to Charles Kingsford-Smith I think he was the greatest aviator we've had.
Oh a fantastic navigation teacher, and of course, he navigated Charles Kingsford-Smith across the Pacific in the single engine Lockheed Altair, in 1934, and that was a fantastic flight because they wouldn't allow them to fly that aeroplane in the England-Australia air race until it was too late to get to England and start back again. So they turned round and flew the Pacific in that single engine aircraft and that was P.G. Smithy had the utmost faith in him as a navigator, so I was very very lucky, I couldn't have had a better teacher. But of course, in those days we only mostly had road maps. In fact they were road maps that I mostly flew on and you just draw a line between A and B measure off every twenty or forty miles and made check points of towns or railways or mountains, or whatever it might be. But of course, west of Bourke there was so few roads I just had the little map they gave you at the garage.
Yes and a matter of fact I got congratulations from the Department of Civil Aviation. They thought my ... my examination was better than my flying. [Laughs]
Oh Yes, Peggy McKillop, the girl I asked to be my co-pilot and she agreed to not only become my co-pilot, I offered her ten per cent of the takings when I organised the barnstorming tour but she was perfectly happy to fly for the free flying. She was dedicated to aviation, loved aviation and became my co-pilot. I offered her ten per cent of the takings, which was very little.
Well I think it's the American word when the people barnstormed around America: politicians going to speak around the country. The only place that was big enough for them to hold a meeting was in the barn, especially in the winter time. It was a heated barn that was the place that they could gather. That's where I think the word comes from.
Landing as close as I could to a race meeting or a show, in the nearest paddock, hoping that some enthusiastic people would come over and go for a flight - pay for a flight, a ten shilling flight.
Well not too badly. We were paid enough to keep the aeroplane in repair and to pay for our petrol and oil, to pay for our accommodation. But I probably ended up with no more than my original 400 pounds that was the price of the aeroplane. Then I went into debt and bought another aeroplane, which was the one that I finally went out west in.
It was very ... It was wonderful of him, I agree. Because 200 pounds was a lot of money in those days and my great aunt had been going to leave me 200 pounds in her will and she said she would match it. I think they were a bit proud of the fact that, you know, that I had sort of got my license and had become a little bit news worthy as a young person who'd learnt to fly and intended to keep flying. We're all very dedicated.
A Leopard Moth, which was the aristocrat of the light aeroplanes, a beautiful aeroplane made by DeHavillands that was a cabin aeroplane. Two people sat behind, one in front and it was heaven. It had real leather seats, a beautiful smell of real leather, and a shiny finish to it. It was a beautiful aeroplane. It cost 1800 pounds and I went into debt to buy it, and every hour I ever flew the jolly thing I was paying it off.
No. No. It was while I was barnstorming that I met Stanley Drummond of the Far West Children's Health Scheme who asked me to go to Bourke to fly his baby clinics service way out beyond the rail head of Bourke, out to those little homes, where boundary riders, bore headed keepers and people who looked after the border fence, and lived with their little families in stony ridges and often in corrugated iron places, who were bringing up their children there, on what Stanley Drummond said was black tea and salt meat. Well I've been talking to some of them out there recently and they said if they lived on a station they usually ate lamb, but they had the lamb or sheep - usually the scraggy sheep. And one of the girls, who was the daughter who survived from a tragedy that had been out there when a woman with seven children had died giving birth to this little girl ... She told me they lived on calimire lamb and I said, 'What's calimire lamb or calimire sheep?' She said, 'They eat a weed, that calimire weed', and she said, 'It makes the mutton taste awful. That's what we lived on: black tea and mutton'.
Yes. The first sister I took was Sister Webb who was a army nurse in the First World War and she hated flying, and even that temperature of forty degrees, she'd wear leather gloves and the old fashioned nurse uniform out into that back country and I first took her on the trial trip in the Gipsy Moth and then I took her on a trip in the Leopard Moth, and then there was a change of arrangements with Far West Children's Health Scheme and they stationed a nurse at Bourke to fly with me, instead of travelling back and forth on the converted railway carriages.
Well it just meant that women, who lived 120 miles from Bourke, could have a doctor in an hour instead of being on the road for six hours. That if people were in doubt about the health of a child or there had been an accident the aeroplane was there, and although I was too young to realise the true significance of it people said to me in later years, 'You don't know what it meant to us knowing that there was an aeroplane in Bourke, that if there was an acute appendix or an urgent treatment was needed there was an aeroplane that could fly out to us'. But Stanley Drummond knew, the Reverend Stanley Drummond, who like John Flynn had God-given vision, he knew what he was doing when he stationed me at Bourke to provide an air ambulance service and a baby clinic service.
Oh yes, oh yes, several times.
One was a pneumonia case when I picked up a man off a station, who had been marooned for several days. His wife couldn't drive the car to go and get help, They had little children who were too young to drive or ride for help, and it was just good fortune that somebody came by on horseback and sent for the aeroplane - sent for help. And I landed in the paddock beside the ... the homestead. He always says I saved his life. In fact he later named a race horse after me. He called it Miss Bird, but I don't know that I saved his life. Maybe I helped. Then I had another case from a place near Ivanhoe ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes it certainly was, because you learnt from other people's experiences. The hangar talk, people laughed about it and said, 'Flying people get together and all they do is talk aviation'. That's perfectly true and you learn an enormous amount from other people's experiences. Even watching other people fly you say, 'Now pull back a bit. You know, get the nose up a bit, get it down', you know, and you literally fly them onto the ground if you're watching them. We used to sit in the grass and watch other people fly. We made exactly the same mistakes when we went out of course, and did it, but that's quite true and then you hear of what experienced pilots came through: near misses and all sorts of things, and that ... that was the only text book we had.
Well that was when I got the Leopard Moth and I remember when I took off for Bourke in that, beforehand the Major Murray Jones had put ballast in it to teach me how to fly, and then I took off for the West and as I approached the mountains I suddenly felt very very lonely, and I look back and all I could see was the tail of the aeroplane. And, yes, it was quite lonely from a flying point of view out west, because there were no other flying people around and so everything I did there was nobody to discuss things with. I wish there had been, but when I went up Charleville I would sometimes be lucky enough to be there when the DeHavilland 86 came in from Singapore - the first Qantas flights and then I would see the Captain and the First Officer and talk with them and that was wonderful. They'll never never know how much it meant to me to see those people from the outside world of aviation, and one of the First Officers was rather attractive too and I ... I think I had a little bit of a spot in my heart for him. He could make my day just by saying, 'Hello'. [Laughs]
Yes twenty-one year old. There would be something wrong with you if you weren't attracted to the opposite sex in those years ... in those years, wouldn't there? All young people, I think, fall in and out of love.
No, I wasn't with them for three years. I was out with them for only about nine months all together. Then I moved into Queensland when the Government no longer paid that additional subsidy to them. And then I moved into Queensland and I worked in a voluntary capacity for the Queensland Bush Children's Health Scheme. I tried very hard to get the Queensland Government to establish the same sort of thing in Charleville, but they were not interested. Many years later ... many years later, they had a flying doctor service there and all those facilities. I was before my time.
Yes, in Darwin, Dr. Clive Fenton flew a Gipsy Moth and flew into the inland to help people and a real flying doctor because he not only flew the aeroplane, he was a doctor. Then the Flying Doctor Service started in Cloncurry and Charleville, and they operated there, and the Victorians subsidised a flying doctor service at Wyndham but they were the only ones in Australia, with the exception of the Bush Church Aid at Ceduna in South Australia. They had an aeroplane and gave a medical service too. But there was nothing in that great area of the inland that I was in. In 1937, the Royal ... as it is now, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was established at Broken Hill, but that was still 300 odd miles away from where I was, and of course, it was doing a completely different job. It was a medical service to the people in the inland, where I was a baby clinic service and an air ambulance in an emergency. [INTERRUPTION]
Well there was a man by the name of Jim Russell, who had contracted pneumonia, way out on an outstation somewhere. His wife couldn't drive the car. The children were too small to go for help and it was only because a boundary rider came through that they discovered his plight and rushed back to the nearest telephone, which was quite some distance away and called the air ambulance. Spoke to the doctor in Wilcannia, and he called the air ambulance and then I landed in the clay-pan and took Mr. Russell into the Wilcannia Hospital. And I don't think his wife ever expected to see him again, you know. It was a terrible wrench for her to have her husband taken away by a little girl in an aeroplane, but when I had delivered him to Wilcannia I flew back over the station and dipped over the station to show her that he had been delivered safely. He always says I saved his life, but of course I don't think I did, but he named a horse after me. He was a very keen racing man. He called it Miss Bird.
Well I used to play tennis a little bit. I made friends with a few of the people about my own age. I was pretty busy looking after my aeroplane. It was probably the cleanest aeroplane ever because it was constantly washed down. I took a great pride in it. I did a lot of writing. I wrote letters to people trying to get the Department of Civil Aviation to select aerodromes, and things of that sort. I was a copious writer of letters, but I was reasonably lonely. I suppose I went to bed early and living at the hotel, which was very unusual for a girl in those days, and some people wondered whether I was quite respectable ... Living in a hotel with all these nice commercial travellers coming in, talking to me in the writing room, and things of that sort. In fact one person was very, very nasty. He really doubted my reputation and said so to a group of men, one of whom threatened to knock him down. And I heard about it. Do you know what I did? I went straight to the Sergeant of Police and told him what I had heard, what had been said. He said, 'Little Miss Bird, don't you worry about it, you just leave it to me'. I never heard another word. I can't imagine why I had the sense to do that at twenty-one. You know, instead of being upset and trying to deny that ... that ... prove that I was a respectable person. I just went to the Sergeant of Police. Good thing to do, wasn't it?
I was very practical yes. He was a nasty man. He was just a big, fat, bouncy man who had no right to tarnish a girl's reputation. But I do know that the Country Life correspondent, who was a woman I knew quite well said, 'You know, some of the women say 'Do you think she's respectable?'' Another thing, there were always these jealousies. You see I was flying men on sheep deals and people, who were stuck in Bourke and didn't like it - oh, you know, would be a little bit catty, especially, sort of, the creme de menthe, cake eating, bridge playing women who didn't ... couldn't get out of Bourke. Their husbands were in jobs there and I had very beautiful hair. I was completely unaware of it. It was a mop of red hair. It was the bane of my existence because when I was young my old mother's friends had to see my hair and I'd be out playing and know I had to come in while they admired my wretched hair, you see. And this woman said, 'You know, she goes to Bourke, Dubbo, 200 miles away, every week to have her hair done'. God, I couldn't have afforded to buy a newspaper, let alone have my hair done. I was paying off an aeroplane. [Laughs] But I did strike some troubles like that - some little irritating jealousies from people, but generally speaking I had ... I had good friends there. People who ... people who ... There was one person particularly, Nancy Skinner, and her mother. They were always very nice to me, and a man who was very involved in the Far West, he and his wife - they were very pleasant too. But I don't know. I found things to do obviously. My aeroplane was my companion.
During this whole period when you were flying around the far west and then in Queensland, were you given nothing but encouragement in relation to your flying, or were you sometimes discouraged from what you were doing?
Well, you see, the weather was everything there, then we came into another drought and that sort of reduced the amount of flying too. It was something that you did. There was no set pattern. It just depended on whether somebody wanted to inspect a mob of sheep, or somebody wanted to race to Brisbane because somebody was dying, or to catch the train at Dubbo because they had to get to Sydney overnight, or an ambulance case, or somebody had to get out in a hurry and there was no other means of transport. There was no set pattern to it. It was just something that happened overnight. [INTERRUPTION]
So there was ... Unlike when I was at Bourke ... Why I didn't go down to Bourke and do the regular work as well, I don't know. It would have meant flying 200 miles for free but, you know, when you're twenty-one you haven't got much business ability, and I didn't have anybody to advise me. Mrs. Davis, who ran the hotel at Cunnamulla and who made me her guest ... she ... Perhaps I should have talked it over with her. But John Flynn came through. You know Flynn of the Inland, the great man of the Flying Doctor Service and he said, 'You've got to leave this. It's killing you. You're a woman. You can't go on doing this, it's ... it's too much for you'. P.G. Taylor came through and he said the same sort of thing, you know: 'You can't stick it out here'. And the Qantas pilots used to say, 'How that girl sticks it out there we don't know. We went up to 8,000 feet and we couldn't get out of the turbulence'. You see, in the summer time the air is very, very turbulent and it's ... it's very rough flying. Oh, dear old Boyer at the ABC once, when he wrote the forward to my first book, he said, 'It was like a bucking horse to fly in that country', and it was too and I hated that turbulence. Nowadays of course, people fly up to 10,000 feet or 12,000 feet and get out of it. But in those days we didn't and the turbulence used to get me down particularly in the summer time. And years later I learned that the DeHavilland Aircraft Company were very concerned about me flying out there because they knew the performance of the aeroplane fell off very much in that heat, but they didn't say so at the time. But a very amusing thing did happen. I was tending an early birds meeting, oh, only years ten, twenty ago and a man got into a taxi with me to come home who was one of the Queenslanders. He said, 'I was in charge of the Department of Civil Aviation when you were out there'. And I said, 'Well, Mr. Shaw, how was it that you didn't restrict me in any way because', I said, 'I could never meet the regulations. I didn't have a safety certificate. I didn't have an engineer or anything'. He said, 'Every time the shire engineer worked on your aeroplane he rang me up and told me what he did, and I frequently used to ring him and ask him how I was going, how things were going'. They'd been spying on me the whole time and I hadn't the faintest idea of it. Isn't it incredible, the things you learn later? But he said, 'We either had to let you do it and turn a blind eye, or we had to stop you flying'. You see you were supposed to have a safety certificate every week, an inspection, and I was too far away to comply with rules and regulations.
Do you think that kind of comment ... [INTERRUPTION] When your friends came through, Flynn and so on and said to you, 'This is too much for you as a girl', do you think they would have made that comment to a boy, or do you think he would have got encouragement?
I think they would have encouraged him actually. I don't know. John Flynn said, 'You know you are a woman ...'. I think it was old-fashioned in a way. It was kindly and gentle. I'm not sure that I wasn't perhaps a certain opposition to the work they were doing out at Birdsville, which was further out. And I can't understand why they didn't use me, except that they were very much on a very, very ... every, very economical budget and probably they couldn't afford to use an aeroplane. But the Presbyterian Church was doing marvellous work about 300 miles west of me, out at Birdsville ... Would it be 300 miles? Probably only 200 or so. But they were going all up into the Northern Territory and so on, and they could have done ... I did get a call once from Longreach. I'm not sure who it was because I couldn't do the job. I had to fly to Sydney with someone. But I believe at one stage Qantas were so short of aeroplanes they even considered using a Leopard Moth. It's in the books that have been written by the historians and I wonder if it was me. If they had thought of employing me to carry the mails onto Darwin, when they had one of the big crashes.
Yes I did. I did until I came to Sydney on that trip from Gadooga, when I bought a man in because his wife was very very ill. I landed at Gadooga. I landed beside ... a little bit out of town beside the telegraph line on a clay pan. Picked up this gentleman and flew him into Sydney. And then several days later I was to take him back. As I set out for the west, the clouds came down on the mountains and I thought, I can't get through. I'm not sure whether I could've got through if I'd gone down the Jamieson Valley and circled my way round. But everything in me revolted about going back. It was like been on a rearing horse - that aeroplane just didn't want to go back. I turned back to Sydney, landed, and burst into tears and I never wanted to fly again and I said to the pilots, 'Oh ...'. They said, 'Don't be silly. It's only a fool that pushes through when the clouds are on the mountains'. You know, 'Don't be upset by it'. But it really ... I just couldn't take it any longer. Something ... something happened. I just couldn't ... couldn't face ... face flying again and I wouldn't tell you that except that I've heard that P.G. Taylor told me it happened to him, and I've heard of several other people that it happened to. Suddenly they develop a fear, or a nervousness, and never want to fly again. We have one woman, in the Women Pilots Association now, who joined the Fear of Flying Clinic because she said when she ... She was married to an airline pilot. She said suddenly, when she was in an aircraft, she felt as if she wanted to scream. She just couldn't get out of that aeroplane quick enough, and yet she did the Fear of Flying course with us and now she is learning to fly, has got her license and is continuing.
No I never had a crash, never damaged an aeroplane, and just as well, because in those days aeroplanes weren't insured, or at least I certainly couldn't afford to insure mine.
No of course I wasn't. Actually I was insured. I was insured because I had been guaranteed by a gentleman, who was the president of the Narromine Aero Club, at the Banks of Australasia in Narromine. That's how I had raised the money to fly and this old gentleman, Mr. Perry, had guaranteed me so he had an insurance policy on my life. [INTERRUPTION] And the only thing that... And the thing I realise about that, it wouldn't have been much good to him unless I'd killed myself you see. [Laughs] Actually he was a very great patron of aviation. He did insure and finance May Bradford, a woman engineer, a real battler, and he insured her life when he lent her the money to buy an aeroplane, and she crashed and was killed with three other women on a take off at Mascot.
Because I think I'd got rusty. [With] the lack of association with other flying people I'd become a very rigid pilot. I was a very safe pilot but I was too safe. I didn't get the best out of an aeroplane. Flying safely all the time, I'd become very rusty and [with] the responsibility of the aircraft, the heat and the weather of the inland, the isolation, [and] the loneliness, I think that that probably caused it. I couldn't afford a holiday. I'd never had a holiday. I was paying off an aircraft every hour I flew and I think that that was probably responsible for it.
I probably was a bit worn out. Yes. If I had left my aeroplane in the hands of somebody else, I'd have probably been running an airline today, and had a holiday. But I had an invitation from the Dutch airlines to go overseas and I knew that I'd never be able to afford to go overseas myself so that was very attractive too, and I wanted to take that up if I could, but it wasn't the reason that I cracked. I say I cracked, you know, and one day I heard somebody say, you know, 'Hear ... We'll hear about the woman pilot who had a breakdown while she was flying'. I thought, oh, how awful. I thought golly, they're talking about me! [Laughs] But I don't think it was a breakdown but I would say it was controlled cracking.
It was a crisis, yes.
I felt ashamed that I couldn't get through. You see in those days we didn't go up higher over the clouds, because we didn't have a weather report at the other end, and we kept under the clouds. Now, just when there is that much to try and get through, you try and get through, which today they wouldn't do. But in mine, so long as I could see the railway line, or the top of the clouds, I would try to get through. And whether I'd have made it or not I don't know. Nowadays I've driven over those mountains and I see how the mists and things come up behind Katoomba and the highest peak, and maybe I wouldn't have got through. I wouldn't have been the first person to crash in those mountains either. A few pilots have met their fate there by just doing that. So, of course, the pilots supported me, but somehow I felt in my heart that I didn't want to get through, that I might have turned back because I wanted to turn back.
Yes well we had memorials in the aero-club to the people who hadn't gone through, like Neil Stewart and his wife, who had been killed in the Jamieson Valley. You know, you knew about these people. You knew how they'd tried to get through so that thought was always in your mind. As I say, that was the conversation amongst people you know, in the flying world, you know, 'He was a fool. He tried to get through and the weather was bad and of course he had hit the mountain', and things of that sort, and so we'd talk about those things, so they were things that would probably influence one.
Well you'd known all this before, but then, of course, you'd had a couple of people telling you that being a pilot out there wasn't a suitable life for a woman, so perhaps a crisis of a loss of confidence wasn't so surprising given that it had been put into your head that perhaps it was all a bit much for you. Do you think that could have influenced you?
I don't know, I'm not quite sure. I'm not sure. I didn't analyse the reason. I just, you know ... just felt awfully ashamed that I hadn't been able to take that man back to the country and ashamed of myself for breaking down and feeling I couldn't fly again. I didn't even want to fly again in a Link Trainer, and that never leaves the ground, so you know that really was a crisis.
Oh he took the train. He took the train the next day.
Yes, the Dutch East Indies Airline, which had been wanting to extend to Australia. [INTERRUPTION]
The Dutch East Indies airline ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes. The Dutch East Indies Airline had been wanting to extend to Australia since 1931. They were flying to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and they wanted to come on to Australia and the Australian Government wouldn't allow it. And in 1934, December 1934, the Imperial Airways and Qantas extended the service to Australia. Well then they allowed the Dutch to come in and they asked various people to make the flights. I wasn't one of the important people. I went away on the third flight, but the head of the Dutch shipping company invited me to make that flight to Batavia and then go on to Amsterdam with KLM, and that to me was the opportunity of a lifetime. I would never, never have had enough money to make that flight myself. So I sold my aircraft got back the 400 pounds that I started with and that's what I went away overseas with: a total of 400 pounds, and I was just so well received by the Dutch airlines, who introduced me to all the other airlines of Europe, and I studied Civil Aviation, and collected an exhibition, which I brought back to Australia.
An exhibition of all the things that were been done overseas that we knew nothing about: all the airlines like Swiss Airline, Air France, Scandinavian Airlines. I flew to Russia with the Swedes and I was the first person to fly from Moscow to London in a day via Sweden.
As a passenger. No other airline flew into Moscow except the Swedes did it twice a week and the Russians did it to Stockholm, twice a week, and I went on one of those flights. They got a bit of a scare when I went too, because it was just after Lindbergh had been there, and he'd gone back to Germany and said some nasty things about them. And so they ... the Swedes had to guarantee that I was all right because they were scared about another flying person coming in. But they were all marvellous to me. I really went to Sweden to study aerial ambulance work, and I flew to the North of Sweden, landed on a frozen lake with a Swedish pilot, and saw how they operated in the winter time - their medical services. The Red Cross did it.
Yes. The only way I could repay KLM was by writing back to Australia letters of what I was doing. And that wonderful woman, Connie Robinson, who is the editoress of the women's section of the Sydney Morning Herald used to print everything that I wrote. She was absolutely marvellous to me, and those days, women never got off the women's pages of course. You never appeared anywhere else in the newspaper, but everybody read it anyhow, and the Dutch were delighted, and so they did more and more for me and introduced me to Lufthansa and Swiss Air and all the other airlines. In Germany I flew on maiden flights of some of the big new aeroplanes they were building and ...
Well I don't think so. But in Holland I was asked to attend a press conference. I'd never known what a press conference was, and they were very sceptical. The public relations man was very sceptical because several women had been invited over to Holland and I think he thought I was one of those girls. But I was a very naive little girl from the back country. I sat round surrounded by these journalists, all with their pens and papers, and the Executive Director of KLM questioned me. Well whatever I said must have been right, because that sceptical PR man was standing behind me, and I won him over completely. They couldn't do enough for me. I owe a tremendous amount to the Dutch. They were the people who really helped me and quite frankly they were running the best airline in the world anyhow.
Well then I went to England and then I went to Germany. I went to England. I flew into France, to the air show the Paris Aviation Exhibition, which of course is the great thing for all flying people, and that was when they were showing the first of Heinkels and the Messerschmidts and the Spitfire, but of course I didn't know their significance. I didn't know anything about politics. I had wonderful friends in Germany and they obviously didn't think I was any security risk, because I was invited to the Junkers factory and all sorts of places like that. Ellie Beinhorn, the German aviatrix, who'd flown here in 1932 introduced me to people, so I wasn't a tourist there. I was just a person who enjoyed meeting the well known aviation people of Germany. And of course, Germany in those days, was doing things with aviation. Of course, we all now know why, but I didn't know why and they were so enthusiastic about aviation, where the rest ... other countries of the world were not. England was not much interested in aviation. And you know all these people who were enthusiastic sportsman-pilots appreciated the fact that they'd built a Messerschmidt 108, a lovely aeroplane, a retractable under carriage. I flew to Berlin from Paris with it, with Ellie Beinhorn. But of course it was the ... [INTERRUPTION]
I flew with Ellie Beinhorn from from Berlin to Paris in it, and of course it was forerunner for the 109, which was the fighter. I was invited to the Haus Ter Fliegen, which was the old legislative assembly, the most beautiful aero-club and I was invited by the Americans to a big celebration with the German-American association when Hannah Reich was made the first woman officer in Luftwaffe, and I sat next to the American Consul. Hannah was next and then the Louis P. Lockner, the great American writer, who was the President of the club. Ellie Beinhorn and a German explorer and that's the day I fell in love with an American from the Embassy. [Laughs] Another little happiness in my life.
Well for the month I was there. I shed a few tears when I took off for ... for Sweden, but it was a very happy occasion.
Well, I stood on the side of the street once with an American War Correspondent and she said, 'You know Nancy, this means war'. I didn't now anything about politics at all. You used to see all these marching Nazis and the salute you know, and their dedication to their country, but it didn't ... didn't ... it didn't mean war to me. I went to Germany after Munich. I wasn't afraid of it in any way. I didn't understand it sufficiently obviously. When you're out at Bourke and you can't afford to buy a newspaper you don't know much about what's going on in the world. Because the radio is always in the bar, because they are listening to the races, and I didn't have a radio. We didn't have transistors in those days.
Very fortunate. I was in Russia in May, 1939.
In July of 1939.
Well, I'd no sooner got back here than I was asked to join the flying club, which had been formed a year earlier and which was training girls in aviation-related subjects and offering scholarships, but as soon as the war broke out we went on to a war footing and trained and recruited women to serve in a women's auxiliary air force, should one be formed. And in the meantime we were doing everything we could to help the Air Force. We were the recruiting centre. The girls ... Petrol rationing was introduced, so the girls got dad's car and drove Air Force officers all over the country. They helped in the area of finance. Girls who worked in offices all day long came to 221 George Street, where we had rooms lent to us free and trained in air subject. So eventually, when the WAAF was formed, all the senior officers with the exception of myself, went into the WAAF and then the Government stopped recruiting. They didn't want the women in the war services. They said we were playing at soldiers. They definitely didn't want it. You see the unions were dead against women being used in any of the occupations that the men were doing in the Air Force, because they were frightened they'd stay on after the war and do the men out of jobs. And there is a book that has just come out, which shows the terrible arguments that went on to try and keep the women out of the services in the early war years.
Ours was a voluntary, yes, and we did voluntary work and we were doing that. We proved how much help they could be. After all they only had two cars at area headquarters. So when they wanted to send somebody to Narromine or to Temora, or somebody somewhere they, these girls would get dad's car and sometimes they even paid for the petrol and drove the officers to those destinations.
Well they finally started a Women's Auxiliary Australian Airforce, but that wasn't until considerably later. And once they started it, they took in all the senior officers, with the exception of myself, and they didn't take me in because I was married. I'd married and they didn't take in married women to begin with and also too, my husband was in the Reserved Occupation. If I could have stayed in Sydney I could have been there but the Director insisted that I be in Melbourne, so I had to choose between breaking up my marriage or staying as a volunteer, and I became the Commandant of the Women's Air Training Corps. But you see, women were ... There were a lot of women who were in that, who were man powered. They were in jobs that they weren't allowed to leave and the only way that they could do voluntary work, in their weekends or for the Airforce, was by doing things out of their office hours.
I met him on a ship coming from America. I was three weeks on the Monterey coming to Australia.
That was my way home from America. I went to America after England and there I met all the international women pilots in New York and they literally carried me across America, or arranged for me to come across America, and I met my husband on the ship. In fact I was sat ... They put me between the Chief Purser and my husband to control my exuberance, they said. [Laughs]
I affected him apparently, yes. I ... I fell in love again, you know.
It was a ship board romance that lasted fifty-one and a half years.
Yes it was. I was very, very happy. I had a wonderful trip. We danced every night to American music and we went ashore at New Zealand and, yes, it was a very happy time.
No, no, not until my daughter was born in 1935. [corrects herself] My daughter was born in 1945 and my son in 1946.
No. I went to every State. I went to every State and ... and saw the women pilots. First I went to every State and saw the Women's Air Training Corps. We had started out with the Countess of Bective, Lady Bective, as our chief and when she went back to England, I became the chief and then after I left, Dame Mabel Brooks of Melbourne became the Head of the Women's Air Training Corp.
Oh the war couldn't have been a full out without them. No that was proved and of course the English Air Marshall, who came out here, realised that, but he had a terrible battle with the Government and the Civil Aviation Department and the Unions to get them to use the women, but of course in the end they did everything to release men for active duty. You know, all the ground work, the cipher work, the clerical work - all those things were done by women. They had 25,000 in the WAAF alone. Then of course the Army took in women. Then the Navy started the RANS and then Lorna Burns started the land army, so the women were used a great deal. We couldn't have had successful operation without them.
There was no flying in Australia for women pilots. [INTERRUPTION]
There was no flying in Australia for women pilots, because we always had more pilots than aeroplanes. We had very few aeroplanes at the beginning of the war years. We even put bombs on the wings of Tiger Moths. That's how badly off we were for aeroplanes and we had flying boats trying to evade Zeros and things like that. It was just criminal, our lack of defence. The people think women flew here during the war, but no women flew here during the war. No woman flew the Pacific or the Atlantic, with the exception of Jacqueline Cochrane of America, who flew in the Canadian Air Transport Auxiliary in Canada, who demanded to be taken as a co-pilot. They wouldn't allow her to do the takeoff or the landing, but she was a friend of Lord Beaverbrooks and she got herself onboard, and she went across the Atlantic on a delivery flight. But she was the only woman allowed to ever fly the Atlantic. Two women, highly skilled women, Betty Gillies and Nancy Love - two very experienced women pilots - had a Flying Fortress on the runway at Goose Bay and fifteen minutes before their takeoff, General Arnold stopped the flight.
Simply because they were women. Simply because they were women.
Well, we don't ... we don't know the reason. We suspect certain reasons. He was in London at the time, when he heard it was taking place and he telephoned immediately, and the controller on Goose Bay put on his overcoat, [and] went out onto the runway to stop the flight. They were devastated because they were very competent women. Maybe they didn't want the American women to go into the war zone and England was a war zone. That's the nicest thing I can say about it.
No, not necessarily, only if they were needed. They were needed in England and they did a marvellous job. Pauline Gower, who was one of my friends there, was the head of the Air Transport Auxiliary and we had one Australian girl Mardi Gethering, Sir Herbert Gep's daughter from Melbourne, was over there and she flew 800 hours in Spitfires. The women did a marvellous job of delivering aircraft. In fact the Chief Pilot, the Test Pilot of the Spitfire, told me that at the end of the war every aeroplane that was picked up at the factory was picked up by a woman pilot. So they did a marvellous job and they also did a marvellous job in America. But you see they were churning out aeroplanes, one after another, coming out of the factory. They had to move them and they didn't have the pilots to move them, so they used the women. But we weren't an aircraft producing country until quite late in the war, and by that time we had enough men returned from active duty to do all the ferrying or removal of aircraft that were necessary - the ferrying from place to place and so on.
I took out my license again in the 1950s.
Well I started flying with Maie Casey, when her husband was the Foreign Minister, and when he was abroad often I would go to Melbourne and do some flying with her, or I'd formed the Australian Women Pilots in 1950, and I was the Penguin President - you know, the non-flying president - so I decided to start flying again and I started flying on a student's license and I flew as a co-pilot with her to the meeting in Brisbane and to Adelaide, and so on. And then in 1958 I decided I would fly in the Powder Puff Derby in America. I'd been invited to come over and fly in it, but I didn't have an aeroplane and we were only allowed a small amount of money to go overseas with: in those days 700 pounds, I think it was. [INTERRUPTION]
So I tried to get a job as a co-pilot, but nobody wanted me as a co-pilot. And then I thought, opportunity knocks once at every man's door. If I am going to fly in this race, forget everything else, hire an aircraft, get a co-pilot and fly in the race yourself. So I did. I got a little 172. My wonderful friends in America checked me out on it. I flew solo in it. I'd never flown in an aeroplane with radio in it. I never flown in an aeroplane with a tricycle undercarriage. It was a completely new world.
Oh yes, yes. And so ... Then they recommended a co-pilot for me and there again, I was exceedingly fortunate. One of the best ferry pilots of the war years became my co-pilot and we placed sixth ... fifth in a field of sixty-one starters. But you know, I give the full credit to the American because you know you can't compete with those girls, they were fantastic. You know, they'd been flying the length and breadth of America during the war years and they ... they knew it like the back of their hands. But of course, they can't understand you in America when you talk on the radio. It's ... You know that line from My Fair Lady: 'There even were places where English completely disappears in America. They haven't used it for years'. [Laughs]
Oh, I was quite at home. I was quite at home. It was quite a sensation to take off Lindbergh Field, you know, with the great jets and everything, because you share all the airfields there you know. The ... the private pilot has as much rights as the astronaut in America. There is no ... You go out to Bankstown. The private pilots aren't allowed to land at Mascot and that sort of thing. No, in America the customer is right. The taxpayer is right. And going off Lindbergh Field was quite a sensation and then I went over to Montgomery Field and flew off that field, which has become a big airfield now, but it was very little then. Later, when I flew in another Powder Puff Derby in 1961, I soloed out in the Mojave Desert, and that was quite an experience too, because I was flying a much faster aircraft than I'd ever flown before and the corners came up very quickly.
No. No. [INTERRUPTION]
No, but I don't think I ever regained my confidence as well. I've mostly flown as a co-pilot ever since. I've done a few solos, but mostly as a co-pilot, and of course it has changed so, with all the avionics and electronics and the radio and things of that sort, that I'm not very familiar with, so I feel that I would be a bit of menace in the air if I ... unless I did it regularly and if I had the time and lived in the country I probably would fly, but it's not much fun in the city when you have to take an hour-and-a-half to get to the airfield to do half-an-hour or an hours flying. And I have many friends, who fly, that if I want to go somewhere it's just a matter of calling up someone and saying, 'Would you like to fly me to Mudgee', or the airline is going everywhere and, of course, I have a son who flies and I have two grandchildren who have gone solo but couldn't afford to go any further.
I don't know. I never asked them. But you know all children dislike their mothers to be any different to any other mother, you know, and you have to be very very careful as a mother who is, perhaps, maybe a picture in the newspaper. And I remember Lady Casey having this trouble. I remember Lady Wakehurst having this trouble, and I once said to Lady Wakehurst, 'How is your daughter?' she said, 'You know, she says she's not going to do anything until her children are grown up because she knows how she has suffered'. You know and yet every privilege those kids had was because their mother and father ... Their father was the Governor of New South Wales. Thank goodness young Prince Charles doesn't behave like that. [INTERRUPTION]
When you first went to Europe you described how naive you were about politics, and how you really didn't know anything at all about the world of politics, but later that changed didn't it, and you became quite active in political circles for a while.
Yes. During the war years I used to go to the Economics Society with some people who have become very distinguished like Nugget Coombs, Leslie Melville, Sir John ... all these people who surrounded Menzies and so on. Bill Wentworth and so on. And my husband was very interested in politics and I became interested in politics as a result of my association with these people, who were often guests in our house. And also, the Liberal Party found that if they took a woman along to a meeting often women would come to the meeting too, and their husbands would come to be there with them and so they got better meetings, so I took a very great interest in politics and spoke for various politicians. Then I got the idea that I'd like to go into the Legislative Council because I wanted to bring women into politics. I wanted to open the doors. Now I don't think I had any brains for the job, but believe me, I would have used everybody else's because there are specialists in all those fields. You don't have to have your brains yourself and I think women are humble enough to ask people, ask the specialists, what ... what are the right things to do and I used to hear these wonderful talks from these various very clever men. Anyhow, the first time I had no hope of getting in. I was flying the flag. We didn't have enough votes. Mrs. Press went in for the Labor Party. The second time they chose a woman from Bankstown, who said, 'How awful it was to be a Liberal in Bankstown', and she was chosen. The third time they wanted to put in somebody from Newcastle because that's a very important district. But they didn't put somebody in from Newcastle. They put in a woman who was Vice President of the Liberal Party and she went in unopposed. But if I had defeated her in a ballot, I don't think I could have looked at my face in the mirror because she really worked hard for the party and she didn't have children. She was freer than I was and, frankly, my intention was to open the gates to women and get women interested in politics. After the war when they tried to extend the wartime controls of petrol rationing, of nationalising the airlines, nationalising the banks and so on, that's when I got interested in politics. We formed a Women's ... a Women's Movement Against Socialism and we educated women all over the country, rallied women all over the country, to be interested in politics, and to not vote blindly as their husbands told them to, that it was a secret ballot and they could go in and vote as they liked. [Laughs] And I can tell you I felt very guilty, when I first voted differently to my husband.
Yes, I did and it was for the Senate. The President of the CWA had stood for the Senate. She wasn't the first on the ticket, but I made her the first on the ticket because I thought she was pretty good.
Well he supported it. Very much indeed, he supported me but my husband was a quiet Englishman and I don't think that he would have liked me coming home at midnight from Parliament. He liked me to be home when he came home for dinner.
I've always had a finger in some pie ... [INTERRUPTION]
... ever since I had that fateful Collaroy Children's Hospital and raised two pounds at the age of eight. I think I've always been organising something. I didn't realise it you know, but Lyndall Littlejohn, the great feminist, said to me in London, 'You just get yourself organised. You have organising ability. Now write down what you've done and when you go to see people leave that behind with them', and I owe a great deal to Lyndall Littlejohn.
Yes, well I was involved in the Heart Campaign and the Air Ambulance and well authorship was really just writing down the few facts of the things that happened out west. I didn't keep a diary unfortunately but I did write it down in a little exercise book, a few notes, and funnily enough that was found only a few years ago, after my mother's death in a garage. Some children found pictures of aeroplanes and this little threepenny note book, and a women rang up and said, 'I have Nancy Bird's diary. Do you think she wants it?' I said, 'I never wrote a diary'. But she said, 'The spelling wasn't so good. The hand writing was all right but the spelling wasn't so good'. I said, 'It must be my writing, my diary', so I went and got it and in that way I was able to recall a lot of things. But I did write a manuscript in 1936. I dictated a manuscript in 1936 and recently in Strathfield I met the girl who typed it out for me and that was the basis of Born To Fly, which I produced in 1961. But the last book I wrote, My God, It's a Woman, was because people kept saying, 'Why don't you put these things down?' when I spoke at meetings. When I spoke at functions they said, 'Why don't you put it down?' and finally I did put some of the things down. It's call an autobiography, but I assure you it isn't.
Well my mother had it, so I think I got it from her. Also I'm interested in everything. I'm interested in politics, I'm interested in the newspapers, international affairs. I'm interested in women pilots. I'm interested in people. I love people. Everybody's got a story. Everybody's got a book in them if they only knew it. And I love living but also too I have reasonably good health. I have little things go wrong but I get them fixed up and I keep going. I think keeping busy is important. Where do I get my energy? I don't know. I've also got a nasty thing called a driving force, and it's ... you say you're not going to do a thing, no you won't do it, but you end up doing it you know. So it's rather fun to see how much you can fit into a day sometimes. It might be a bit exhausting by the end of the day, but you don't feel it until you stop.
Sometimes I probably wish I didn't have to do something but not ... When I get into it, I thoroughly enjoy it.
Enthusiasm, self-discipline ... Let me think. Stop for a minute. Being prepared to do anything - not saying, 'It's not my job'. Being prepared to use your hands or your head and do something that has to be done. Getting in and doing something. Not walking past the job and saying, 'Well that's not for me'. I know I laugh at myself because once, when speaking to a school, the headmistress spoke about how they would all reach their greatest potential and so on, and when I finished my speech I said, 'You'll never reach your greatest potential if you walk past the dishwasher without emptying it or leave your costume on the bathroom floor'. [Laughs] And that I think it's as simple as that you know. People just drop their clothes and expect somebody else to pick them up and that happens in a family all the time. It's I think that ...
Doing what's in front of you. That's what it is. Doing what's in front of you.
I'm very intolerant, aren't I? I once went to see a play with that wonderful man that I met in Berlin, who is the Pastor of the American Church. He came over to London to see me. And the play was Dear Octopus with Marie Tempest, the great actress, in it. And the mother in that play always could find a job for everybody. I'm terribly like her. I'm ashamed of how like her I am. [Laughs] If I could see jobs I delegate them, or do them.
You really became known for the fact that you were doing something that not many women did at the time, and everybody was surprised that this little girl who was doing these dangerous and daring and difficult things that you did, in the early days of flight. The position of women has changed enormously since that time ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well first of all, we didn't consider it difficult, dangerous or any of those things that you said. It was just a job of work: you learnt to fly an aeroplane and you went out and did a job. I was lucky to be able to do a job. The position of women: I'm so proud of what women have achieved, so proud of what women have achieved. Executive women, women in every walk of life, that they take on in law, in flying, everything. I think it's marvellous, and I think it has made wonderful relationship between men and women. They share things now completely. They share their mental ... mental capacity. Women were not educated in the old days. In my mothers days women were not ... few women received a higher education. Now women are educated and they are able to share with their husbands or their masculine friends their intellectual development and it's wonderful to see.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So long as we don't lose our femininity; so long as we don't lose our graciousness and so long as we don't become aggressive and ... although I don't want to use the word feministic it was a ... regarded as a aggressive sort of thing at one stage. I don't think it is now. But I feel that to retain ... It's wonderful to be a woman. It's wonderful to behave like a woman and for men to treat you as a woman and I don't see why we can't retain that, as well as developing our intellectual capacity.
Yes, I think some women, when they become very high up in the executive world, forget to smile. Very few of them forget to look feminine. The thing is to be feminine.
No not always. I've always cut my cake to suit my husband and family. People may not think that but it's true. I've always put my family and my husband first. I'd have done lots more things in my life if I hadn't married or hadn't [had] a family, but I don't think that they would have been better. I might have been terrible. I might have been a terrible aggressive woman or something. [Laughs]
Probably flying an air liner or an executive in Qantas, or something of that sort. Gary Richardson, who developed the ... the Victor Aircraft, once said I have missed my calling, I should have been an executive woman in aviation. Well that's of course what I thought I was going to be when I cam back to Australia, but I fell in love instead, and married.
That's true. I belong to a different period of time.
Well ... My first dreams of flying was as a tiny child and I don't think that I would have every revealed it, if General Valerie André, the only woman General that I know of in the world, a French woman, said in her autobiography, 'As a small child I used to dream I could fly'. I used to dream I could fly. I used to dream I could lift myself up over the telegraph poles when the lions and tigers were chasing me in my childish nightmares. But I would have though it was a silly thing to say if General Valerie André hadn't said it. Then when I went to the country, when I first saw an aeroplane, it had a magnetic attraction for me. It was although there was a straight line between me and an aircraft whenever I saw one and then when I was thirteen I went for a flight. It became the ruling passion of my life after that. So I don't know what it was, but Mother said that I was jumping off a fence at the age of four without outstretched arms calling myself an 'eppyplane'. Now that was 1919, so it must have been the conversation of the adults about the England-Australia air race that was won by Ross and Keith Smith, that inspired me to ... to be an aeroplane - to climb the fence and jump off just like an aeroplane. So I don't know really where it came from, but remember my teenage years were all through the twenties, after the First World War, when aviation was coming to Australia by those persistent pilots. Like Charles Kingsford-Smith and P.G. Taylor, Hudson-Fysh and Horrie Miller, and all those great pioneers were trying to bring aviation to Australia. And their activities were in every newspaper. Every time there was a crash, every time they flew anywhere, even when I started flying it was in the news - the social news certainly, because women didn't get out of the women's pages. But it was news. So there was a great attraction to ... I was greatly attracted to it and fed by the newspapers of the feats of great people, great pioneers of aviation, and then of course, Amy Johnson, Ellie Beinhorn, Jean Batten all flew from England to Australia, and so this was further ... further inspiration to me.
Yes because in the back of one's mind was always the ... the ... the story of the Hitchcock and Anderson, when they were lost out in Central Australia, and in the country I was flying in if you had crashed an aeroplane, or had a forced landing, and had no water you could die in twenty-four hours. Even today, people who are thrown from a horse or get lost or something can perish in twenty-four hours in inland Australia. So when I first landed on Urosino Station 140 miles west of Bourke, the manager said to me, 'Do you carry water' I said, 'No'. He said, 'Well never land on this station or leave it without carrying water', and he gave me a great big thermos flask to carry water in. From then on I always carried water. I landed there one day, when a black tracker was found swimming in the sand. He was ... had no water and he had ... he'd been a very seriously affected by dehydration and this was ... They were out searching for him, and that's when the manager said to me, 'Never land on this place without water and never leave it without water'.
No I don't fear death. I feel that ... Mike Casey said, 'It's another experience', and I feel it is perhaps another experience. I would hate to have died out in the bush from thirst, or injured and not being found before it was too late. I think I would like to die amongst people, preferably in a nice comfortable bed, [laughs] but I have no fear of death. It is inevitable.
Beg your pardon?
That I don't know. I believe there is. I hope there is. But I think it's what you do here, in this life, that you can make a heaven or hell for yourself and other people. I don't think it's worth worrying too much about what's happening hereafter. I think it's important to make the best of your life now. And so that may be a irrelevant [sic] I don't know, but I haven't ... I'm not prepared to sacrifice this life for the next one.
Falling in love and marrying the man I love probably.
Yes, much better than flying.
I would say the loss - the death of my little niece. I think that would be the worse thing. Because I think when youth ... youth dies it is a tragedy. When old people die it is a triumph, they have lived a lovely long life. When young people die it is a tragedy.
Yes. I've lost two nieces quite young.
No I don't really, because when I was young I had so many people say, 'If I had my life over again I'd do this or that', and I was determined that I was never going to say, 'If I had my life over again ...', you know, so I was determined to do what I wanted to do and not have regrets, but now I realise that I would have been much better off if I had talked with Mr. Stanley Drummond more, if I had confided in him, if I had told him my feelings about various things and had somebody to talk to, somebody to advise me. You see, I was always alone. My parents knew nothing about aviation. They knew nothing about business and I didn't have anyone to refer to. If I'd had somebody who could ... a partner or somebody who could've advised me, I might have even started an airline in the west because I was the first out there, and I regret that I didn't stay longer at Bourke and talk it over with Mr. Drummond and be able to stay there and do more work for them. That's why, when I re-enacted the flying this ... last year around New South Wales, I wanted to give back to the Far West Children's Health Scheme something, because they had given me the very first job a woman had in commercial aviation in Australia.
Would I do it the same way? Oh no, I'd do it with the benefit of fifty years on my shoulders and the wisdom of fifty years of course. One would be able to do it quite differently. You know, after all, there is something that comes with the years - that experience and age can't be replaced.
Don't underestimate the value of experience of the aged, your parents, your associates, your parent's friends, people of ... experienced people - don't underestimate it. It is there for nothing. You can usually get it for free and that's something that a lot of young people don't know. They go and make mistakes that they need not make and it's very good to have somebody that you can talk things over with ... with which you can talk things over.
Of all the things you've done ... I mean there you were a pioneer of aviation at a time when there weren't too many women doing what you did, and you'd been active in so many areas of life, what do you think has been your greatest achievement?
I don't think I have any great achievements. I've survived. I'm rising seventy-seven. Yes that's my great achievement - to be a survivor and to have good health, reasonably good health, to be able to talk and that people want me to talk. That's a great achievement at my age, that's my greatest achievement that people still want me. [INTERRUPTION]
I don't think I'm famous at all. I think it's very nice that people invite me to speak at their functions, or to help them raise funds for charity by speaking at their various organisations, but I don't think I'm famous. People might ... might say these things to you, but so long as you don't believe them you keep your feet on the ground.
You saw those women the other day. They come up to you. You have eye-to-eye contact with them and they ... as you sign a book for them, each one tells you a little story about their husband, their son or their grandson, and you meet a great cross-section of people all the time and there's such a warmth that comes from that audience to you. You can feel the warmth. I can feel my audiences ... I can feel a frigid audience too, and that, I think, I'm just terribly lucky and I met a man the other day, who's in his nineties, who was commander of a Corvette, and he's been in both wars - the First and the Second and he looked at me and said, "Nancy, you are so lucky to have that interest in aviation and history'. He said, 'I hate the next day'. He said, 'You know I'm just bored to death the whole time', so I feel I'm terribly fortunate and so I just go on doing the things while I can physically do them.
Oh yes, I suppose I have been. I've had dull moments in my life, very dull and dreary moments, but you know there's always something to do if you just look around you, when you're waiting for someone or waiting for something, if you use that time, you don't get bored. Sitting and waiting is when you get bored.
There's always something to do. It might just be run off a letter of thanks to somebody. It might be while you're on the telephone to somebody, you can have a pen beside you and you can scribble a note or something. It might just be saying, 'I'm delighted to hear you're writing a book', or 'Congratulations on selling your house', or whatever it might be. There's always something that you can do. Don't waste minutes, don't waste time. But then perhaps I'm not a very restful person. But there's a book you can read. There's always something you can do.
Yes I mostly do, I mostly do.