Wednesday, April 27, 2016

W is for Nancy Bird Walton - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Nancy Bird Walton (1915-2009)
Nancy Bird Walton was born in the timber town of Kew, New South Wales (Australia) in 1915 as one of six children. At 13 she left private school (not her favorite pastime) to work in her father's store. Her biggest passion in life and ambition was to fly someday. She remembered as a kid standing on the fence or climbing a tree, and waving her arms, pretending to be an airplane---an "eppyplane." 

Nancy  understood full well if she was ever going to fly, she would need to save every penny she could. The global depression had spread to Australia and money was tight. Working hard in her father's country store, she could only squeeze out 30 shillings a week, but a flight lesson would cost two pounds an hour and to solo, another 30 shillings.
She already knew how terrific it was to fly. She had paid to go up in a gorgeous blue and yellow Gipsy Moth with a barnstormer pilot when an airshow came to town. She even paid the pilot an extra pound to do aerobatics. 

"From then on, learning to fly was the ruling passion of my life," Nancy later said. 

One by one, Nancy checked off the items needed to fly: a book on flying, a helmet and goggles, and a leather jacket for sitting in the open cockpit of the plane. On August 11, 1933, she was ready for her first lesson and eagerly walked a mile to meet with her instructor, a pioneer aviator she deeply admired, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who was famous for crossing the Pacific from America to Australia in 1928. 

At five feet tall, Nancy had to sit on cushions to reach the controls, and preferred wearing dresses. "Because everyone thought I would look like a grease monkey and be masculine," she once explained. "I went the opposite way and I wore the most unsuitable clothes - floral dresses, mostly hand-me-downs from my sister." Although in some photos, she did indeed where pants (knickers), and as practical, wore shorts in the Australian summer heat, which raised a few eyebrows. 
Nancy with her instructor Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
Kingsford Smith did not take her seriously at first, but Nancy proved to be a skilled pilot and earned his respect. After satisfying the 25-hour solo flight time requirement to carry passengers, Nancy obtained an advanced license. The commercial license was more of a challenge. It required 100 hours of solo flying. She had to pass flying tests and written examinations in Navigation, Engines, Air Frames and Meteorology, which meant applying math skills (something she'd neglected in school)

She struggled for months to complete the course, working overtime to understand confusing aviation terminology and procedures, like angles of incidence, thrust, drag, camshafts and tappet clearances. She learned about cloud formations, studied velocity and speed, and practiced how to maintain an aircraft engine. Two years later (1935) at 19, she became the first woman to earn a commercial pilot's license. Bursting with pride of accomplishment, she received a nice letter of congratulations from the controller of Civil Aviation, who then informed her she would not find work in commercial aviation as a woman. 

Her only recourse was to seek charter work as a self-employed pilot. Nancy's father Edward Bird, who initially had been against her flying, talked the family's great-aunt Annie into paying Nancy her inheritance early. He added to amount so Nancy could buy a plane. Overjoyed, Nancy found a downed De Havilland Gipsy Moth that had been damaged in a crash and had the plane rebuilt. 

Nancy in the Gipsy Moth.
Needing a way to pay back the mechanics for the plane's repairs, Nancy orchestrated a barnstorming tour of the countryside with another female pilot. Money would come from those willing to take joy rides in their planes. Local papers and radio stations helped publicize the events and the crowds arrived. Nancy discovered she was quite good at talking people into risking their lives in her plane, with a woman no doubt! But then the Gipsy Moth developed serious engine problems and the tour ended.

Tom Perry, a wealthy philanthropist interested in aviation, liked Nancy and noticed her easy manner talking with people in the crowd. He suggested a larger plane would bring in charter business and offered to help her buy a new Leopard Moth on credit, a plane that in addition to the pilot's seat had a cabin with two passenger seats. After worrying about how she would ever make payments, she accepted his offer, a decision that would change her life for the next four years. 
Nancy with her new Leopard Moth
It really started with the tragic death of her instructor Kingsford Smith in 1935 when his plane disappeared at sea. Deeply saddened by the loss, Nancy left Sydney and moved to Dubbo, where she hoped to drum up business in her Leopard Moth. It was there she met Reverend Stanley Drummond, a Methodist minister who had started the Far West Children's Health Scheme, a medical service that treated children in Australia's remote outback. He convinced Nancy to join the team. 

Children suffering from trachoma (a disease that caused blindness) and malnutrition (among the aboriginals) were among the conditions the medical team treated. Nancy's job was to transport nurses and their equipment to remote locations and patients to clinics as needed. Some areas had not yet been reached by the royal flying Doctor Service. She also helped a nurse set up a clinic, using both a car and her plane.  Over a four year period the medical service and Nancy's air ambulance saved hundreds of lives.  

Flying over the outback was lonely business and could be dangerous, she later told people. For long stretches of land, only tough mulga trees grew below, which could easily damage a small plane if forced to land. Nancy experienced nature's worst---violent rains, flooding, dust storms, dehydration in summer, flying insects, and airsickness, to name a few.

"It was rewarding but lonely work," she said.
In 1938, she left flying, sold her plane, and did some promotional work in Europe and Java for a Dutch airline company. With the outbreak of World War II, and while traveling home by ship, she happened to meet Charles Walton, the love of her life. She was 24. They married shortly after and raised two children together. Nancy took up flying again after a twenty-year break and was an active spokesperson for flying and aviation for the remainder of her long life. 

--1936--Ladies' Trophy for air race, Adelaide to Brisbane
--WWII--set up training courses for women pilots as backup for men in air force
--1950--founded Australian Women Pilots Association
--1958--competed in U.S. Powder Puff Derby, first woman from overseas
--1990--published book: My God! It's a Woman
--1997--declared 'Australian Living Treasure' by National Trust of Australia

--2008--Qantas A380 is named after her



  1. What an amazing lady! I could not go up in those contraptions:) I think she must have saved so many and that was when she was so very young. Her family must be proud of her.

    1. Proud indeed. I'd like to read more about her experiences in the outback. It's what I found most fascinating. Also some of the sources were wrong; they confused the Gipsy Moth with the Leopard Moth. Guess I need to read her book!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.