Nancy-Bird Walton in a Gipsy Moth at Kingsford-Smith Flying School (1933)
16 October 1915
Kew, New South Wales, Australia
13 January 2009 (aged 93)|
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
|Known for||Youngest woman pilot to gain a Commercial Pilot's Licence in the British Empire|
|Flight license||27 September 1933|
Officer of the Order of Australia (1990)|
Officer of the Order of the British Empire (1966)
Centenary Medal (2001)
In the 1930s, defying the traditional role of females of her time, she became a fully qualified pilot at the age of 19 to become the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot's licence.
Born in Kew, New South Wales, Australia on 16 October 1915 as Nancy Bird, she wanted to fly almost as soon as she could walk. As a teenager during the Depression in Australia, Nancy Bird found herself in the same position as many other children of the time, leaving school at 13 to assist her family. In 1933, at the age of 18, her passion drove her to take flying lessons. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who was the first man to fly across the mid-Pacific, had just opened a pilots' school near Sydney, and she was among his first pupils. Most women who learned to fly, did so for recreation, but Nancy planned to fly for a living.
When she was awarded a commercial pilot's license at the age of 19, through a legacy of 200 pounds from a great aunt plus money loaned from her father (which she paid back), Nancy bought her first aircraft, a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. Soon after Nancy Bird and her friend Peggy McKillop took off on a barnstorming tour, dropping in on country fairs and giving joyrides to people who had never seen an aircraft before, let alone a female pilot. Whilst touring, Bird met Reverend Stanley Drummond. He wanted her to help set up a flying medical service in outback New South Wales. In 1935, she was hired to operate the service, named the Royal Far West Children's Health Scheme. Bird's own Gipsy Moth was used as an air ambulance. She bought a better-equipped aircraft, and began covering territory not yet reached by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. She told others that it was rewarding but lonely work.
In 1936, Nancy Bird entered an air race from Adelaide to Brisbane, and won the Ladies' Trophy. In 1938 she decided to have a long break from flying. A Dutch airline company (KLM) invited her to do some promotional work in Europe, where she stayed for a couple of years. She returned to Australia soon after World War II broke out. She began training women in skills needed to back up the men flying in the Royal Australian Air Force. She was 24 when she married an Englishman, Charles Walton, and had two children. He preferred to call her "Nancy-Bird" rather than "Nancy", and she became generally known as "Nancy-Bird Walton". In 1950, she founded the Australian Women Pilots' Association (AWPA), where she remained president for five years. Nancy-Bird Walton became Patron of the AWPA in 1983 following the death of Lady Casey, the original Patron. In 1958, she decided to return to flying after a twenty-year absence.
Throughout her life Walton was notable for her support of charities and people in need. This generous spirit saw her invested as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1966. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990. She was the starting block for generations of female pilots. She was never involved in an accident, despite the risks of early aviation.
The first Airbus A380 (VH-OQA) delivered to Australian airline Qantas was named in her honour. Her name on the A380 was originally written "Nancy Bird Walton", but Qantas respected her preference for the hyphenation that her late husband used ("Nancy-Bird"), and the hyphen was added before the aircraft's naming, shortly after she was aboard the ceremonial flight above Sydney. This aircraft was operating flight QF32 when it suffered a serious uncontained engine failure after takeoff from Singapore in 2010; coincidentally, Walton wrote the first officer's reference when he first joined Qantas as a pilot.
One of her last main interviews was for the feature-length documentary film Flying Sheilas which provided an insight into her life along with seven other Australian female pilots.
On 10 September 2008, shortly before her death, Walton conducted a 45-minute interview for the one-hour documentary.
On 13 January 2009, Nancy-Bird Walton died at the age of 93.
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