Tribute to Nancy-Bird Walton
Published on 1st October 2008

About a hundred years ago something special happened in Australia. In a nation of just four million people, at the far end of the world, Australia produced a generation of global aviation pioneers.

Qantas is the heir to their extraordinary legacy.

Qantas is very proud to be naming our A380 fleet after our aviation legends. Among them will be Charles Kingsford Smith, Reg Ansett, Hudson Fysh, Bert Hinkler and David Warren, who invented the Black Box Flight Recorder.

And on September 30 2008, in a very special ceremony, we named our first A380 after Nancy-Bird Walton – an inspiring Australian who overcame the same challenges as her peers, while overcoming the sexism of her times.

Nancy-Bird Walton’s story is remarkable in its own right, and for the way Nancy’s life interweaves with the origins and legends of Australian aviation.

Nancy was born in 1915 and grew up in Sydney and Mount George, near Taree. In those days a woman’s horizons were kept shamefully low, her options narrowed by law and by custom.

So imagine the daring of slip of a girl in 1933, a mere 17 years old, walking that last mile to get to Mascot to take her first flying lesson. Back in those days Mascot was little more than a paddock. At that time a safe airstrip was defined in the negative – whether it was free from potholes!

Nancy was so tiny she needed a cushion under her to reach the controls. Her Dad wasn’t too impressed. But his vivacious, courageous daughter wanted to fly and nothing was going to stop her. And as Nancy has said, she really DID learn to fly by the seat of her pants.

Nancy was taught by the world’s greatest aviator Charles Kingsford Smith.

Throughout his career Smithy pioneered more long distance routes than any other aviator in history, including the Pacific route between the United States and Australia. One of the routes that the A380 will fly.

Smithy’s star pupil graduated in 1935, and so began a series of firsts – for women and aviation.

Nancy’s friends and family helped her buy a Gypsy Moth with which she promptly started her own passenger airline.

She barnstormed her way around the country, taking paying passengers for joy-rides – she once carried 101 people in a single day around Wagga.

Nancy’s generous spirit was evident in her strong support for the few other women in aviation at that time. Right from the beginning she recruited Peggy McKillop to be her co-pilot. This grand – and unusual – pair were known as Big Bird and Little Bird.

In 1935, Nancy was invited to operate an air ambulance service in outback New South Wales, the Far West Children’s Health Scheme.

While there had been female aviators before, this was the first time a woman had taken up a job in commercial aviation in Australia. This was a major achievement.

Nancy based herself in Bourke for a time and then Cunnamulla. She even spent time in Charleville. Where, of course, in another brush with history, she came across the boys from Qantas. Our company had been in business for fifteen years and had recently changed its name to Qantas Empire Airways to reflect its growing international focus.

Nancy’s job was to transport desperately ill children and nervous nurses to and from remote sheep and cattle stations. It was lonely, hot, isolated and dangerous work and it required great courage. In that era of early navigation, Nancy found her way following fences and creeks and clay-pans and even, once, the stench of a dead horse, to her destination.

Yet Nancy always found beauty in the rugged Australian landscape. And she not only had an impeccable safety record, she liked to fly in dainty frocks. No wonder a client once shouted: My God, it’s a woman!

In 1936, at the age of 21, Nancy won the Ladies Trophy in the Brisbane-Adelaide Air Race. It was yet another piece of aviation history- in the same race Reg Ansett won the prize money of 500 pounds – and that’s how Ansett got started.

In 1938, Nancy needed a change and, accepting a job opportunity, she headed to Europe. When Nancy came back to Australia the war was on. She married and started a family, but still volunteered to head up the Women’s Air Training Corps.

And in 1950 Nancy founded the Australian Women Pilots Association. With its stirring motto, Skies Unlimited, the Association today has around 550 members ranging from 16 to 90 years old, and offers mentoring and support, including a range of scholarships for Nancy’s successors.

In 1958, after a long break, Nancy triumphantly came back to flying. She was the first foreign woman to compete in the All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race America – and came fifth.

Since then Nancy has been a tireless campaigner for women in aviation and for charity. Nancy received the Order of the British Empire in 1966 and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990.

Nancy’s courage, resilience and optimism represents the very best of Australia. Her story tells us of the rich aviation legacy this nation enjoys and which Qantas still draws upon to this day.

Qantas was absolutely delighted that Nancy agreed to have this first A380 named in her honour.

Nancy opened our skies – showing us the potential for talented Australian women, the beauty of our country, the extraordinary influence that one bright individual can exert – and most of all, the sheer joy of flying.

And with the wonderful aircraft Qantas is doing nothing less than bringing the Nancy Bird Walton spirit of joy back to flying.

© The Official News Room of Qantas Airways Limited ABN 16 009 661 901