Nancy-Bird Walton (1915-2009)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Royal Australian Historical Society will highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our new webpage, Women’s History Month.

Born in Kew, NSW, in 1915, Nancy-Bird Walton stayed true to her name as a pioneering female pilot in Australia from the time she received her commercial licence at age 19 until her death in 2009. Learning to fly during 1930s Australia when a female pilot was still called an “aviatrix”, Nancy defied convention and expectation to become both the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence, and the first woman in the Commonwealth to obtain a licence allowing her to carry passengers. [1]

Nancy Bird in Gipsy Moth at Kingsford Smith Flying School, 1933 [Image courtesy State Library of New South Wales, PXE 787]

Nancy’s career in aviation began with fairs and race meetings along with her co-pilot Peggy McKillop, until she was hired by Reverend Stanley Drummond as part of the Far West Children’s Health Scheme to fly nurses around the outback. This important work brought much-needed aid and support to mothers and children around the country, and forever etched her name into history as the “Angel of the Outback”. [2]

During the Second World War, Nancy played a vital role in recruiting and training women for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) which, though they did not see combat, operated as integral ground and support staff for the Royal Australian Air Force. As she was married to Englishman Charles Walton, Nancy could not join the WAAF, but remained Commandant of the Women’s Air Training Corps for the duration of the war. [3]

In 1950, Nancy founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA). She became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1966, and an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990. [4] Declared a National Living Treasure in 1997 and inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001, perhaps Nancy’s most remarkable career achievement was the fact that she was never involved in an accident, despite the many risks early aviation posed. Unlike many of her contemporaries, notably American female pilot Amelia Earhart, Nancy lived to hand in her licence in 2006 at an astonishing 90 years of age. [5] Upon her death three years later, her ashes were scattered from Tiger Moths over the Luskintyre Aviation Flying Museum Airfield. [6]

With construction underway on the new Badgerys Creek airport to be named after Nancy-Bird Walton, it remains more important than ever to reflect upon her achievements as one of Australia’s most skilful, daring, and ambitious women in our history. Far from letting traditional gender roles govern her life, Nancy carved out a new path for women everywhere to tread – and to fly. The title of her 1990 autobiography reflects the shock generated by her career choice at the time, but today also serves as a reminder of the barriers broken down by Nancy’s inspiring and unapologetic life: “My God! It’s a Woman”.

References:

[1] Malcolm Brown and Harriet Vietch, ‘Walton, Nancy-Bird (1915-2009)’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2009, <http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/walton-nancy-bird-16918>.
[2] ‘Nancy Bird-Walton’, Australian Biography,<http://australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/birdwalton/bio.html>, accessed 5 March 2019.
[3] Brown and Vietch, ‘Walton, Nancy-Bird’.
[4] Clare Land, ‘Walton, Nancy Bird’, The Australian Women’s Register, last modified 21 November 2018, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0124b.htm>, accessed 5 March 2019.
[5] Brown and Vietch, ‘Walton, Nancy-Bird’.
[6] ‘Western Sydney Airport to be named after Nancy-Bird Walton’, Australian Aviation, 4 March 2019, <http://australianaviation.com.au/2019/03/western-sydney-airport-to-be-named-after-nancy-bird-walton/>.

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