Nancy de Low Bird Walton OBE, AO (1915 - 2009)

Born To Fly - Australia's First Female Commercial Pilot

Nancy Bird was aptly named; yearning to soar above the clouds took her around the world, fulfilling dreams that began in childhood.


The Birds were of English stock, but Nancy also had French forebears. She was christened Nancy after the capital city of the French province of Lorraine. De Low was the family name of Nancy's maternal grandmother, whose husband, a classical musician, emigrated to Australia, invested money in timber milling and lost most of it. Nancy was born in the sawmilling and timber town of Kew on the northern coast of New South Wales. At a time when aeroplanes were new and exciting, she enjoyed pretending she was an 'eppyplane'. She would climb fences and jump off them, flapping her arms as though they were wings. Nancy and her five siblings lived in what she described as an 'air conditioned house': the cracks between the weatherboards were so wide that the wind blew in and out quite freely.

Nancy Bird Walton

Her father, Edward Bird, was concerned that his children should receive a good education, so he bought a house at Manly on Sydney's North Shore, where his children lived with their mother and went to school. (Meanwhile, with his brother, he ran a bush store at Mount George and retained a financial interest in the local sawmill.) Nancy attended several private schools before finishing up at Brighton College, Manly, where the future writer Kylie Tennant was a fellow pupil. Neither Nancy nor Kylie, both spirited and highly intelligent girls, enjoyed their school days and neither were good students. They both left without matriculating. When Nancy was thirteen, she and her sister Gwen were staying with their father when they had their first plane ride at an air pageant at Wingham. The pilot did not have many passengers, and Nancy plucked up her courage and offered him extra money to perform some aerobatics especially for them. The experience thrilled her so much that she decided then and there that flying would become her career. School seemed a complete waste of time; Nancy set herself the goal of earning enough money to pay for flying lessons. That same year her parents agreed she be allowed to leave school and help her father and his brother run the general store at Mount George. They paid her one pound a week, which helped to support the family. she also acted as housekeeper for her father and uncle and lived with them above the store. since they worked a sixteen-hour day, Nancy had to do the same. She carted buckets of water from the tank in the backyard, made the beds, cleaned the house, filled kerosene lamps and did the cooking and laundry. Any remaining time was spent serving customers and on bookkeeping. Nancy worked so hard that her wages were raised to thirty shillings a week. she kept quiet about her ambition to fly and saved up for her flying lessons by going without things most girls of her age considered essential. On a visit to her mother in Sydney, Nancy slipped away and bought herself a leather coat and goggles. Her leather flying helmet had to be made to measure in an extra small size.

Charles Kingsford Smith, widely considered one of the world's greatest airmen, was about to open a flying school. In 1928 he had been the first man to fly across the Pacific Ocean and two years later he was the first aviator to circumnavigate the globe. One cool spring day in August 1933, out at the old Mascot airport, the petite, auburn-haired teenager took an aptitude test by flying with Charles Kingsford Smith himself. At that time what is now Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport at mascot was nothing but an old cow paddock with one dirt runway and a few hangars. The famous flying ace took the sixteen-year-old girl up in a Cirrus Moth fitted with dual controls to ascertain whether she had the makings of a pilot. Wearing her new flying helmet and jacket, Nancy sat in the rear cockpit. Being so small she had to sit on top of a pile of cushions to be able to see out. Kingsford Smith climbed into the front cockpit, adjusted his headphones and spoke a few words to her to make certain she could hear him before he taxied the Cirrus Moth onto the dirt runway. Nancy's excitement grew when the plane's nose came round into the wind. Then there was a pause as Smithy made the usual checks of the controls, explaining to Nancy over the intercom what their functions were.

With a roar the plane was away, axles clattering over the bumps and ridges on the runway. Nancy felt the tail lift off the ground. Kingsford Smith banked steeply, then pivoted the plane on its wingtip so that Nancy was lying on her side and looking down at the line where the earth met the sea. Her hand went instinctively to her safety straps to make certain they were buckled. She felt no fear, only elation. This was what she had been waiting to do for years. It was wonderful.

Nancy Bird Walton during World War 2

Smithy was a brilliant pilot but not a very good flying teacher. He had great difficulty explaining to voices what he was doing and why he did it. 'Kingsford Smith was just too inspired a pilot to be a good instructor,' Nancy reckoned, adding that you'd hardly expect Einstein to shine as a maths coach to a pupil learning something simple like the multiplication tables. 'Charles Kingsford Smith's flying had such beauty and precision that he simply could not understand how a novice pupil would misjudge a gliding angle or let the nose drop beneath the horizon,' she observed. She said Smithy got quite annoyed when his pupils made mistakes. At the end of Nancy's first attempt at flying he told her: 'All right. Not bad for a first try. You'll learn.' Nancy was delighted to hear smithy say this, having heard that he could make very caustic comments indeed to his pupils. His words clearly indicated that the Kingsford Smith flying School would take her on as a pupil. In the early 1930s air charter companies were being started up on a shoestring, flying flimsy aircraft with wooden struts covered with cloth, many with worn engines that would certainly not meet the requirements of the Civil Aviation Regulations today.

In her autobiography Born to Fly Nancy wrote: '...flying an aircraft isn't as easy as falling off a log. If you have normal intelligence and determination you can learn to do it - you may even do it very well indeed. but the greatest pilots of all, those whose flying is as precise as music - is Kingsford Smith's was - don't fly like that simply because they were born to it: they've also put (into it) hart, intelligence, judgment, patience and spirit.' In spite of the fact that Nancy spent all her spare time reading Frank Swoffer's textbook Learning to Fly, her father regarded her desire to become a pilot as 'only a teenage craze'. When Nancy told him she was going back to the family home at Many so that she could continue her flying lessons and would not be working for him much longer, Ted Bird was furious. 'You'll spend all your money, crash the plane and come back a cripple,' he thundered. Nancy didn't care. Of course she would spend all her money, that was why she had been saving it up. but there was no way she would come back. She had to make flying her career.

On her second flying lesson she want up with Pat Hall, the flying school's chief instructor, a quiet, patient man who (unlike Smithy) never got excited or angry no matter what the pupil did. With Hall at the dual controls Nancy acquired confidence. She learned to keep a watchful eye out for suitable landing sites at all times, just in case she got into trouble. That exciting first landing with the long glissade towards the ground through the shining air, just like a bird, was something she never forgot. On some days at Mascot Nancy might receive only twenty minutes' flying time in a dual control plane with Pat Hall; the rest of the time she would spend in the offices of the Kingsford Smith Flying School and Aviation Services making herself useful and learning as much as she could. In addition to learning about radio operation and semaphore, she was taught maintenance techniques. Tommy Pethybridge, Kingsford Smith's chief engineer, did his best to put Nancy off flying by giving her plenty of dirty jobs. He showed Nancy how to scrape black carbon off spark plugs with steel wool and wire brushers, how to grind valves, how to time a magneto and check tappet clearances. But nothing on earth would deter Nancy from her goal of making flying her career.

Nancy de Low Bird Walton OBE, AO - Australia's First Female Commercial Pilot!

Pupils of the Kingsford Smith Flying School formed a small and very keen group. They spent hours sitting on the grass outside the hangars watching other pupils make mistakes on landing and 'talking them down' even though the pupils up in the air could not hear them. Nancy's fellow trainees at the Flying School included Smith's nephew, the daring John Kingsford Smith, and Dezil Macarthur-Onslow, who flew for the fun of it. Two other female pupils were Peggy MacKillop, the blonde, vivacious daughter of a grazier, and the quieter, more serious May Bradford, who several years later was destined to die in a plane taking off from Mascot. both these young women regarded flying as an exhilarating hobby. The teenage Nancy saw flying as an escape from domestic routine and a career. Nancy described Kingsford Smith as ' of the most likeable people I have known. He had a special trick of standing on his had while drinking a glass of beer, without spilling a drop. He was an extremely kind and generous man. Women admired him and sought his company, but he was essentially a man's man. his partners, engineers and his fellow workers at Mascot felt a tremendous affection and loyalty for him.'

The flimsy planes of those days damaged very easily and their maintenance cost a great deal of money: Kingsford Smith Air Services and the Kingsford Smith Flying School were perpetually short of cash. Unlike other famous aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, James Mollison and Amy Johnson, who had newspapers acting as their major sponsors, Smithy had to pay his own way and made his record-breaking flights on a shoestring. He did receive some help from the Vacuum Oil company but he never received major backing from anyone, not even from the Australian government of the day, which would have been an enormous help to him. Unlike other female pilots, Nancy had no intention of flying as a hobby. She managed to master simple mechanics, but what caused her a great deal of difficulty was her lack of mathematics, a subject to which she had never paid the slightest attention in her schooldays. Now she realised she must study maths if she was to achieve her aim of becoming a commercial pilot.

Nancy was in her late teens by the time she was allowed to fly solo and was still sitting on cushions in order to see her surroundings. Pat Hall came up with her on that important morning and watched approvingly as she made a smooth landing beside the hangar of Kingsford Smith Air Services. In astonishment Nancy saw her instructor, joystick in hand, climb out of the cockpit.

'You'll be right,' he said with a wave. 'Off you go. Just remember, if you're not satisfied with your approach, open up the throttle and go round again.'

Nancy was trembling with excitement as she took off alone for the first time. Solo at last! she thought as she raced the plane across the aerodrome and felt it roar into the air. Without pat Hall's weight the little plane climbed much faster and Nancy found herself rising to a thousand feet far more quickly than on previous occasions. Now all she had to do was get the plane down safely. This presented a problem. In 1933 space was in short supply at Mascot aerodrome. Pilots had to come in low over the boundary, clearing a fence to get in. As Pat Hall was no longer with her, Nancy 'talked' herself down aloud. 'Don't lose speed on your turns!' she reminded herself, just as her instructor used to do. As the plane swooped low over Mascot she told herself: 'Check your glide ... hold her st4eady, hold her right.' Then, as the controls slacked, she drew th4e stick back and let the plane settle gently on the grass.

She has done it.

She needed twenty-five hours solo flying for an advanced A licence, which allowed pilots to carry passengers on a non-fee basis. Obtaining this was no problem for her and she gained the licence still sitting on cushions so that she could see out. What did present a problem was the far more difficult B or commercial licence. To obtain this she needed to record one hundred hours of solo flying, in addition to passing flying tests and written examinations in Navigation, Engines, Air Frames and Meteorology. How Nancy regretted the fact that she had never taken mathematics seriously at school! To fulfill her dream she abandoned her social life and for months spent every evening struggling with angles of incidence, thrust and drag, camshafts and tappet clearances. She learned what the various cloud formations indicated and studied win velocity and speed. It was hard but she managed it. Auburn-haired teenager with the sapphire blue eyes who was not afraid to get her hands dirty maintaining aircraft engines was issued with licence number 494 at the age of nineteen, the youngest woman in the British Empire to hold one. The controller of Civil Aviation was so impressed that he wrote Nancy a letter of congratulation. There was only one problem. commercial licence or not, in 1935 no airline would employ a woman pilot. Everyone at Mascot shook their heads and said, 'Nancy, there's no room for women in commercial aviation.' What she needed was to be self-employed with a plane of her own to charter.

Nancy Bird Walton

By this time Ted Bird had realised that his daughter was absolutely serious in her aim of becoming a commercial pilot, and he decided to help her. He approached Nancy's great-aunt, Mrs Annie Thomas, who planned to leave Nancy money in her will. Great-aunt Annie agreed to give her the sum immediately and her father added an extra two hundred pounds. Nancy started hunting about for a suitable plane and finally found a wrecked light aircraft that was within her budget, a De Havilland Gipsy Moth. She worked with the men who virtually rebuilt the plane, which was the usual flimsy of wooden spars glued together and covered with cloth. Nancy now knew how to sew up tears in the cloth should future repairs be needed. To cover her expenses and make a little money Nancy planned to offer 'barnstorming tours', flying around the farming areas of New South Wales and Queensland giving flying exhibitions and joy rides. She would become the first woman pilot to use her commercial licence. She arranged with the Shell Oil Company to advertise her arrival in country areas, so that she could work at the big country shows. There was still a large number of people who had never seen an aircraft, let alone a woman pilot.

Nancy took her friend Peggy Mackillop on as co-pilot. Peggy had acquired her commercial licence at the same time as Nancy but, as the daughter of a wealthy grazier family, unlike Nancy she did not regard flying as a career. Their agreement was that Peg should receive 10 per cent of gross takings, which she hoped would prove sufficient to cover her hairdresser's and dress bills, while Nancy would pay all the expenses. Neither of them would make much, but provided Nancy lived frugally she would be able to pay off the running costs of her plane. Thanks to all her lessons with Tommy Pethybridge, Nancy knew enough about engines to make her own safety checks herself each morning and carry out simple maintenance work, which would save her money. The girls were interviewed by local papers and radio stations that saw a certain glamour in two stunningly attractive girls touring with a plane. They were treated like VIPs and entertained lavishly on grazing properties around Tamworth, Newcastle, Inverell, Moree, Coonamble and Narromine.

At the country shows people turned out in flocks to see them, but were dismayed when they saw the fragile little plane vibrate as Peg or Nancy revved up the Moth for take-off. As a result not many paying passengers were willing to risk their lives in a light plane piloted by a woman. Persuading customers to part with money to fly for fun was hard work. Nancy soon discovered that she was better at doing this than Peggy, so Peg flew the passengers while Nancy stayed on the ground selling flights to the brave and calming the nervous. Many property owners wanted to fly in order to see their own land from the air; fortunately for Nancy, some of these men were prepared to take the risk of being flown by a woman. Tom Perry, a Narromine grazier and philanthropist who was the enthusiastic president of the local aero club, told Nancy that she needed a larger plane with a cabin that would take two passengers in order to obtain profitable charter work. Nancy told him this was beyond her means. Tom Perry then offered to guarantee a loan if Nancy would pay him back on a monthly basis at 5 per cent interest. He also offered to pay her life insurance premium. If she were killed in a crash the plane would remain his property. Tom Perry was also providing financial backing to Southern Air Lines, which Wilfrid Kingsford Smith was due to start a few months later, so Nancy could help promote this new venture. Nancy worried whether she would be able to pay off the loan. should she take up tom Perry's kind offer? She spent sleepless nights worrying about it.

The matter was finally settled for her. Her old patched-up Gipsy Moth developed starting problems too serious for Nancy to fix. As a result, she and Peg arrived two and a half hours late for their next show, much to the annoyance of the organisers. So Nancy accepted tom Perry's proposal to buy a new and greatly improved silver Leopard Moth on credit terms. The new Leopard Moth eventually arrived from England. It had a cabin with two leather-upholstered passenger seats and a bucket seat up front for the pilot. It was a huge contrast to the ancient, flimsy Gipsy Moth, in which Nancy had to sit with her head and shoulders exposed to the burning sun or freezing wind and wear a flying suit to protect her from the elements. Out of gratitude to Tom Perry, Nancy tried to interest potential investors in his new company, southern Air Lines. At Dubbo, which  had become her base, she tied her plane to a fence on a property tom Perry rented out as the landing field for the company. Nancy would always be very grateful to tom Perry; whenever she flew over his property at Narromine she would land and chat to him. Just as Nancy achieved her dream of owning such a magnificent monoplane, Australia received distressing news. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (who is now considered the world's greatest flier) and Tommy Pethybridge had gone missing in the Lady Southern Cross in the area of Rangoon. They had left England bound for Australia on 6 November 1935 in spite of the fact that Kingsford Smith had influenza, knowing that if they postponed the flight they would run into the monsoon season. everyone watched and waited for more news but none came.

Months later a barnacle-encrusted undercarriage was found washed ashore on remote Aye Island in the Bay of Bengal. It was eventually identified as the undercarriage of the Lady Southern Cross. No bodies were ever found. Sorrowfully Nancy knew that she had lost two valued mentors as well as friends. Mascot airport would never be the same without them. With a heavy heart she left Sydney for Dubbo to resume her country flying. There she met the Reverend Stanley Drummond, who persuaded her to join the Far West Children's Health Scheme, a medical service he had set up to serve people in remote areas of outback Australia. Stanley Drummond was appalled by the number of children suffering from trachoma or sandy blight, a disease brought on by glare, dust and, in the case of Aboriginal children, by malnutrition. These children would eventually go blind as the trachoma progressed. Drummond had bought obsolete railway carriages for conversion into mobile clinics staffed by a nursing sister. Now he realised that a light plane would be far quicker and possibly prove cheaper to transport a nursing sister and her equipment to the outback whenever she was required. Nancy agreed to act as pilot to the Reverend Drummond's outback medical service in return for a two hundred pound annual retainer. As part of her job she was also to help the nursing sister set up a clinic in the local hotel, where one existed.

Nancy and the nurse also undertook many journeys by car to visit isolated properties way beyond Bourke, where they saw children in desperate need of medical help and families living in corrugated iron shacks on stony ridges without a bush or a tree to break the monotony. Most children were brought up on bread, milkless tea and sat meat, all they could get in the outback. By plane, Nancy flew nursing sisters to places not yet reached by the royal flying Doctor Service. Their timely intervention saved many hundreds of lives over the four years she was with the Far West Children's Health Scheme. It was rewarding but lonely work. Soon Nancy had to shift her base to Bourke, which unfortunately had no engineer to repair her plane should it have mechanical problems. She rented a room at Fitzgerald's Hotel and set off with sister Webb on a round of clinics and outback properties at remote places such as Louth, Hungerford, Hantabulla and Ford's Bridge. In 1935 it was very unusual for a young unmarried woman to live on her own in a country hotel, let alone someone as attractive as Nancy. She wore shorts in the summer and overalls in winter, but her 'modern' attitude scandalised some of the residents. She often risked her life flying over vast, waterless, uninhabited areas where no one could provide details on where she was heading.

Nancy greatly enjoyed the experience of helping people, but she was always aware that if she crashed it could take a long time for help to arrive. As she flew over extensive tracts of the outback one of the things that flashed across her mind was the fact that she could get lost in the Never-Never and die before anyone found her. To understand how very brave Nancy was in carrying out this work, one must remember that she was not flying over open plains where she could land safely if she became lost in a rainstorm or if the engine failed. Instead, she spent most of her time flying over tough mulga scrub which she knew would tear her light plane to shreds were it forced to land there. Nancy experienced violent rainstorms followed by floods, drought and blinding dust storms, conditions that made flying extremely difficult. In high summer the ground heat created turbulence, with the plane thrown about in the air, which sometimes made her air sick. In summer she often wore dark glasses to keep the flies out of her eyes, and if the insects became unbearable she wore a fly veil.

In December 1936 Nancy de Low Bird entered the Adelaide to Brisbane Air Race, which was open to men and women. The entrants, many of whom were hobby fliers, started out from Brisbane on a glorious sunny morning. Their first stop was Coffs Harbour, then they flew on to Mascot, stayed overnight and took off for Wangaratta. On this leg of the race they ran into a heavy storm before going to Melbourne. The race was won by Reg Ansett, the future founder of Ansett airlines. Petite Nancy Bird won the Ladies Trophy for the best time flown by a woman. Soon after this the Far West children's Health Scheme announced that it could no longer afford to use planes for mercy flights and would go back to using cars and chauffeurs. Nancy moved to Charleville, hoping to persuade the Queensland government to fund an air ambulance service from there. although she did obtain some paid work in Charleville, her living expenses there were high. The air ambulance service never eventuated. At this juncture Mrs Davis, president of the Cunnamulla branch of the Red Cross and owner of the Cunnamulla Hotel, made a generous offer and Nancy moved to Cunnamulla and lived in the Royal Hotel. As a very attractive and unattached young women she received many offers of marriage from graziers, including some by letter from men who had seen her photograph in the local paper. It was flattering, but none of them succeeded in capturing Nancy's careful heart.

The heat took its toll on her strength. After four years of living in the outback and facing the hazards of flying under a wide variety of conditions, Nancy considered it was time for her to take a break and see something of the rest of the world. Accordingly she sold her plane, paid off her debt to Tom Perry and ended up with roughly the same amount of money she had when she started out chartering the plane. but making money was never the main aim for Nancy; she had proved that she could be a commercial pilot, and was enough. In search of a complete change and thrilled by the chance to see the world, Nancy accepted an offer from a major Dutch airline to carry out promotional work in Java and Europe in return for their protection. She was flown around the world, visited twenty-five different countries and was entertained as a VIP by Lufthansa, Air France and other European airlines. In between celebrity functions she lived cheaply and ate in the most inexpensive places she could find. She met ace flowers and other celebrities, was presented to King George VI at Buckingham Palace, and made many speeches. To her surprise, she discovered she had a talent for public speaking.

Nancy Bird sailed steerage class on RMS Queen Mary from England to New York, where she was welcomed by the Ninety-Nines, an association of women pilots, and later presented to Eleanor Roosevelt, the journalist wife of President Roosevelt.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean by ship on her way home, Nancy met an English-born businessman, Charles Walton, who was returning to his home in Australia. It was a shipboard romance that went further as their feelings for each other developed into love. They married in Australia in December 1939, three months after Britain and Australia declared war on Germany. Their marriage produced two children, a boy and a girl. Nancy dedicated all her time and effort to raising her children until they were old enough to manage without her full-time care. During world War II Nancy Bird was involved with setting up training courses for women pilots to back up men who were flying in the royal Australian Air Force. This led eventually to the founding of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force. After the war, in 1950, she founded the AWPA (Australian Women Pilots Association). Doing this made her realise just how much she wanted to fly again, so she obtained a co-pilot's licence.

She flew to America and met up once again with the Ninety-Nines. In the USA Nancy Bird Walton made headlines when she became the first woman from overseas to compete in the all-female transcontinental air race, the Powder Puff Derby, organised by women for women from many different backgrounds and ranging in age from seventeen to seventy. Nancy and her American co-pilot Lauretta Foy Savory came in fifth. That same year, Nancy received the Order of the British Empire for her support 'for charities and people in need'.

In 1990 Nancy wrote her second book, My God! it's a woman! - the exclamation made by a man on a remote airstrip as she clambered out of the cockpit wearing flying overalls and carrying a spanner. Charles Kingsford Smith had several airports named after him. In 1998, Nancy Bird Walton was honoured by Bourke Airport being named after her. She also received the Order of Australia and was asked to take part in Melbourne's official Federation celebrations. Looking far younger than her years, Nancy Bird Walton is always in great demand on speaking platforms. She is an outstanding example of a woman who shows other women that if they persevere they can achieve their dreams.


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