Meet… Nancy Bird Walton
Random House, 2014
hbk., 32pp., RRP $A24.99
It seems amazing that less than 40 years ago a woman wanting to be a commercial pilot became the first sex discrimination in employment case contested before the Australian Equal Opportunity Board, and that it wasn’t until 1980 that a female pilot took the controls of a commercial flight in Australia, albeit as a co-pilot on a Fokker F27 from Alice Springs to Darwin. What is even more amazing is that this was not a new scenario for this was Deborah Wardley fighting Ansett Airlines and Reg Ansett’s belief that women were not suited to be airline pilots, not Nancy Bird Walton. Nancy Bird Walton had fought that battle nearly 50 years before that!
Born in 1915 in Kew NSW and growing up in what is known as the Golden Age of aviation as flying went from strength to strength from that first “controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight” in December 1903. Nancy Bird knew at a very early age that her destiny lay in the skies. Despite her father’s disapproval she began having flying lessons at the age of 17 under legendary pilot Charles Kingsford Smith.
“My days went by in a sort of blur. I might have only 20 minutes in an aeroplane during the day but I went out to the aerodrome every morning and stayed there until the fading light put a stop to flying for the day.”
Such was her passion and determination. in 1934 she became the youngest female pilot to have a commercial licence in the British Commonwealth. Just a year later she flew from Melbourne to Adelaide in record time and went on to become known as the ‘Angel of the Outback’ for her work with the Far West Children’s Health Scheme. During World War II she was the Commandant of the WATC and in 1950 founded the Australian Women’s Pilots’ Association- thirty years prior to Reg Ansett declaring that passengers felt safer with men; that pilots needed strength; that the unions would object; women’s menstrual cycles would make them unsuitable; and that pregnancy and childbirth would interrupt their careers and create extra costs for the company.
Such an incredible life cannot be encapsulated in one 32-page picture book, but Grace Atwood and Harry Slaghekke have combined perfectly to create a wonderful insight into the first chapters of Nancy’s early flying career. They examine her desire to know how planes fly and her willingness to do all the dirty mechanical jobs because everything she did taught her something knew about them. They provide an insight into her fear as at last she is ready to fly solo and move on through getting her licence, buying her first plane – named Vincere meaning “to conquer” – and her amazing flight covering 22 000 miles around NSW with her friend Peggy McKillop in the “Ladies Flying Tour” to promote aircraft flying while using road maps, a compass and landmarks to guide them.
The Meet… series is a picture book series designed to celebrate extraordinary Australians who have shaped the country’s history, and, in my opinion, this is the best of the series so far. Perhaps it’s because Nancy Bird Walton has long been a hero of mine, but there is so much packed into this story, including a timeline, and the pictures are so evocative with their subtle colouring that I’m inspired to re-read Walton’s two books Born to Fly and My God! It’s a Woman which may be suitable for your biography collection. There are teaching notes available.
As we look to introduce younger students to Australians who have had a significant impact on our lives, those featured in the Meet… series, and Nancy Bird Walton in particular, are very strong candidates. These sorts of biographies in their uncomplicated yet fact-filled format not only meet the reading needs of the newly-independent reader but can also support those who are older but struggling as well as whetting the appetite of others to investigate further. In the case of this one, it would also be the perfect springboard into examining attitudes towards women in a men’s world and how they have changed – or not! Why is feminism considered the new f-word???