Nancy Bird-Walton Was A War Hero And More Besides
Nancy Bird-Walton AO, OBE, DStJ (October 16, 1915 – January 13, 2009) was the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s license, and was the founder and patron of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association.
* AO – Order of Australia: OBE = Order of the British Empire: DStJ = The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem
Australia’s Youngest Female Pilot
In the 1930s, defying the traditional role of females of her time, Nancy Bird-Walton became a fully qualified pilot at the age of eighteen, and became the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s license.
Born in Kew, New South Wales, Australia on 16 October 1915 as Nancy Bird, she is said to have wanted to fly almost before she could walk.
But as a teenager during the Depression in Australia, Nancy-Bird found herself in the same position as many other children and had to leave school at age thirteen to assist her family.
She Didn’t Just Want To Fly
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 learnt to fly for recreation, but not Nancy; Nancy planned to fly for a living.
She was awarded a commercial pilot’s license at the age of 18, and financed by a legacy of £200 from a great aunt and money borrowed from her father, which she later paid back, Nancy bought her first aircraft, a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.
From Fun To Medical Service
Soon after getting her license, 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 however, Bird met Reverend Stanley Drummond, who said that he wanted her to help him set up a flying medical service in the New South Wales outback.
And in 1935, she was hired to operate the service, named the Far West Children’s Health Scheme.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service
Bird’s own Gipsy Moth was first used as an air ambulance, but she later received 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".
A Long Break From Flying
In 1936, Nancy Bird entered an air race from Adelaide to Brisbane, and won the Ladies’ Trophy, but in 1938 she decided to take a long break from flying.
A Dutch airline company (KLM) invited her to do some promotional work in Europe, and she stayed there for a couple of years.
The War Years
Nancy returned to Australia soon after World War II broke out and she trained women in the skills needed to back up the men flying in the Royal Australian Air Force.
Marriage And The Pilots’ Association
When she was twenty four, Nancy married an Englishman, Charles Walton and had two children.
He preferred to call her "Nancy-Bird" rather than plain "Nancy", and she became generally known as "Nancy-Bird-Walton".
In 1950, she founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA), and remained its president for five years.
In 1983 following the death of Lady Casey, the original patron, Nancy Bird-Walton became Patron of the AWPA.
A Return To Flying And Charity
In 1958, she decided to return to flying after a twenty year absence, but throughout her life Walton was notable for her support of charities and people in need.
The National Trust of Australia declared her an Australian Living Treasure in 1997.
The first Airbus A380 (VH-OQA) delivered to Australian airline Qantas was named in her honor.
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 ceremony.
On January 13, 2009, Nancy-Bird Walton died aged 93.
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