Since the beginning of time, man has been seeking to conquer the skies, and in the early decades of aviation, Australia was often a waypoint on the flight path of record-breaking air races. Down Under, Australian men were testing the skies, and it wasn’t long after that women wanted in on the action too.
Today, it is difficult to imagine that it was less than 100 years ago that pioneering women had to forge their way into what was a very male-dominated environment. As air travel becomes increasingly accessible to everyone with cheap flights, fast travel across the globe, and comfortable flying, we can thank these brave and determined Australian women who chose to pursue their passion for flying. Read on to find out about the lives of six pioneering aviators who called Australia’s skies home.
Born in 1878, Millicent Bryant was the first Australian woman to get a pilot’s licence at the age of 49. The year she received her licence was the first year that women were permitted to do so. Unfortunately, Bryant died only a year later in a ferry accident. Despite her very short flying career, Millicent Bryant is considered to have paved the way for women getting their pilot’s licence. Following her death, another 18 women went on to become licenced pilots within the next two years.
Born in 1897, Maude “Lores” Bonney was one of the earliest female aviation pioneers of Australia. Born in South Africa and having lived in England before moving to Australia, Maude continued her travels after her education in Melbourne, living in Europe before settling in Queensland. Her most notable aviation achievement is that she was the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England. In 1938, Bonney set out from Brisbane and flew to London. Her flight was five times as far as Amelia Earhart’s Atlantic-crossing flight. Unfortunately, due to lack of publicity, Bonney’s amazing flight was not given the public recognition it deserved, and her brave feat soon became relatively forgotten by most over the years that followed.
Her other record-breaking flights, which she performed in the Gypsy Moth her husband bought for her, include being the first Australian woman to circumnavigate Australia by air, which she successfully completed in 1932. In 1937 she became the first woman to fly from Australia to South Africa.
Born in Melbourne in 1909, Freda Thompson was the first Australian born woman to fly from the United Kingdom to Australia. At the age of 21 she completed her first flight as a pilot. She continued flying and was awarded a commercial pilot’s licence in 1932. Only one year later, Thompson was the first woman in the British Empire to obtain an instructor’s license.
Awarded an OBE for her contribution to Australian aviation, Peggy Kelman was born in 1909 and began flying in 1939 in New South Wales. She quickly gained her private pilot’s licence and then received her commercial pilot’s licence. She personally claimed only one record in her lifetime: she was the first woman to fly while pregnant from England to Australia. However, she was very influential throughout her lifetime as a promoter of women in aviation and regularly travelled across the South Pacific representing women in aviation.
Jessie Miller is noted as being the first female passenger to fly from England to Australia. A journalist at the time, she set off with friend, Bill Lancanster, from England in 1927 and arrived in Darwin 159 days later. Although she was only a passenger on this flight, she moved to America with Lancaster and began her flying career. She quickly became known as one of the most successful female air-racing pilots.
The founder of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA), Nancy Bird-Walton is considered one of Australia’s most renowned pioneering female aviators. She was one of the first pupils of Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith’s aviation school, and in 1939 when she was 19 years old, she became the youngest Australian woman to get a pilot’s licence. Bird-Walton remained president of the AWPA until 1990. In 1997 she was declared an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia.
Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons
About the Author: As a historian who has dedicated much of his career to Australia’s aviation history, Simon Teems is a regular contributing writer for various sites and publications, sharing the knowledge he has accumulated over the past 13 years as a credited historian. He uses Expedia when booking flights for his travels while studying aviation history.