Australian Biography

Nancy Bird - Walton - full interview transcript

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When and where were you born?

I was born in a little country town thirty miles north of Taree. It's so tiny you'd shoot through it in a motor car without realising it was there, but it's a little town where my father had bought a country stall and my sister and I were the first two children of what later became a family of six children. We moved a mile away to Kendall, named after the famous poet, within a year or two and that's what I remember most - a beautiful part of Australia. I don't think we realised, as children, what a beautiful part it was. But I was born with the aid of a midwife. There were no doctors: thirty miles away and sulky drive for the doctor. I was nearly lost but this wonderful woman Mrs. Ritchie was a person that went through storm and tempest, flooded rivers, flooded creeks, to help the women in that district to deliver their children. And she saved my life.

So you are here as a result of a woman who was prepared to face hardship in order to help others.

Yes that's true. Yes it was indeed. The women were completely dependent upon her to deliver their children. Born in my mother's bed in a little tiny house.

And did you stay there for the whole of your childhood?

No, no, no. We left there when I was about oh I'd say five or six, because we moved to Collaroy and that's where I first went to school so I must have been five or six. I went to a little school called the Collaroy Private School run by two old maids, who taught us how to be little ladies and we had a house which now is in the midst of Collaroy, but it was in the back streets of Collaroy that my father had built himself, which was called 'Tarenaki' because my mother had been born in New Zealand.

And you looked out towards the sea from Tarenaki.

No, we looked out to the sea when he built another house, on the hill overlooking Long Reef and out to the Pacific Ocean that was when I got that feeling of the distant view, and the most vivid memory of my childhood is of an aeroplane making a forced landing on Dee Why beach. Even today I can see that aeroplane on Dee Why beach. It was an old wartime First World War aeroplane and it seemed to have a magnetic attracting for me. Every morning mother used to count the black swans on Dee Why lagoon, sometimes there were eighty and ninety of them.

How old were you when you saw that plane land?

I'd say about eight.

Did you think then that you'd like to fly one?

Well there was always ... I don't think whether I thought about flying then, but there was a magnetic attraction in that aeroplane. There was like a straight line between me and that aeroplane and I remember when I went to school in Manly, to Brighton College, one day an aeroplane was doing sky writing above the school and that to me too is a most vivid memory and it was like a magnetic line between me and the aeroplane. And I was doing ... I was going into a sewing lesson, the bell went, everybody else went in - I stood watching that aeroplane. I got into trouble because I was a bit late getting into school and to continue with the dirty pillowslip I was making.

When people asked you then, what you were going to be when you grew up what would you say?

Well I don't know. I once thought I might be a nurse and wrapped a tea towel around my head and sat ... sat studying a book on all the things a nurse should know. But it was ... when I was in the country ... You see I left school really early, the Depression hit Australia and my father bought a country stall and I was taken out of school early to manage the household for my father, such as it was, and to be the housekeeper, bookeeper and look after my father and my uncle. My mother stayed in the city for the education of my brothers and sisters and so I, aged fourteen, was standing on my own two feet quite firmly in the country. I left school just before I was fourteen.

But you were the one that was chosen to go with your father rather than your elder sister.

Yes, my elder sister was the student. She liked school and was a good student. I was the practical one who liked to help in the house and do all the things to help mother and ... and I didn't like school very much either. And so I was asked and stayed away because mother needed help. We couldn't afford hired help and mother really just needed an extra pair of hands. With five little children it's quite understandable.

Was there anything you did excel in in school? Was there anything you did particularly well?

Only when I liked the teachers! [Laughs] I was really rather perhaps a little bit of a rebel at school and I remember once with my maths teacher I'd get very low marks and then we got a teacher I liked and I got ninety-eight per cent for that teacher, so I obviously responded to ... to a person.

Now you went off at fourteen to really be housekeeper and general help to your father. Was that hard?

No we didn't think so at the time. I was used to doing things. At the age of eight, I had given a fete outside of the fence for the Collaroy Children's Hospital. I was a very practical sort of person. No, no I didn't mind. It wasn't hard at all it was very primitive. We had no electricity. Oil lamps that had to be cleaned every morning. We had a fuel stove. We had great big bathtub that was put in front of the fire every Saturday night to have a bath. We carried water in four gallon kerosene tins to the laundry. I did the laundry. I did have an old black lady to come in to help and to scrub the kitchen floor sometimes, but I wasn't above doing it myself. I just did everything that was expected of me. In fact I liked to be able to say I have served potatoes at my father's country stall and I have been a guest at Buckingham Palace. So if you can ... can do those things and not lose your head - it's a jolly good idea. It keeps your feet on the ground.

At the time that you were doing this was there ever any suggestion made that it was a lot to ask, or in those days was it quite natural to be able to do a lot.

No children helped those parents in those days. All the dairy farmers around that area had children who helped. You know they started in the dairy at five and six in the morning before they went to school. That's what happened in those days and in the Depression people didn't asked whether they were trained to do a job or not. They did it. Everybody helped they had to. People lived on the river bank and their children walked to school and helped in every possible way. Children went to school early. You'd see a bullock team driving along the road and probably the twelve-year-old son walking behind his father looking after the rear part of the team. People did things, people grew vegetables in their own garden so that they could ... Well of course there were no shops in, that they could buy them in that district anyhow, and this was up in the Manning River. By that time my father had moved there so children pulled their weight in the family.

Was the store a success?

Yes it was. Yes, my father used to send horse teams right up into the mountains to buy gold and rabbit skins and people had streamed out of the city during the Depression to search for gold, to live on rabbits and golden syrup up in the mountains, trying to scratch a living out of the soil. And he would go up there with his horse team, up to places like Cooplacaraba, which you now see in brochures as been a wonderful place to go to as a rest ... rest cure, to get out of the city, but in those days of course there was no way of crossing the rivers except by horse team. There were no cars up there. Very, very few cars. You could count on one hand the number of cars in the entire district. That was a great luxury anybody who owned a car. We had a cream truck, my father sent the cream truck up to collect the cream for the Wingham butter factory and then he rode ... [INTERRUPTION]

Your father was a very enterprising shopkeeper. He did more than just keep the store.

Oh absolutely. Yes, he would ride a horse way up into the mountains to Cooplacaraba station and collect orders and then he would send his horse team - four horses. And incidentally that horse team was driven by a First World War pilot, who had been grounded because he had buzzed a sulky somewhere and there had been an accident and he'd been grounded for it and in the Depression he had taken this job with my father. He used to terrify the locals. He'd race the horses down the mountains with the brakes off, and swim the flooded rivers with the horses, but he was the man who taught Ulm to fly. And after Kingsford-Smith flew the Pacific, in 1928, they must have given him a present because he bought an aeroplane and went back into flying and went barnstorming around the country like so many of the First World War pilots did, and he was killed in a motor car.

Did he tell you stories about flying?

No I didn't know him very well. I went there just after he left but I heard he had flown back to that district and landed in the paddocks opposite my father's country store.

An this seemed like a sort of glamorous story to you about ...

Yes it was a glamorous story about Bill Wilson and how he had come back to the district in his aeroplane. He inspired quite a few people I think, including a man who became a great trainer of pilots in the last war years, George Campbell, who stationed himself at Mudgee after the war and was highly regarded in aviation circles as being one of the great instructors of the war years and post-war years. But Mt. George was a beautiful country town, with the Manning River running through it, orange trees growing along the river. We swam in the river, swinging ourselves out on the weeping willows and jumping into the river. It was a good life but we worked hard. We got up early in the morning. My father was a workaholic and expected everybody else to be. You started at six or seven o'clock in the morning with a cold wash from the tank. You'd tap the tank to see how much water was in it. That was very important and started work, and at the end of the day, well when I got the dinner at night it was too late to get out in that beautiful sunshine and I think in my heart, when I was doing the books and I'd look out that little window, this is probably [when] I felt with flying I could get out in the open air. And when I was thirteen, I went into Wingham on the cream truck, rattling cans behind me and went to an air pageant, and that's where I first got the desire to fly.

At the air pageant in Wingham.

At the air pageant yes. I went up for a flight, a ten shilling flight and then I gave a whole week's wages two dollars - one pound - and asked the pilot if he'd do some aerobatics with me and he did some aerobatics and that became the ruling passion of my life. I then bought a book on flying. I studied and everybody laughed at me of course. My father said he wouldn't mind if I learnt to fly, but of course that was about three years before I started learning to fly. He felt differently about it later on.

He did, did he? How differently?

Well first of all he said couldn't afford to keep a crippled daughter . Then it would kill my mother if anything happened to me and of course aeroplanes did crash a bit in those days. You know I was one of six. Surely you could take a chance on one! And also I'd become a bit indispensable to him as a book keeper and a house keeper.

So how did you get around him?

I just told him that I had saved up 200 pounds. Finally I had 200 pounds. Kingsford-Smith had come barnstorming around the country too, and I met him at Wingham giving flights, and I went up with Pat Hall, his chief instructor, talked with Kingsford-Smith and he told me he was opening a flying school and I said that I would come down to the city and become one of his pupils, and I think that I was one of his very first, if not his first pupil, when he opened that flying school in August 1933 at Mascot. And Dad wasn't at all pleased. He wasn't at all pleased that I was leaving him, but my elder sister, and my younger sister, also later went up there and as I say 'did time' at Mt. George.

Was there any suggestion that it wasn't right for a girl to learn to fly?

No because it was just after the Depression, or just coming out of the Depression and the flying schools had had such a bad time that they would willingly teach anybody to fly who had enough money to pay for lessons. And so, both the aero-club and the flying school were very keen to get pupils. Women did fly. They flew for pleasure, they flew as a sport and they were ... but everybody who flew, with the exception of one woman pilot - an engineer pilot, May Bradford - and myself, was of independent means and they flew for the pleasure of it.

Now on a wage of one pound a week how could you manage to save up 200?

Well I got some insurance too, when I was sixteen. My father had bought insurance policies for all of us and that helped considerably too. And I went without everything that young girls like. You know, I'd throw material on the floor and cut out a pattern myself. I knew very little about sewing but I would make up a dress or something for myself, and I was economical. We were very economical in those days and I'd do without things.

So you knew that you really wanted to do this and you got the 200 pounds together and you persuaded your father, or you told your father, you were going?

That's true. I was coming down to live with mother and go out to Mascot and learn to fly. After all I'd told Kingsford-Smith I would do it. I would be joining him so I had to keep my word, didn't I? [Laughs]

But what did your mother think of it?

Well she accepted it. I think that's one of the advantages of being a member of a big family, you can do things a little independently that you can't do if you're an only child, you're too precious, and I'd made up my mind and mother ... mother was interested but she didn't try to stop me. My parents didn't try to stop me and that's why I'm grateful to them - very grateful, because I know many people who would have liked to learn to fly in 1933, but their parents wouldn't allow them to.

Looking back on your whole childhood, what were the things that you think you learned then, and how did you learn them, that really stood you in good stead for the rest of your life?

Well, perhaps, perhaps I would say if there is a job to do, get in and do it. Don't say it isn't my job and don't avoid ... avoid doing things that have to be done. If the potatoes have got to be peeled, then get in and peel them. If the napkins have to go out on the line go and put them out. If there is something to do, do it - not just hang around waiting for somebody else to do it. I think that that's probably what I learnt and I learnt that because I was one of a family.

And you learnt self reliance, which sounds fairly important for flying, so how did you get on when you went to the ... to the Kingsford-Smith School?

Well I just rang up and made the appointment with Charles Kingsford-Smith. I took the tram out to Mascot, walked from the station after the post office, about a mile, to the aerodrome and had my first lesson with Charles Kingsford-Smith on the 11 August, 1933.

What was it like at the school? Were there other people there?

Well there was his engineers: Tommy Petherbridge, who died with Charles Kingsford-Smith. Bruce Cowan, who was a just a boy, an apprentice, a little boy who used to sweep the hangars out, and Charles Kingsford-Smith his secretary Marg McGrath, and also Marg McGrath and John Stanage, his manager ... John Stanage, who was married to Kingford-Smith's niece. That's all.

How many other pupils were there?

Well, they just came and went. There weren't any other pupils at that time. Jack Kingsford-Smith was learning to fly, I think, as the guest of his uncle. I don't think he was a paying guest and paying pupil. Another woman came out and started learning to fly but she couldn't learn to fly. They just couldn't teach her. She was a nurse. Then others: some civilian Airforce pilots, people that belonged to the Civil Airforce. There was a boy by the name of Peter Bjelke-Petersen and Bill Perton, a delightful young man, and I later fell in love with [him] and [laugh] a ... you just ... an old First World War pilot, Harold Durant, who had flown in the First World War. A man, who owned his own aircraft from Mr. Massey and Mr. Born and there were people like that, that would just come out to do an hour or so's flying and Jim Broadbent, a famous pilot. He kept his aeroplane there and often asked me to fly with him and just people who came out and took lessons. A man by the name of Chapman, who later learnt to fly with the Southern Cross, and became a Flight Superintendent of one of the airlines. I think it was then [the] Australian National Airlines.

How long were you, how long does it take you to learn? How long did it take you to qualify as a pilot?

Well I started on the 11 August, 1933, and I had my 'A' license on 28 September, 1933.

That was quick.

Well I flew in the mornings and I flew in the afternoons. When you get to Mascot from Manly you might as well stay there for the day. It would take you the rest of the day to get home. So I used to go off and Kingsford-Smith would pick me up at the Manly Wharf, or John Stanage, and they'd go ... I'd go out with them.

Sometimes Charles Kingsford-Smith would pick me up from the Manly Wharf when he was in Sydney and of course he had this beautiful silver Armstrong Siddeley and of course all of the people that came off the boat would look and say, 'Oh Charles Kingsford-Smith ...'. After all he'd already flown the Pacific, circumnavigated the World, crossed the Tasman and he was famous. Very famous. In fact, sometimes when we drove in from Mascot and we drove alongside the tram, people and the tram guard would turn around and shake hands with him, and people in the tram would all sort of stand up and look out at Charles Kingsford-Smith in his open topped Armstrong Siddeley, you know. That was quite a sensation so I felt very important then in such company. But when I drove with John Stanage in his third hand Chev jalopy, nobody took any notice at all. But I very seldom had to walk back to the tram. I used to stay there while I tried to learn what I could about aviation. You see there was no syllabus in those days. You learned what you could by talking with people, by looking at maps asking them how you plotted a course and so on. There was no syllabus. There was no training like there is today, and for the 'A' license test all we did was go up to 1500 feet, cut the motor of the aircraft and come in a series of gliding turns. See we had no brakes so you had to come over the fence as low as you possibly could to get in and sit down on the paddock that was called Mascot. [There was] no runways or anything like that; no radio or anything of that sort, and then we did a series of figures of '8' over the windsock and the building that was the aero-club and that was part of the test too. You know you ... People say it must have been hard then. I think it was a lot easier than it is now. Now there is a lot of air legislation to learn and a lot of study to do.

What kind of plane?

It was a Gipsy Moth and prior to that a Cirrus Moth: a Gipsy or a Cirrus Moth. That's the grandmother of the Tiger Moth. Everybody knows about the Tiger Moth but it was the Gipsy Moth in those days. It was the aeroplane prior to the development of the Tiger Moth that all our boys learnt to fly in, in the Second World War. But if the Gipsy Moth would ring a bell with you when Chichester named his yacht 'Gipsy Moth'.

During the period that you were doing this initial learning, did you ever doubt that you'd done the right thing, or was it all as exciting as you had hoped?

Well, it was an ambition and it was a dedication to aviation. We were all very defensive about aviation in those days. People didn't want to fly. People who flew were daredevils or people who took risks and aviation hadn't been accepted as a means of transport in Australia then. Kingsford-Smith was trying desperately to introduce flying as means of transport. He'd started his airline in 1929 and they went broke when the Southern Cloud disappeared and wasn't found for twenty-nine years. And then other companies started up, but they all went broke. People weren't ready to fly and we were very defensive about aviation. Whenever there was an accident it was always the pilot's fault, never the aeroplanes. And you know we ... we were just so dedicated to aviation.

And you really can't explain that can you. You just fell in love with it really, didn't you?

No I didn't feel it was love, but I just ... you know we were just so determined to continue, to make it a success to fly and to keep flying. I know that when we arrived at Mascot every morning we'd look around the perimeter of the aerodrome to see who'd spun in on the 'S' turns and often there was somebody on the edge of the airfield in the Chinese Gardens with the tail in the air, or one day there was Sergeant Brown, who built a beautiful Moth to fly in England-Australian 1934 air race, and he'd had engine failure on takeoff and gone straight into Cooks River. He was killed of course instantly but ... One day it was Dr. Lee Brown in the first Tiger Moth to come into Australia and you know you could feel it as you got near the airport there'd been an accident, so we all rushed round to Kiama, where he'd crashed the Tiger Moth, and I remember seeing the blood all over the cockpit. But they'd rushed him off to hospital and of course, he didn't survive either. But he and his wife, Ainslee Brown, had been the first people I'd ever gone out to Mascot with.

This made you feel more defensive of aviation, more dedicated to it, not like taking your goggles and cap and going home?

No, No. It never had that effect on us at all. Never had that effect at all. And when the press wanted to take pictures of crashed aeroplanes, we all ganged up on them. But the very same people, you know, wanted the support of the press when they wanted to do any long distance flying, like Charles Kingsford-Smith or Jean Batten or anybody else, who did those long distance flights. They needed the help of the press and the oil companies, who were the real pioneers of aviation in Australia. They were the people who supported Charles Kingsford-Smith and Ulm and so on.

The oil companies?

The oil companies and the newspapers. The newspapers for the stories. The oil companies always helped those people too.

I suppose they saw potential profits in the future of aviation ...

They were more far-sighted than any government I can assure you: the Vacuum and the Shell Oil Company and Castrol by way of Lord Wakefield you know sponsored many flights. They all were the people who pioneered aviation. There is a string of petrol tins all through Australia where the service of aviation ... great service was given to aviation by the oil companies.

I suppose what I'm wanting to understand is what it was about aviation that got this dedication and loyalty, rather than a sense that it really was very dangerous. I mean, what was it about it that was so attractive?

I just don't know. I just don't know. [INTERRUPTION]

What was it about Aviation that made you so dedicated, so attracted to it?

I can't put my finger on it. I just don't know. I grew up in the 1920s. My teenage was through the 1920s, when aviation was developing. The pilots of the First World War came back. They brought aviation to Australia, and even before that, we had a history in aviation going back to Hargreaves, and so on, lifting himself off the cliffs of Stanmore Park before the turn of the Century. So we were trying to fly and there was something we just believed in: aviation. We just believed in flight and it was possible. It had been proved possible during the War by the Wright Brothers in 1903, and for some reason or other, I was just enthused by those people. But perhaps ... perhaps Amy Johnson's flight in Australia in 1930 ... I can remember being a bit jealous of her. In fact I was very envious of her flying from England to Australia. Then she was followed by the German Aviatrix, Ellie Beinhorn. I had already had my first trial instructional flight when I went to hear her speak in 1932, and saw her little aeroplane that she'd flown all the way from Germany in and I just thought she was the most marvellous person I'd ever seen. My ambition was to be like Ellie - to be as attractive, as feminine, to be able to fly an aeroplane. Now she's one of my best friends so it's really rather wonderful how the wheel turns. And then Jean Batten of course. I was already flying when Jean Batten flew to Australia and she, I think, was the greatest aviatrix of the early pioneer days. Of all the aviatrix of the world I think she was the greatest because she did everything in a single engine, low horse powered aeroplane, a ninety horse powered Gipsy Moth. Twice she started out from England and crashed, then she achieved it, and the whole of Australia was thrilled to pieces, and then she got 200 horse power Percival Gull, flew the Atlantic and flew from England to New Zealand and the record stood for forty-four years. So I was inspired by those people, but all the records had been broken. There seemed no future in aviation for long distance flying, even if I could have got the sponsorship for it, so I decided to go barnstorming in my Gipsy Moth, which my father and my great-aunt had put up the money for me to buy. It was a rat-trap aeroplane that had been rebuilt from a crash, but I started out on a barnstorming tour because there was nothing else you could do in flying. There was no other way you could have a job, and that was the first time a woman had thought of barnstorming. The boys from the First World War ... The men from the First World War, and the boys who had learnt to fly because they'd had nothing else to do in the Depression, said there was nothing in it, but I was prepared to give it a shot because what else could I do? I had nothing. I had nothing to lose once I had an aeroplane. At least I could try flying from town to town following the shows and the race meetings and gaining experience and making enough to fly on to the next place.

How did barnstorming work financially? How did it ...

Well, I don't think I ever made any money, but I probably ended up with my original capital. But I had a co-pilot, because that was essential because with a Gipsy Moth you've got to have somebody to swing the propeller and somebody to sell the tickets and get the person into the aeroplane without them putting their foot through the wing because you know that it is only a fabric wing and has a piece of board on it, and they had to put their foot in the right place, and you had to convince them to go for a flight to start with.

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