Australian Biography

Nancy Bird - Walton - full interview transcript

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In order to go barnstorming didn't you need a commercial license, if you were going to make money?

Oh yes, yes. I had received my commercial license in, I think, it was April, 1935 and immediately planned this barnstorming tour. I went to the Shell Company. We got out a map of New South Wales. I got a list from Country Life newspaper of all the shows and race meetings and where they were: Tamworth, Inverell, Moree, and planned that I would land in the nearest paddock and hope that I would get some paying passengers. Now I had to have a co-pilot because you can't stop the engine of a Gipsy Moth every time you've got a passenger to put in, so I looked around to see if any other woman would come with me and I found a wonderful co-pilot in Peggy McKillop. She'd been flying for two years longer than I had but she was doing the same commercial license exam and I asked her, and of course Peggy would fly with anyone to get some free flying so she was delighted. I told her I'd give her ten per cent of the takings and she said, 'You don't have to worry about that. I just like to fly for free'. She was very wealthy. She had a private income of five pounds a month, but she had another great advantage that I didn't realise at the time: she'd gone to Rose Bay Convent from the age of six.

What did you have to do to get your commercial license?

Well I had to go to the aero-club to do blind flying, because Kingsford-Smith didn't have the hood that they put over the Moth and that's when George Littlejohn started giving me some lessons, and of course he was the man who perished with Ulm when they tried to cross the Pacific again. But I wanted to learn ... I had to learn navigation. I had to go to the aero-club to learn more about engineering and night flying, and Peggy McKillop and I were the first two women to ever fly by night. We had to do half an hours flying over Sydney by night solo. But the navigation ... The boys went to Captain Ballen, a marine navigator, but I couldn't afford the lessons so I asked P.G. Taylor at the aero-club one day if he would teach me something about navigation. Of course I couldn't have picked a better person. He was the greatest aerial navigator of the time - absolutely wonderful. It was P.G. Taylor who navigated Charles Kingsford-Smith across the Tasman to New Zealand on the second and third trips. It was P.G. Taylor who climbed out on the wing ... on the strut and took oil from one dead engine and transferred it to the other engine, which literally saved the lives of Charles Kingsford-Smith, and the Southern Cross limped back to Mascot and he did that six times - not once, six times behind the slipstream of that great motor that Smithy held it in the air with, because he had to cut back the other motor. It was the most courageous thing that had ever been done. And then he navigated ... he pioneered the Indian Ocean just after the war. [He was] the first man to fly from Australia to Africa via Clipperton Island ... no not Clipperton Island ... Cocos Islands and Mauritius and then he pioneered the South Pacific Ocean: Australia to Chile in the flying boat. So he was a very, very great man. Next to Charles Kingsford-Smith I think he was the greatest aviator we've had.

Was he a good navigation teacher?

Oh a fantastic navigation teacher, and of course, he navigated Charles Kingsford-Smith across the Pacific in the single engine Lockheed Altair, in 1934, and that was a fantastic flight because they wouldn't allow them to fly that aeroplane in the England-Australia air race until it was too late to get to England and start back again. So they turned round and flew the Pacific in that single engine aircraft and that was P.G. Smithy had the utmost faith in him as a navigator, so I was very very lucky, I couldn't have had a better teacher. But of course, in those days we only mostly had road maps. In fact they were road maps that I mostly flew on and you just draw a line between A and B measure off every twenty or forty miles and made check points of towns or railways or mountains, or whatever it might be. But of course, west of Bourke there was so few roads I just had the little map they gave you at the garage.

And did you get your commercial license without any trouble?

Yes and a matter of fact I got congratulations from the Department of Civil Aviation. They thought my ... my examination was better than my flying. [Laughs]

Now you had another woman in that class, didn't you?

Oh Yes, Peggy McKillop, the girl I asked to be my co-pilot and she agreed to not only become my co-pilot, I offered her ten per cent of the takings when I organised the barnstorming tour but she was perfectly happy to fly for the free flying. She was dedicated to aviation, loved aviation and became my co-pilot. I offered her ten per cent of the takings, which was very little.

What ... what does the word barnstorming come from?

Well I think it's the American word when the people barnstormed around America: politicians going to speak around the country. The only place that was big enough for them to hold a meeting was in the barn, especially in the winter time. It was a heated barn that was the place that they could gather. That's where I think the word comes from.

But for you it meant going to fairs and ...

Landing as close as I could to a race meeting or a show, in the nearest paddock, hoping that some enthusiastic people would come over and go for a flight - pay for a flight, a ten shilling flight.

And how did you do financially?

Well not too badly. We were paid enough to keep the aeroplane in repair and to pay for our petrol and oil, to pay for our accommodation. But I probably ended up with no more than my original 400 pounds that was the price of the aeroplane. Then I went into debt and bought another aeroplane, which was the one that I finally went out west in.

It was a big change of heart for your father to buy you the aeroplane.

It was very ... It was wonderful of him, I agree. Because 200 pounds was a lot of money in those days and my great aunt had been going to leave me 200 pounds in her will and she said she would match it. I think they were a bit proud of the fact that, you know, that I had sort of got my license and had become a little bit news worthy as a young person who'd learnt to fly and intended to keep flying. We're all very dedicated.

So what sort of an aeroplane did you upgrade to?

A Leopard Moth, which was the aristocrat of the light aeroplanes, a beautiful aeroplane made by DeHavillands that was a cabin aeroplane. Two people sat behind, one in front and it was heaven. It had real leather seats, a beautiful smell of real leather, and a shiny finish to it. It was a beautiful aeroplane. It cost 1800 pounds and I went into debt to buy it, and every hour I ever flew the jolly thing I was paying it off.

And so how did you do that? Did you continue with the barnstorming?

No. No. It was while I was barnstorming that I met Stanley Drummond of the Far West Children's Health Scheme who asked me to go to Bourke to fly his baby clinics service way out beyond the rail head of Bourke, out to those little homes, where boundary riders, bore headed keepers and people who looked after the border fence, and lived with their little families in stony ridges and often in corrugated iron places, who were bringing up their children there, on what Stanley Drummond said was black tea and salt meat. Well I've been talking to some of them out there recently and they said if they lived on a station they usually ate lamb, but they had the lamb or sheep - usually the scraggy sheep. And one of the girls, who was the daughter who survived from a tragedy that had been out there when a woman with seven children had died giving birth to this little girl ... She told me they lived on calimire lamb and I said, 'What's calimire lamb or calimire sheep?' She said, 'They eat a weed, that calimire weed', and she said, 'It makes the mutton taste awful. That's what we lived on: black tea and mutton'.

So you were taking a baby health sister out there to see them.

Yes. The first sister I took was Sister Webb who was a army nurse in the First World War and she hated flying, and even that temperature of forty degrees, she'd wear leather gloves and the old fashioned nurse uniform out into that back country and I first took her on the trial trip in the Gipsy Moth and then I took her on a trip in the Leopard Moth, and then there was a change of arrangements with Far West Children's Health Scheme and they stationed a nurse at Bourke to fly with me, instead of travelling back and forth on the converted railway carriages.

Did you feel that this work was really important, that it really made a difference?

Well it just meant that women, who lived 120 miles from Bourke, could have a doctor in an hour instead of being on the road for six hours. That if people were in doubt about the health of a child or there had been an accident the aeroplane was there, and although I was too young to realise the true significance of it people said to me in later years, 'You don't know what it meant to us knowing that there was an aeroplane in Bourke, that if there was an acute appendix or an urgent treatment was needed there was an aeroplane that could fly out to us'. But Stanley Drummond knew, the Reverend Stanley Drummond, who like John Flynn had God-given vision, he knew what he was doing when he stationed me at Bourke to provide an air ambulance service and a baby clinic service.

Did you ever fly in circumstances where it really was a matter of life and death?

Oh yes, oh yes, several times.

What were some of the occasions?

One was a pneumonia case when I picked up a man off a station, who had been marooned for several days. His wife couldn't drive the car to go and get help, They had little children who were too young to drive or ride for help, and it was just good fortune that somebody came by on horseback and sent for the aeroplane - sent for help. And I landed in the paddock beside the ... the homestead. He always says I saved his life. In fact he later named a race horse after me. He called it Miss Bird, but I don't know that I saved his life. Maybe I helped. Then I had another case from a place near Ivanhoe ... [INTERRUPTION]

When you described the early years when you're learning aviation, it sounds as if the camaraderie, the feeling of having a group, was one of the very attractive things about it.

Yes it certainly was, because you learnt from other people's experiences. The hangar talk, people laughed about it and said, 'Flying people get together and all they do is talk aviation'. That's perfectly true and you learn an enormous amount from other people's experiences. Even watching other people fly you say, 'Now pull back a bit. You know, get the nose up a bit, get it down', you know, and you literally fly them onto the ground if you're watching them. We used to sit in the grass and watch other people fly. We made exactly the same mistakes when we went out of course, and did it, but that's quite true and then you hear of what experienced pilots came through: near misses and all sorts of things, and that ... that was the only text book we had.

You went from this sense of belonging with a group, to a job that took you right out into the far west and into almost complete isolation, flying to and from, picking up people in dire need.

Well that was when I got the Leopard Moth and I remember when I took off for Bourke in that, beforehand the Major Murray Jones had put ballast in it to teach me how to fly, and then I took off for the West and as I approached the mountains I suddenly felt very very lonely, and I look back and all I could see was the tail of the aeroplane. And, yes, it was quite lonely from a flying point of view out west, because there were no other flying people around and so everything I did there was nobody to discuss things with. I wish there had been, but when I went up Charleville I would sometimes be lucky enough to be there when the DeHavilland 86 came in from Singapore - the first Qantas flights and then I would see the Captain and the First Officer and talk with them and that was wonderful. They'll never never know how much it meant to me to see those people from the outside world of aviation, and one of the First Officers was rather attractive too and I ... I think I had a little bit of a spot in my heart for him. He could make my day just by saying, 'Hello'. [Laughs]

Well that seems right for a twenty-year-old, twenty-one-year-old.

Yes twenty-one year old. There would be something wrong with you if you weren't attracted to the opposite sex in those years ... in those years, wouldn't there? All young people, I think, fall in and out of love.

Now you flew with the Far West for about three years.

No, I wasn't with them for three years. I was out with them for only about nine months all together. Then I moved into Queensland when the Government no longer paid that additional subsidy to them. And then I moved into Queensland and I worked in a voluntary capacity for the Queensland Bush Children's Health Scheme. I tried very hard to get the Queensland Government to establish the same sort of thing in Charleville, but they were not interested. Many years later ... many years later, they had a flying doctor service there and all those facilities. I was before my time.

There were Flying Doctor Services in other parts of the country though, weren't there?

Yes, in Darwin, Dr. Clive Fenton flew a Gipsy Moth and flew into the inland to help people and a real flying doctor because he not only flew the aeroplane, he was a doctor. Then the Flying Doctor Service started in Cloncurry and Charleville, and they operated there, and the Victorians subsidised a flying doctor service at Wyndham but they were the only ones in Australia, with the exception of the Bush Church Aid at Ceduna in South Australia. They had an aeroplane and gave a medical service too. But there was nothing in that great area of the inland that I was in. In 1937, the Royal ... as it is now, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was established at Broken Hill, but that was still 300 odd miles away from where I was, and of course, it was doing a completely different job. It was a medical service to the people in the inland, where I was a baby clinic service and an air ambulance in an emergency. [INTERRUPTION]

When you were doing this air ambulance service, what was the most dramatic incident that occurred during that time? What case did you have to deal with that sticks in your memory?

Well there was a man by the name of Jim Russell, who had contracted pneumonia, way out on an outstation somewhere. His wife couldn't drive the car. The children were too small to go for help and it was only because a boundary rider came through that they discovered his plight and rushed back to the nearest telephone, which was quite some distance away and called the air ambulance. Spoke to the doctor in Wilcannia, and he called the air ambulance and then I landed in the clay-pan and took Mr. Russell into the Wilcannia Hospital. And I don't think his wife ever expected to see him again, you know. It was a terrible wrench for her to have her husband taken away by a little girl in an aeroplane, but when I had delivered him to Wilcannia I flew back over the station and dipped over the station to show her that he had been delivered safely. He always says I saved his life, but of course I don't think I did, but he named a horse after me. He was a very keen racing man. He called it Miss Bird.

Now what did you do for company during the time you were out there? A young girl - what did you do?

Well I used to play tennis a little bit. I made friends with a few of the people about my own age. I was pretty busy looking after my aeroplane. It was probably the cleanest aeroplane ever because it was constantly washed down. I took a great pride in it. I did a lot of writing. I wrote letters to people trying to get the Department of Civil Aviation to select aerodromes, and things of that sort. I was a copious writer of letters, but I was reasonably lonely. I suppose I went to bed early and living at the hotel, which was very unusual for a girl in those days, and some people wondered whether I was quite respectable ... Living in a hotel with all these nice commercial travellers coming in, talking to me in the writing room, and things of that sort. In fact one person was very, very nasty. He really doubted my reputation and said so to a group of men, one of whom threatened to knock him down. And I heard about it. Do you know what I did? I went straight to the Sergeant of Police and told him what I had heard, what had been said. He said, 'Little Miss Bird, don't you worry about it, you just leave it to me'. I never heard another word. I can't imagine why I had the sense to do that at twenty-one. You know, instead of being upset and trying to deny that ... that ... prove that I was a respectable person. I just went to the Sergeant of Police. Good thing to do, wasn't it?

Yes, I think you were very practical.

I was very practical yes. He was a nasty man. He was just a big, fat, bouncy man who had no right to tarnish a girl's reputation. But I do know that the Country Life correspondent, who was a woman I knew quite well said, 'You know, some of the women say 'Do you think she's respectable?'' Another thing, there were always these jealousies. You see I was flying men on sheep deals and people, who were stuck in Bourke and didn't like it - oh, you know, would be a little bit catty, especially, sort of, the creme de menthe, cake eating, bridge playing women who didn't ... couldn't get out of Bourke. Their husbands were in jobs there and I had very beautiful hair. I was completely unaware of it. It was a mop of red hair. It was the bane of my existence because when I was young my old mother's friends had to see my hair and I'd be out playing and know I had to come in while they admired my wretched hair, you see. And this woman said, 'You know, she goes to Bourke, Dubbo, 200 miles away, every week to have her hair done'. God, I couldn't have afforded to buy a newspaper, let alone have my hair done. I was paying off an aeroplane. [Laughs] But I did strike some troubles like that - some little irritating jealousies from people, but generally speaking I had ... I had good friends there. People who ... people who ... There was one person particularly, Nancy Skinner, and her mother. They were always very nice to me, and a man who was very involved in the Far West, he and his wife - they were very pleasant too. But I don't know. I found things to do obviously. My aeroplane was my companion.

During this whole period when you were flying around the far west and then in Queensland, were you given nothing but encouragement in relation to your flying, or were you sometimes discouraged from what you were doing?

Well, you see, the weather was everything there, then we came into another drought and that sort of reduced the amount of flying too. It was something that you did. There was no set pattern. It just depended on whether somebody wanted to inspect a mob of sheep, or somebody wanted to race to Brisbane because somebody was dying, or to catch the train at Dubbo because they had to get to Sydney overnight, or an ambulance case, or somebody had to get out in a hurry and there was no other means of transport. There was no set pattern to it. It was just something that happened overnight. [INTERRUPTION]

So there was ... Unlike when I was at Bourke ... Why I didn't go down to Bourke and do the regular work as well, I don't know. It would have meant flying 200 miles for free but, you know, when you're twenty-one you haven't got much business ability, and I didn't have anybody to advise me. Mrs. Davis, who ran the hotel at Cunnamulla and who made me her guest ... she ... Perhaps I should have talked it over with her. But John Flynn came through. You know Flynn of the Inland, the great man of the Flying Doctor Service and he said, 'You've got to leave this. It's killing you. You're a woman. You can't go on doing this, it's ... it's too much for you'. P.G. Taylor came through and he said the same sort of thing, you know: 'You can't stick it out here'. And the Qantas pilots used to say, 'How that girl sticks it out there we don't know. We went up to 8,000 feet and we couldn't get out of the turbulence'. You see, in the summer time the air is very, very turbulent and it's ... it's very rough flying. Oh, dear old Boyer at the ABC once, when he wrote the forward to my first book, he said, 'It was like a bucking horse to fly in that country', and it was too and I hated that turbulence. Nowadays of course, people fly up to 10,000 feet or 12,000 feet and get out of it. But in those days we didn't and the turbulence used to get me down particularly in the summer time. And years later I learned that the DeHavilland Aircraft Company were very concerned about me flying out there because they knew the performance of the aeroplane fell off very much in that heat, but they didn't say so at the time. But a very amusing thing did happen. I was tending an early birds meeting, oh, only years ten, twenty ago and a man got into a taxi with me to come home who was one of the Queenslanders. He said, 'I was in charge of the Department of Civil Aviation when you were out there'. And I said, 'Well, Mr. Shaw, how was it that you didn't restrict me in any way because', I said, 'I could never meet the regulations. I didn't have a safety certificate. I didn't have an engineer or anything'. He said, 'Every time the shire engineer worked on your aeroplane he rang me up and told me what he did, and I frequently used to ring him and ask him how I was going, how things were going'. They'd been spying on me the whole time and I hadn't the faintest idea of it. Isn't it incredible, the things you learn later? But he said, 'We either had to let you do it and turn a blind eye, or we had to stop you flying'. You see you were supposed to have a safety certificate every week, an inspection, and I was too far away to comply with rules and regulations.

Do you think that kind of comment ... [INTERRUPTION] When your friends came through, Flynn and so on and said to you, 'This is too much for you as a girl', do you think they would have made that comment to a boy, or do you think he would have got encouragement?

I think they would have encouraged him actually. I don't know. John Flynn said, 'You know you are a woman ...'. I think it was old-fashioned in a way. It was kindly and gentle. I'm not sure that I wasn't perhaps a certain opposition to the work they were doing out at Birdsville, which was further out. And I can't understand why they didn't use me, except that they were very much on a very, very ... every, very economical budget and probably they couldn't afford to use an aeroplane. But the Presbyterian Church was doing marvellous work about 300 miles west of me, out at Birdsville ... Would it be 300 miles? Probably only 200 or so. But they were going all up into the Northern Territory and so on, and they could have done ... I did get a call once from Longreach. I'm not sure who it was because I couldn't do the job. I had to fly to Sydney with someone. But I believe at one stage Qantas were so short of aeroplanes they even considered using a Leopard Moth. It's in the books that have been written by the historians and I wonder if it was me. If they had thought of employing me to carry the mails onto Darwin, when they had one of the big crashes.

Now some other people doubted your ability to keep slogging on at this work. Did you always maintain your own confidence?

Yes I did. I did until I came to Sydney on that trip from Gadooga, when I bought a man in because his wife was very very ill. I landed at Gadooga. I landed beside ... a little bit out of town beside the telegraph line on a clay pan. Picked up this gentleman and flew him into Sydney. And then several days later I was to take him back. As I set out for the west, the clouds came down on the mountains and I thought, I can't get through. I'm not sure whether I could've got through if I'd gone down the Jamieson Valley and circled my way round. But everything in me revolted about going back. It was like been on a rearing horse - that aeroplane just didn't want to go back. I turned back to Sydney, landed, and burst into tears and I never wanted to fly again and I said to the pilots, 'Oh ...'. They said, 'Don't be silly. It's only a fool that pushes through when the clouds are on the mountains'. You know, 'Don't be upset by it'. But it really ... I just couldn't take it any longer. Something ... something happened. I just couldn't ... couldn't face ... face flying again and I wouldn't tell you that except that I've heard that P.G. Taylor told me it happened to him, and I've heard of several other people that it happened to. Suddenly they develop a fear, or a nervousness, and never want to fly again. We have one woman, in the Women Pilots Association now, who joined the Fear of Flying Clinic because she said when she ... She was married to an airline pilot. She said suddenly, when she was in an aircraft, she felt as if she wanted to scream. She just couldn't get out of that aeroplane quick enough, and yet she did the Fear of Flying course with us and now she is learning to fly, has got her license and is continuing.

Had you ever had a crash?

No I never had a crash, never damaged an aeroplane, and just as well, because in those days aeroplanes weren't insured, or at least I certainly couldn't afford to insure mine.

Were you insured?

No of course I wasn't. Actually I was insured. I was insured because I had been guaranteed by a gentleman, who was the president of the Narromine Aero Club, at the Banks of Australasia in Narromine. That's how I had raised the money to fly and this old gentleman, Mr. Perry, had guaranteed me so he had an insurance policy on my life. [INTERRUPTION] And the only thing that... And the thing I realise about that, it wouldn't have been much good to him unless I'd killed myself you see. [Laughs] Actually he was a very great patron of aviation. He did insure and finance May Bradford, a woman engineer, a real battler, and he insured her life when he lent her the money to buy an aeroplane, and she crashed and was killed with three other women on a take off at Mascot.

[end of tape]

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