Australian Biography

Nancy Bird - Walton - full interview transcript

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Now you'd always been a careful pilot. You'd never had a crash and yet you were overcome with this feeling that you couldn't go on flying. Why do you think that was?

Because I think I'd got rusty. [With] the lack of association with other flying people I'd become a very rigid pilot. I was a very safe pilot but I was too safe. I didn't get the best out of an aeroplane. Flying safely all the time, I'd become very rusty and [with] the responsibility of the aircraft, the heat and the weather of the inland, the isolation, [and] the loneliness, I think that that probably caused it. I couldn't afford a holiday. I'd never had a holiday. I was paying off an aircraft every hour I flew and I think that that was probably responsible for it.

You were a bit worn out.

I probably was a bit worn out. Yes. If I had left my aeroplane in the hands of somebody else, I'd have probably been running an airline today, and had a holiday. But I had an invitation from the Dutch airlines to go overseas and I knew that I'd never be able to afford to go overseas myself so that was very attractive too, and I wanted to take that up if I could, but it wasn't the reason that I cracked. I say I cracked, you know, and one day I heard somebody say, you know, 'Hear ... We'll hear about the woman pilot who had a breakdown while she was flying'. I thought, oh, how awful. I thought golly, they're talking about me! [Laughs] But I don't think it was a breakdown but I would say it was controlled cracking.

It was a crisis in your life.

It was a crisis, yes.

And you felt you had to ...

I felt ashamed that I couldn't get through. You see in those days we didn't go up higher over the clouds, because we didn't have a weather report at the other end, and we kept under the clouds. Now, just when there is that much to try and get through, you try and get through, which today they wouldn't do. But in mine, so long as I could see the railway line, or the top of the clouds, I would try to get through. And whether I'd have made it or not I don't know. Nowadays I've driven over those mountains and I see how the mists and things come up behind Katoomba and the highest peak, and maybe I wouldn't have got through. I wouldn't have been the first person to crash in those mountains either. A few pilots have met their fate there by just doing that. So, of course, the pilots supported me, but somehow I felt in my heart that I didn't want to get through, that I might have turned back because I wanted to turn back.

Of course a few people had been telling you that you couldn't do it and that you wouldn't be able to sustain it. Maybe their voices were somehow in that as well.

Yes well we had memorials in the aero-club to the people who hadn't gone through, like Neil Stewart and his wife, who had been killed in the Jamieson Valley. You know, you knew about these people. You knew how they'd tried to get through so that thought was always in your mind. As I say, that was the conversation amongst people you know, in the flying world, you know, 'He was a fool. He tried to get through and the weather was bad and of course he had hit the mountain', and things of that sort, and so we'd talk about those things, so they were things that would probably influence one.

Well you'd known all this before, but then, of course, you'd had a couple of people telling you that being a pilot out there wasn't a suitable life for a woman, so perhaps a crisis of a loss of confidence wasn't so surprising given that it had been put into your head that perhaps it was all a bit much for you. Do you think that could have influenced you?

I don't know, I'm not quite sure. I'm not sure. I didn't analyse the reason. I just, you know ... just felt awfully ashamed that I hadn't been able to take that man back to the country and ashamed of myself for breaking down and feeling I couldn't fly again. I didn't even want to fly again in a Link Trainer, and that never leaves the ground, so you know that really was a crisis.

How did the man get home by the way?

Oh he took the train. He took the train the next day.

So what did you do then? You took up this offer with KLM?

Yes, the Dutch East Indies Airline, which had been wanting to extend to Australia. [INTERRUPTION]

The Dutch East Indies airline ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did you take up the offer with the Dutch Airline?

Yes. The Dutch East Indies Airline had been wanting to extend to Australia since 1931. They were flying to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and they wanted to come on to Australia and the Australian Government wouldn't allow it. And in 1934, December 1934, the Imperial Airways and Qantas extended the service to Australia. Well then they allowed the Dutch to come in and they asked various people to make the flights. I wasn't one of the important people. I went away on the third flight, but the head of the Dutch shipping company invited me to make that flight to Batavia and then go on to Amsterdam with KLM, and that to me was the opportunity of a lifetime. I would never, never have had enough money to make that flight myself. So I sold my aircraft got back the 400 pounds that I started with and that's what I went away overseas with: a total of 400 pounds, and I was just so well received by the Dutch airlines, who introduced me to all the other airlines of Europe, and I studied Civil Aviation, and collected an exhibition, which I brought back to Australia.

What sort of an exhibition?

An exhibition of all the things that were been done overseas that we knew nothing about: all the airlines like Swiss Airline, Air France, Scandinavian Airlines. I flew to Russia with the Swedes and I was the first person to fly from Moscow to London in a day via Sweden.

As a passenger?

As a passenger. No other airline flew into Moscow except the Swedes did it twice a week and the Russians did it to Stockholm, twice a week, and I went on one of those flights. They got a bit of a scare when I went too, because it was just after Lindbergh had been there, and he'd gone back to Germany and said some nasty things about them. And so they ... the Swedes had to guarantee that I was all right because they were scared about another flying person coming in. But they were all marvellous to me. I really went to Sweden to study aerial ambulance work, and I flew to the North of Sweden, landed on a frozen lake with a Swedish pilot, and saw how they operated in the winter time - their medical services. The Red Cross did it.

And this was all part of the sort of PR push for KLM, was it? I mean, what was your actual role?

Yes. The only way I could repay KLM was by writing back to Australia letters of what I was doing. And that wonderful woman, Connie Robinson, who is the editoress of the women's section of the Sydney Morning Herald used to print everything that I wrote. She was absolutely marvellous to me, and those days, women never got off the women's pages of course. You never appeared anywhere else in the newspaper, but everybody read it anyhow, and the Dutch were delighted, and so they did more and more for me and introduced me to Lufthansa and Swiss Air and all the other airlines. In Germany I flew on maiden flights of some of the big new aeroplanes they were building and ...

And were you promoted as something for celebrity as you went around?

Well I don't think so. But in Holland I was asked to attend a press conference. I'd never known what a press conference was, and they were very sceptical. The public relations man was very sceptical because several women had been invited over to Holland and I think he thought I was one of those girls. But I was a very naive little girl from the back country. I sat round surrounded by these journalists, all with their pens and papers, and the Executive Director of KLM questioned me. Well whatever I said must have been right, because that sceptical PR man was standing behind me, and I won him over completely. They couldn't do enough for me. I owe a tremendous amount to the Dutch. They were the people who really helped me and quite frankly they were running the best airline in the world anyhow.

So what happened after this ... after this time with KLM?

Well then I went to England and then I went to Germany. I went to England. I flew into France, to the air show the Paris Aviation Exhibition, which of course is the great thing for all flying people, and that was when they were showing the first of Heinkels and the Messerschmidts and the Spitfire, but of course I didn't know their significance. I didn't know anything about politics. I had wonderful friends in Germany and they obviously didn't think I was any security risk, because I was invited to the Junkers factory and all sorts of places like that. Ellie Beinhorn, the German aviatrix, who'd flown here in 1932 introduced me to people, so I wasn't a tourist there. I was just a person who enjoyed meeting the well known aviation people of Germany. And of course, Germany in those days, was doing things with aviation. Of course, we all now know why, but I didn't know why and they were so enthusiastic about aviation, where the rest ... other countries of the world were not. England was not much interested in aviation. And you know all these people who were enthusiastic sportsman-pilots appreciated the fact that they'd built a Messerschmidt 108, a lovely aeroplane, a retractable under carriage. I flew to Berlin from Paris with it, with Ellie Beinhorn. But of course it was the ... [INTERRUPTION]

I flew with Ellie Beinhorn from from Berlin to Paris in it, and of course it was forerunner for the 109, which was the fighter. I was invited to the Haus Ter Fliegen, which was the old legislative assembly, the most beautiful aero-club and I was invited by the Americans to a big celebration with the German-American association when Hannah Reich was made the first woman officer in Luftwaffe, and I sat next to the American Consul. Hannah was next and then the Louis P. Lockner, the great American writer, who was the President of the club. Ellie Beinhorn and a German explorer and that's the day I fell in love with an American from the Embassy. [Laughs] Another little happiness in my life.

And was that a romance that lasted very long?

Well for the month I was there. I shed a few tears when I took off for ... for Sweden, but it was a very happy occasion.

Were there many signs of what was gathering in Germany around you?

Well, I stood on the side of the street once with an American War Correspondent and she said, 'You know Nancy, this means war'. I didn't now anything about politics at all. You used to see all these marching Nazis and the salute you know, and their dedication to their country, but it didn't ... didn't ... it didn't mean war to me. I went to Germany after Munich. I wasn't afraid of it in any way. I didn't understand it sufficiently obviously. When you're out at Bourke and you can't afford to buy a newspaper you don't know much about what's going on in the world. Because the radio is always in the bar, because they are listening to the races, and I didn't have a radio. We didn't have transistors in those days.

You were lucky you didn't get caught by the war.

Very fortunate. I was in Russia in May, 1939.

So when did you come back to Australia?

In July of 1939.

And what happened to you in the war years?

Well, I'd no sooner got back here than I was asked to join the flying club, which had been formed a year earlier and which was training girls in aviation-related subjects and offering scholarships, but as soon as the war broke out we went on to a war footing and trained and recruited women to serve in a women's auxiliary air force, should one be formed. And in the meantime we were doing everything we could to help the Air Force. We were the recruiting centre. The girls ... Petrol rationing was introduced, so the girls got dad's car and drove Air Force officers all over the country. They helped in the area of finance. Girls who worked in offices all day long came to 221 George Street, where we had rooms lent to us free and trained in air subject. So eventually, when the WAAF was formed, all the senior officers with the exception of myself, went into the WAAF and then the Government stopped recruiting. They didn't want the women in the war services. They said we were playing at soldiers. They definitely didn't want it. You see the unions were dead against women being used in any of the occupations that the men were doing in the Air Force, because they were frightened they'd stay on after the war and do the men out of jobs. And there is a book that has just come out, which shows the terrible arguments that went on to try and keep the women out of the services in the early war years.

But you're describing what was a voluntary ...

Ours was a voluntary, yes, and we did voluntary work and we were doing that. We proved how much help they could be. After all they only had two cars at area headquarters. So when they wanted to send somebody to Narromine or to Temora, or somebody somewhere they, these girls would get dad's car and sometimes they even paid for the petrol and drove the officers to those destinations.

So what was the outcome of this struggle to get these women properly professionally into ...?

Well they finally started a Women's Auxiliary Australian Airforce, but that wasn't until considerably later. And once they started it, they took in all the senior officers, with the exception of myself, and they didn't take me in because I was married. I'd married and they didn't take in married women to begin with and also too, my husband was in the Reserved Occupation. If I could have stayed in Sydney I could have been there but the Director insisted that I be in Melbourne, so I had to choose between breaking up my marriage or staying as a volunteer, and I became the Commandant of the Women's Air Training Corps. But you see, women were ... There were a lot of women who were in that, who were man powered. They were in jobs that they weren't allowed to leave and the only way that they could do voluntary work, in their weekends or for the Airforce, was by doing things out of their office hours.

Now you mentioned that by this time you were married. How had you met your husband?

I met him on a ship coming from America. I was three weeks on the Monterey coming to Australia.

Was this on your way home from the KLM?

That was my way home from America. I went to America after England and there I met all the international women pilots in New York and they literally carried me across America, or arranged for me to come across America, and I met my husband on the ship. In fact I was sat ... They put me between the Chief Purser and my husband to control my exuberance, they said. [Laughs]

But they didn't succeed. You affected him.

I affected him apparently, yes. I ... I fell in love again, you know.

So it was a ship board romance.

It was a ship board romance that lasted fifty-one and a half years.

And was that a very romantic trip?

Yes it was. I was very, very happy. I had a wonderful trip. We danced every night to American music and we went ashore at New Zealand and, yes, it was a very happy time.

And did you have children during the war?

No, no, not until my daughter was born in 1935. [corrects herself] My daughter was born in 1945 and my son in 1946.

So during the war years you weren't tied down with children. You were able to give your energy to ...

No. I went to every State. I went to every State and ... and saw the women pilots. First I went to every State and saw the Women's Air Training Corps. We had started out with the Countess of Bective, Lady Bective, as our chief and when she went back to England, I became the chief and then after I left, Dame Mabel Brooks of Melbourne became the Head of the Women's Air Training Corp.

Do you think the women really made a difference during the war?

Oh the war couldn't have been a full out without them. No that was proved and of course the English Air Marshall, who came out here, realised that, but he had a terrible battle with the Government and the Civil Aviation Department and the Unions to get them to use the women, but of course in the end they did everything to release men for active duty. You know, all the ground work, the cipher work, the clerical work - all those things were done by women. They had 25,000 in the WAAF alone. Then of course the Army took in women. Then the Navy started the RANS and then Lorna Burns started the land army, so the women were used a great deal. We couldn't have had successful operation without them.

But you, yourself, you did not ... you didn't fly.

There was no flying in Australia for women pilots. [INTERRUPTION]

There was no flying in Australia for women pilots, because we always had more pilots than aeroplanes. We had very few aeroplanes at the beginning of the war years. We even put bombs on the wings of Tiger Moths. That's how badly off we were for aeroplanes and we had flying boats trying to evade Zeros and things like that. It was just criminal, our lack of defence. The people think women flew here during the war, but no women flew here during the war. No woman flew the Pacific or the Atlantic, with the exception of Jacqueline Cochrane of America, who flew in the Canadian Air Transport Auxiliary in Canada, who demanded to be taken as a co-pilot. They wouldn't allow her to do the takeoff or the landing, but she was a friend of Lord Beaverbrooks and she got herself onboard, and she went across the Atlantic on a delivery flight. But she was the only woman allowed to ever fly the Atlantic. Two women, highly skilled women, Betty Gillies and Nancy Love - two very experienced women pilots - had a Flying Fortress on the runway at Goose Bay and fifteen minutes before their takeoff, General Arnold stopped the flight.

Simply because they were women. It was because they ...

Simply because they were women. Simply because they were women.

What did you think about that, at the time?

Well, we don't ... we don't know the reason. We suspect certain reasons. He was in London at the time, when he heard it was taking place and he telephoned immediately, and the controller on Goose Bay put on his overcoat, [and] went out onto the runway to stop the flight. They were devastated because they were very competent women. Maybe they didn't want the American women to go into the war zone and England was a war zone. That's the nicest thing I can say about it.

Do you think that the women should have been allowed to fly - I mean all women - during the war?

No, not necessarily, only if they were needed. They were needed in England and they did a marvellous job. Pauline Gower, who was one of my friends there, was the head of the Air Transport Auxiliary and we had one Australian girl Mardi Gethering, Sir Herbert Gep's daughter from Melbourne, was over there and she flew 800 hours in Spitfires. The women did a marvellous job of delivering aircraft. In fact the Chief Pilot, the Test Pilot of the Spitfire, told me that at the end of the war every aeroplane that was picked up at the factory was picked up by a woman pilot. So they did a marvellous job and they also did a marvellous job in America. But you see they were churning out aeroplanes, one after another, coming out of the factory. They had to move them and they didn't have the pilots to move them, so they used the women. But we weren't an aircraft producing country until quite late in the war, and by that time we had enough men returned from active duty to do all the ferrying or removal of aircraft that were necessary - the ferrying from place to place and so on.

Now during all this time, since that time of crisis when you came back from the mountains, you hadn't flown. When did you start flying again?

I took out my license again in the 1950s.

Why was that?

Well I started flying with Maie Casey, when her husband was the Foreign Minister, and when he was abroad often I would go to Melbourne and do some flying with her, or I'd formed the Australian Women Pilots in 1950, and I was the Penguin President - you know, the non-flying president - so I decided to start flying again and I started flying on a student's license and I flew as a co-pilot with her to the meeting in Brisbane and to Adelaide, and so on. And then in 1958 I decided I would fly in the Powder Puff Derby in America. I'd been invited to come over and fly in it, but I didn't have an aeroplane and we were only allowed a small amount of money to go overseas with: in those days 700 pounds, I think it was. [INTERRUPTION]

So I tried to get a job as a co-pilot, but nobody wanted me as a co-pilot. And then I thought, opportunity knocks once at every man's door. If I am going to fly in this race, forget everything else, hire an aircraft, get a co-pilot and fly in the race yourself. So I did. I got a little 172. My wonderful friends in America checked me out on it. I flew solo in it. I'd never flown in an aeroplane with radio in it. I never flown in an aeroplane with a tricycle undercarriage. It was a completely new world.

I suppose you'd learnt on a joy stick and ...

Oh yes, yes. And so ... Then they recommended a co-pilot for me and there again, I was exceedingly fortunate. One of the best ferry pilots of the war years became my co-pilot and we placed sixth ... fifth in a field of sixty-one starters. But you know, I give the full credit to the American because you know you can't compete with those girls, they were fantastic. You know, they'd been flying the length and breadth of America during the war years and they ... they knew it like the back of their hands. But of course, they can't understand you in America when you talk on the radio. It's ... You know that line from My Fair Lady: 'There even were places where English completely disappears in America. They haven't used it for years'. [Laughs]

What did it feel like to be back in the air again?

Oh, I was quite at home. I was quite at home. It was quite a sensation to take off Lindbergh Field, you know, with the great jets and everything, because you share all the airfields there you know. The ... the private pilot has as much rights as the astronaut in America. There is no ... You go out to Bankstown. The private pilots aren't allowed to land at Mascot and that sort of thing. No, in America the customer is right. The taxpayer is right. And going off Lindbergh Field was quite a sensation and then I went over to Montgomery Field and flew off that field, which has become a big airfield now, but it was very little then. Later, when I flew in another Powder Puff Derby in 1961, I soloed out in the Mojave Desert, and that was quite an experience too, because I was flying a much faster aircraft than I'd ever flown before and the corners came up very quickly.

Did the fear that it possessed you, when you gave up flying before, ever return?


Did the fear that had overtaken you, when you gave up flying before, did that ever come again?

No, but I don't think I ever regained my confidence as well. I've mostly flown as a co-pilot ever since. I've done a few solos, but mostly as a co-pilot, and of course it has changed so, with all the avionics and electronics and the radio and things of that sort, that I'm not very familiar with, so I feel that I would be a bit of menace in the air if I ... unless I did it regularly and if I had the time and lived in the country I probably would fly, but it's not much fun in the city when you have to take an hour-and-a-half to get to the airfield to do half-an-hour or an hours flying. And I have many friends, who fly, that if I want to go somewhere it's just a matter of calling up someone and saying, 'Would you like to fly me to Mudgee', or the airline is going everywhere and, of course, I have a son who flies and I have two grandchildren who have gone solo but couldn't afford to go any further.

When you were going in the Powder Puff Derby and so on, you had children. What did they think of their mother being a pilot?

I don't know. I never asked them. But you know all children dislike their mothers to be any different to any other mother, you know, and you have to be very very careful as a mother who is, perhaps, maybe a picture in the newspaper. And I remember Lady Casey having this trouble. I remember Lady Wakehurst having this trouble, and I once said to Lady Wakehurst, 'How is your daughter?' she said, 'You know, she says she's not going to do anything until her children are grown up because she knows how she has suffered'. You know and yet every privilege those kids had was because their mother and father ... Their father was the Governor of New South Wales. Thank goodness young Prince Charles doesn't behave like that. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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