|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 29, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
When you first went to Europe you described how naive you were about politics, and how you really didn't know anything at all about the world of politics, but later that changed didn't it, and you became quite active in political circles for a while.
Yes. During the war years I used to go to the Economics Society with some people who have become very distinguished like Nugget Coombs, Leslie Melville, Sir John ... all these people who surrounded Menzies and so on. Bill Wentworth and so on. And my husband was very interested in politics and I became interested in politics as a result of my association with these people, who were often guests in our house. And also, the Liberal Party found that if they took a woman along to a meeting often women would come to the meeting too, and their husbands would come to be there with them and so they got better meetings, so I took a very great interest in politics and spoke for various politicians. Then I got the idea that I'd like to go into the Legislative Council because I wanted to bring women into politics. I wanted to open the doors. Now I don't think I had any brains for the job, but believe me, I would have used everybody else's because there are specialists in all those fields. You don't have to have your brains yourself and I think women are humble enough to ask people, ask the specialists, what ... what are the right things to do and I used to hear these wonderful talks from these various very clever men. Anyhow, the first time I had no hope of getting in. I was flying the flag. We didn't have enough votes. Mrs. Press went in for the Labor Party. The second time they chose a woman from Bankstown, who said, 'How awful it was to be a Liberal in Bankstown', and she was chosen. The third time they wanted to put in somebody from Newcastle because that's a very important district. But they didn't put somebody in from Newcastle. They put in a woman who was Vice President of the Liberal Party and she went in unopposed. But if I had defeated her in a ballot, I don't think I could have looked at my face in the mirror because she really worked hard for the party and she didn't have children. She was freer than I was and, frankly, my intention was to open the gates to women and get women interested in politics. After the war when they tried to extend the wartime controls of petrol rationing, of nationalising the airlines, nationalising the banks and so on, that's when I got interested in politics. We formed a Women's ... a Women's Movement Against Socialism and we educated women all over the country, rallied women all over the country, to be interested in politics, and to not vote blindly as their husbands told them to, that it was a secret ballot and they could go in and vote as they liked. [Laughs] And I can tell you I felt very guilty, when I first voted differently to my husband.
Oh, you did vote differently?
Yes, I did and it was for the Senate. The President of the CWA had stood for the Senate. She wasn't the first on the ticket, but I made her the first on the ticket because I thought she was pretty good.
How did your husband feel about your activities both as a pilot, as an organiser, and as a politician or as a would-be politician?
Well he supported it. Very much indeed, he supported me but my husband was a quiet Englishman and I don't think that he would have liked me coming home at midnight from Parliament. He liked me to be home when he came home for dinner.
Now you've kept up a lot of activity, haven't you, right through your life?
I've always had a finger in some pie ... [INTERRUPTION]
... ever since I had that fateful Collaroy Children's Hospital and raised two pounds at the age of eight. I think I've always been organising something. I didn't realise it you know, but Lyndall Littlejohn, the great feminist, said to me in London, 'You just get yourself organised. You have organising ability. Now write down what you've done and when you go to see people leave that behind with them', and I owe a great deal to Lyndall Littlejohn.
So you became well known through your organising abilities and got lots of opportunities to be able to do those sorts of things, and more recently also you've turned to authorship.
Yes, well I was involved in the Heart Campaign and the Air Ambulance and well authorship was really just writing down the few facts of the things that happened out west. I didn't keep a diary unfortunately but I did write it down in a little exercise book, a few notes, and funnily enough that was found only a few years ago, after my mother's death in a garage. Some children found pictures of aeroplanes and this little threepenny note book, and a women rang up and said, 'I have Nancy Bird's diary. Do you think she wants it?' I said, 'I never wrote a diary'. But she said, 'The spelling wasn't so good. The hand writing was all right but the spelling wasn't so good'. I said, 'It must be my writing, my diary', so I went and got it and in that way I was able to recall a lot of things. But I did write a manuscript in 1936. I dictated a manuscript in 1936 and recently in Strathfield I met the girl who typed it out for me and that was the basis of Born To Fly, which I produced in 1961. But the last book I wrote, My God, It's a Woman, was because people kept saying, 'Why don't you put these things down?' when I spoke at meetings. When I spoke at functions they said, 'Why don't you put it down?' and finally I did put some of the things down. It's call an autobiography, but I assure you it isn't.
Now you're now in your late seventies and you really are obviously remarkably energetic and active. How do you think you've kept up that level of energy? What's your secret? [INTERRUPTION]
You are now in your late seventies and you're still tremendously energetic. What's the secret of keeping that energy alive?
Well my mother had it, so I think I got it from her. Also I'm interested in everything. I'm interested in politics, I'm interested in the newspapers, international affairs. I'm interested in women pilots. I'm interested in people. I love people. Everybody's got a story. Everybody's got a book in them if they only knew it. And I love living but also too I have reasonably good health. I have little things go wrong but I get them fixed up and I keep going. I think keeping busy is important. Where do I get my energy? I don't know. I've also got a nasty thing called a driving force, and it's ... you say you're not going to do a thing, no you won't do it, but you end up doing it you know. So it's rather fun to see how much you can fit into a day sometimes. It might be a bit exhausting by the end of the day, but you don't feel it until you stop.
Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, I really don't want to do everything I've got organised to do?
Sometimes I probably wish I didn't have to do something but not ... When I get into it, I thoroughly enjoy it.
What do you think is the thing that you learned in your early life that stood you in best stead throughout the rest of it?
Enthusiasm, self-discipline ... Let me think. Stop for a minute. Being prepared to do anything - not saying, 'It's not my job'. Being prepared to use your hands or your head and do something that has to be done. Getting in and doing something. Not walking past the job and saying, 'Well that's not for me'. I know I laugh at myself because once, when speaking to a school, the headmistress spoke about how they would all reach their greatest potential and so on, and when I finished my speech I said, 'You'll never reach your greatest potential if you walk past the dishwasher without emptying it or leave your costume on the bathroom floor'. [Laughs] And that I think it's as simple as that you know. People just drop their clothes and expect somebody else to pick them up and that happens in a family all the time. It's I think that ...
Doing what's in front of you.
Doing what's in front of you. That's what it is. Doing what's in front of you.
Now you ...
I'm very intolerant, aren't I? I once went to see a play with that wonderful man that I met in Berlin, who is the Pastor of the American Church. He came over to London to see me. And the play was Dear Octopus with Marie Tempest, the great actress, in it. And the mother in that play always could find a job for everybody. I'm terribly like her. I'm ashamed of how like her I am. [Laughs] If I could see jobs I delegate them, or do them.
You really became known for the fact that you were doing something that not many women did at the time, and everybody was surprised that this little girl who was doing these dangerous and daring and difficult things that you did, in the early days of flight. The position of women has changed enormously since that time ... [INTERRUPTION]
In the course of your lifetime the position of women has changed very dramatically - probably some people say the biggest social change of the Twentieth Century. What do you think of it all?
Well first of all, we didn't consider it difficult, dangerous or any of those things that you said. It was just a job of work: you learnt to fly an aeroplane and you went out and did a job. I was lucky to be able to do a job. The position of women: I'm so proud of what women have achieved, so proud of what women have achieved. Executive women, women in every walk of life, that they take on in law, in flying, everything. I think it's marvellous, and I think it has made wonderful relationship between men and women. They share things now completely. They share their mental ... mental capacity. Women were not educated in the old days. In my mothers days women were not ... few women received a higher education. Now women are educated and they are able to share with their husbands or their masculine friends their intellectual development and it's wonderful to see.
So you see it all as positive. You don't ...
Absolutely. Absolutely. So long as we don't lose our femininity; so long as we don't lose our graciousness and so long as we don't become aggressive and ... although I don't want to use the word feministic it was a ... regarded as a aggressive sort of thing at one stage. I don't think it is now. But I feel that to retain ... It's wonderful to be a woman. It's wonderful to behave like a woman and for men to treat you as a woman and I don't see why we can't retain that, as well as developing our intellectual capacity.
Do you see a difference between aggressive and being assertive?
Yes, I think some women, when they become very high up in the executive world, forget to smile. Very few of them forget to look feminine. The thing is to be feminine.
You've always gone for what you wanted and set your goals clearly and worked toward them and stood up for yourself without being aggressive.
No not always. I've always cut my cake to suit my husband and family. People may not think that but it's true. I've always put my family and my husband first. I'd have done lots more things in my life if I hadn't married or hadn't [had] a family, but I don't think that they would have been better. I might have been terrible. I might have been a terrible aggressive woman or something. [Laughs]
If you'd been a man and a pilot, what do you think you'd have been doing now?
Probably flying an air liner or an executive in Qantas, or something of that sort. Gary Richardson, who developed the ... the Victor Aircraft, once said I have missed my calling, I should have been an executive woman in aviation. Well that's of course what I thought I was going to be when I cam back to Australia, but I fell in love instead, and married.
And of course had you married today, and been setting out now, you might have been able to have both.
That's true. I belong to a different period of time.
What do you think it was that really attracted you to flying? When were the first dreams of flying that you had?
Well ... My first dreams of flying was as a tiny child and I don't think that I would have every revealed it, if General Valerie André, the only woman General that I know of in the world, a French woman, said in her autobiography, 'As a small child I used to dream I could fly'. I used to dream I could fly. I used to dream I could lift myself up over the telegraph poles when the lions and tigers were chasing me in my childish nightmares. But I would have though it was a silly thing to say if General Valerie André hadn't said it. Then when I went to the country, when I first saw an aeroplane, it had a magnetic attraction for me. It was although there was a straight line between me and an aircraft whenever I saw one and then when I was thirteen I went for a flight. It became the ruling passion of my life after that. So I don't know what it was, but Mother said that I was jumping off a fence at the age of four without outstretched arms calling myself an 'eppyplane'. Now that was 1919, so it must have been the conversation of the adults about the England-Australia air race that was won by Ross and Keith Smith, that inspired me to ... to be an aeroplane - to climb the fence and jump off just like an aeroplane. So I don't know really where it came from, but remember my teenage years were all through the twenties, after the First World War, when aviation was coming to Australia by those persistent pilots. Like Charles Kingsford-Smith and P.G. Taylor, Hudson-Fysh and Horrie Miller, and all those great pioneers were trying to bring aviation to Australia. And their activities were in every newspaper. Every time there was a crash, every time they flew anywhere, even when I started flying it was in the news - the social news certainly, because women didn't get out of the women's pages. But it was news. So there was a great attraction to ... I was greatly attracted to it and fed by the newspapers of the feats of great people, great pioneers of aviation, and then of course, Amy Johnson, Ellie Beinhorn, Jean Batten all flew from England to Australia, and so this was further ... further inspiration to me.
When you're out there in an aeroplane on your own, flying along, and you must have sometimes been in danger, especially with the turbulence and so on, did you ever think about death?
Yes because in the back of one's mind was always the ... the ... the story of the Hitchcock and Anderson, when they were lost out in Central Australia, and in the country I was flying in if you had crashed an aeroplane, or had a forced landing, and had no water you could die in twenty-four hours. Even today, people who are thrown from a horse or get lost or something can perish in twenty-four hours in inland Australia. So when I first landed on Urosino Station 140 miles west of Bourke, the manager said to me, 'Do you carry water' I said, 'No'. He said, 'Well never land on this station or leave it without carrying water', and he gave me a great big thermos flask to carry water in. From then on I always carried water. I landed there one day, when a black tracker was found swimming in the sand. He was ... had no water and he had ... he'd been a very seriously affected by dehydration and this was ... They were out searching for him, and that's when the manager said to me, 'Never land on this place without water and never leave it without water'.
Do you fear death?
No I don't fear death. I feel that ... Mike Casey said, 'It's another experience', and I feel it is perhaps another experience. I would hate to have died out in the bush from thirst, or injured and not being found before it was too late. I think I would like to die amongst people, preferably in a nice comfortable bed, [laughs] but I have no fear of death. It is inevitable.
What kind of experience do you think it will be?
Beg your pardon?
What kind of experience do you think death is? Do you think there is an after life?
That I don't know. I believe there is. I hope there is. But I think it's what you do here, in this life, that you can make a heaven or hell for yourself and other people. I don't think it's worth worrying too much about what's happening hereafter. I think it's important to make the best of your life now. And so that may be a irrelevant [sic] I don't know, but I haven't ... I'm not prepared to sacrifice this life for the next one.
In relation to this life, what's the best thing do you think that's ever happened to you in your life? Your best experience.
Falling in love and marrying the man I love probably.
Better than flying?
Yes, much better than flying.
And what's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?
I would say the loss - the death of my little niece. I think that would be the worse thing. Because I think when youth ... youth dies it is a tragedy. When old people die it is a triumph, they have lived a lovely long life. When young people die it is a tragedy.
And she died very young, didn't she?
Yes. I've lost two nieces quite young.
Do you have any regrets?
No I don't really, because when I was young I had so many people say, 'If I had my life over again I'd do this or that', and I was determined that I was never going to say, 'If I had my life over again ...', you know, so I was determined to do what I wanted to do and not have regrets, but now I realise that I would have been much better off if I had talked with Mr. Stanley Drummond more, if I had confided in him, if I had told him my feelings about various things and had somebody to talk to, somebody to advise me. You see, I was always alone. My parents knew nothing about aviation. They knew nothing about business and I didn't have anyone to refer to. If I'd had somebody who could ... a partner or somebody who could've advised me, I might have even started an airline in the west because I was the first out there, and I regret that I didn't stay longer at Bourke and talk it over with Mr. Drummond and be able to stay there and do more work for them. That's why, when I re-enacted the flying this ... last year around New South Wales, I wanted to give back to the Far West Children's Health Scheme something, because they had given me the very first job a woman had in commercial aviation in Australia.
Would I do it the same way? Oh no, I'd do it with the benefit of fifty years on my shoulders and the wisdom of fifty years of course. One would be able to do it quite differently. You know, after all, there is something that comes with the years - that experience and age can't be replaced.
If you had to give one line of advice to young people now, about their approach to life, what would it be?
Don't underestimate the value of experience of the aged, your parents, your associates, your parent's friends, people of ... experienced people - don't underestimate it. It is there for nothing. You can usually get it for free and that's something that a lot of young people don't know. They go and make mistakes that they need not make and it's very good to have somebody that you can talk things over with ... with which you can talk things over.
Of all the things you've done ... I mean there you were a pioneer of aviation at a time when there weren't too many women doing what you did, and you'd been active in so many areas of life, what do you think has been your greatest achievement?
I don't think I have any great achievements. I've survived. I'm rising seventy-seven. Yes that's my great achievement - to be a survivor and to have good health, reasonably good health, to be able to talk and that people want me to talk. That's a great achievement at my age, that's my greatest achievement that people still want me. [INTERRUPTION]
Have you enjoyed been so well known, so famous?
I don't think I'm famous at all. I think it's very nice that people invite me to speak at their functions, or to help them raise funds for charity by speaking at their various organisations, but I don't think I'm famous. People might ... might say these things to you, but so long as you don't believe them you keep your feet on the ground.
You saw those women the other day. They come up to you. You have eye-to-eye contact with them and they ... as you sign a book for them, each one tells you a little story about their husband, their son or their grandson, and you meet a great cross-section of people all the time and there's such a warmth that comes from that audience to you. You can feel the warmth. I can feel my audiences ... I can feel a frigid audience too, and that, I think, I'm just terribly lucky and I met a man the other day, who's in his nineties, who was commander of a Corvette, and he's been in both wars - the First and the Second and he looked at me and said, "Nancy, you are so lucky to have that interest in aviation and history'. He said, 'I hate the next day'. He said, 'You know I'm just bored to death the whole time', so I feel I'm terribly fortunate and so I just go on doing the things while I can physically do them.
Have you ever been bored?
Oh yes, I suppose I have been. I've had dull moments in my life, very dull and dreary moments, but you know there's always something to do if you just look around you, when you're waiting for someone or waiting for something, if you use that time, you don't get bored. Sitting and waiting is when you get bored.
And you always find something to do?
There's always something to do. It might just be run off a letter of thanks to somebody. It might be while you're on the telephone to somebody, you can have a pen beside you and you can scribble a note or something. It might just be saying, 'I'm delighted to hear you're writing a book', or 'Congratulations on selling your house', or whatever it might be. There's always something that you can do. Don't waste minutes, don't waste time. But then perhaps I'm not a very restful person. But there's a book you can read. There's always something you can do.
You pack every day, brimful ...
Yes I mostly do, I mostly do.
[end of interview]