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Nancy Bird Walton

Pioneering aviator (1915–2009)

About Nancy Bird Walton

Nancy Bird Walton was a pioneering Australian aviator and founder of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. She spent the first four years of her life in Kew, later launching her career flying planes in outback NSW, Europe and the United States.

Adventurer, patriot and trailblazer, Nancy forever changed how women were seen, both on the ground and in the skies.

The Western Sydney International Airport at Badgerys Creek is to be named in her honour.

Location

  • Street address:Royal Hotel, 2 Ocean Drive, Kew 2439
  • Traditional name:Birpai

Category

  • Aviation
  • Transport

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Detailed information

Black-and-white photo showing Nancy Bird Walton standing casually in front of an old-fashioned aircraft wearing full aviation gear, including a cap, with goggles pushed up over her forehead
Nancy Bird 1933 on wheel of Metal Moth VH-VOP belonging to Tammy Petherbridge - PXE 787, c. 1933. Image Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

At 15, Nancy Bird set herself an extraordinary task: to learn how to fly.

Despite her parents’ initial objections, she saved up money from her wages and made it to Sydney for a flying lesson at Mascot.

After taking flying lessons with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, she gained her Class A licence in 1933. Nancy received her commercial pilot’s licence the following year. She was the first woman in Australia and the youngest woman in the British empire ever to do so.

In 1935 Nancy joined with fellow aviator, Peggy McKillop, to travel around north-west NSW in a restored Tiger Moth. Together, they offered plane rides at country shows for 10 shillings each. The entrepreneurial pair covered over 17,000 kilometres in just eight weeks. They then moved to the state’s south west, spending three weeks spanning another 19,000 kilometres.

Spotted by the Reverend Stanley Drummond during one of these tours, Nancy was recruited to fly nurses and patients for the Far West Children’s Health Scheme. For the next couple of years she was based out of Bourke, a famous figure in many of the tiny towns dotting the outback.

But Nancy didn’t stay still for long. In 1937 she embarked on a two-year world tour to promote the Dutch East Indies Airline (later KLM). On her way home from the United States she met an Englishman, Charles Walton. They married in 1939 in a ceremony at the Scots Church, Sydney.

Formal posed black-and-white photo of Nancy Bird Walton wearing an aviation cap, with goggles pushed up over her forehead. She is dressed in a thick jacket.
Portrait of Nancy Bird Walton. Photograph: Russell Roberts. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

During World War II, Nancy actively recruited and trained women to support the Royal Australian Air Force in non-combat roles. She founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association in 1950, serving as its chair until 1955, and was also active in politics.

She published her teenage diary as Born to Fly in 1960, and an autobiography My God, It’s A Woman! in 1990. The title was taken from the astonished words of an outback grazier, after she once landed her plane on his property.

Throughout her life, Nancy supported charities and helped those in need. In recognition, she received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1966 and became an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990.

Nancy died in Sydney on 13 January 2009 aged 93, having survived Charles by 18 years. Her legacy continues to inspire generations of female pilots and adventurers everywhere.

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