By, Captain Nancy Aldrich

“My God, it’s a woman!” was the greeting she received when she arrived to rescue a man from a flood. 

At 19, Nancy Bird had become the youngest woman in the British Empire to obtain a commercial pilot’s license in 1934. She was born in 1915, in Kew, New South Wales, Australia, a saw-milling town. 

As a small child, she learned about the England-Australia Air Race of 1919. She was fascinated by the idea of flying, and began jumping from fences, pretending she was flying a plane. As an older child, she decided she wanted to be a ballerina. At least, she did until she took a ride in a Gypsy Moth airplane when she was 13. Her sister went up with her. They paid the pilot a little extra to ‘do some aerobatics.’ She said, “My sister and I came down a little green, but on the other hand it became the ruling passion of my life.” After that she was determined to learn to fly. 

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith was the first person to fly from America to Australia, in 1928. He announced that he planned to start a flight school. Against her father’s wishes, Nancy showed up and became his first student. He had his doubts about female flyers, but she was able to persuade him to take her on. A child of the depression, she had to leave school at age 13 and go to work to help the family. While working she was able to keep some of the money she made for herself. I’m sure the 200 pounds she had saved helped influence him. Although Kingsford Smith did not take her very seriously. After all, she was only a little girl, only five feet tall, a little spit of a thing. She worked hard and was able to earn his respect. She was determined. She said, From then on I went out every day until I was 19 and sat for my commercial license.” She turned out to be a cautious pilot, and earned her “A” pilot’s license at  age 17, and went on to earn her commercial license. She wanted to fly for a living. 

It soon became clear that there were no jobs for pilots, especially female pilots. That did not deter her. She received a legacy of 200 pounds from an aunt. That, along with some money borrowed from her father, she was able to buy her first airplane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. By the way, she did pay her father back the borrowed money. 

Nancy and a friend, Peggy McKillop, set out on a barnstorming tour. They would fly into local fairs and sell rides in the airplane. They were quite an attraction. Most people had never seen an airplane, let alone one flown by a girl! The little Gypsy Moth had two open cockpits, and a top cruising speed of 80 mph. In addition to giving joy rides at fairs, they carried aerial advertising and participated in ‘air pageants.’ 

Flying from fair to fair with no navigation aids was challenging. No only did they have no navigation aids, there were no weather reports, and she had to do all her own maintenance. She didn’t think twice about the service she provided. They flew over the featureless western plains of Australia by using a wristwatch, compass and road map. At times they would land and ask the way to their next destination. When it got dark, they would land for the night and tie the Gpysy Moth to a fence so it would not blow away, and hope that cattle would not chew through the fabric by morning. 

While on one of these trips, she met the Reverend Stanley Drummond. He wanted her to start a flying medical service in the outback of New South Wales. In 1935, she began to operate the Far West Children’s Health Scheme. She used her Gypsy Moth as an air ambulance. As soon as she could, she bought a better suited airplane, and began flying to areas not yet reached by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Using her airplane to fly nurses, and sick and injured people back and forth, she became known at “The Angel of the Outback.” She stated that it was very rewarding, but also very lonely work. She said, “One of the things that came into one’s mind was the fear of being lost and never being found. You would have perished before being found in the summertime in that country.” 

Her service was invaluable in providing health care services to many communities in the ‘outback’ New South Wales. She was the only source of  ‘mercy flights,’ taking baby health clinics to families. She also flew the only charter aircraft service in south-west Queensland. 

As one of the few commercial pilots at that time, she was occasionally hired to fly. Sometimes the directions she was given were not very clear. She might be told, ‘follow the river bed for about 20 miles until you come to a fence, then turn north until you see a windmill in about 40miles, then fly 8 miles west and land on the road by the ranch house.’ On one of these flights, she saw people waving and thought she had reached her destination. She landed amid stumps only to be told that they were trying to signal her that the landing strip was 5 miles further on. They had to help clear the ground to give her enough room to take off. 

In 1936, Nancy entered an air race from Adelaide to Brisbane. She won the Ladies’ Trophy. Soon after that, the government stopped its annual 200 pound subsidy for her work and she moved to Queensland. There a clergyman convinced her to give up because of the climate, the loneliness, and the debt she was incurring. Of course, there was also the fact of the unreliability of the airplane. She took his advice and sold the airplane and decided to take a break from flying. She began looking for another way to work in aviation. She visited Europe and America to see what was happening in those areas. While in Europe, a Dutch airline, KLM, hired her to do promotional work. 

Sailing home from Britain in 1939, she met Charles Walton, an Englishman whom she married. They had two children, a son and a daughter. He liked calling her Nancy Bird, so she continued to use that name, becoming Nancy Bird Walton. 

World War II broke out shortly after she returned to Australia. She became commandant of the Women’s Air Training Corps, which supported the RAAF pilots. She also founded the Australian Women Pilot’s Association in 1950 and was president for 5 years. In 1983, she became Patron of the AWPA. 

She returned to flying in 1958, after a 20 year absence. She participated in the ‘Powder-Puff Derby,’ and came in fifth. She was the first non-American woman to fly in the race. She flew the Powder-Puff Derby three times. 

While many of the early pilots were busy setting records and making a name for themselves, Nancy’s  life she was dedicated to helping and serving others. Through her life of service, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (OA),  Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), and was a member of the Order of  St. John. The National Trust of Australia declared her an Australian Living Treasure. The first Airbus A380 delivered to Qantas Airlines was named “Nancy-Bird Walton” in her honor.  

Of all the honors and titles, I think she was most proud that throughout her flying career, she never had an accident.

By, Captain Nancy Aldrich
Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage And He will strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord!  Psalms 27:14



Steve Greenwald


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