Australian Women Pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air
by Kathy Mexted
NewSouth, $34.99 pb, 256 pp
Kathy Mexted was a teenager when the possibility of becoming a pilot entered her head. The year was 1978, and she was airborne in a plane commanded by her father. The latter turned to his daughter and remarked: ‘If you’d like to learn to fly, I’ll pay for it.’ Nonetheless, it would take twelve years for the author to seriously pursue her piloting ambitions. This delay was due to several factors, not least of which was that flying has long been a ‘male dominated industry’.
Australian Women Pilots is Mexted’s attempt to write women back into Australian aviation history. Ten female pilots are surveyed in the book. They include Nancy Bird Walton and Mardi Gething, who fulfilled their flying dreams during the 1930s and 1940s. There is a chapter on Marion McCall, whose pilot adventures began in the 1990s, when she was approaching fifty.
The reader learns about Deborah Lawrie (née Wardley), who famously took Ansett to court in 1979 in a bid to work as a pilot. Mexted describes the state of affairs in the 1970s: ‘A woman in Ansett’s world was at home, in the office or until they were married serving onboard meals as air hostesses.’ Lawrie was no longer content to simply train future (male) pilots. She fought and won her right to fly for that airline, and was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in November this year.
Australian Women Pilots is impeccably researched and penned with journalistic flair. For example, Mexted writes of Port Moresby’s airport: ‘The place was memorable for its smells of betel nut, sweat and dogs, and for the groups of locals curiously eyeing the machinations of Western society.’
The women profiled in the book are largely unknown, which is disappointing given their achievements in a blokey industry. The text offers a fascinating glimpse into changing (and sometimes difficult to change) attitudes about women in Australian workplaces over the past century.
In the introduction, Mexted writes: ‘I want this book to inspire you to try new things and to know these stories of Australian women stepping up to the plate.’ Australian Women Pilots is a valuable read for historians of this nation, as well as for a general readership.