Members of the general public are likely to recognise the names of some of the pioneering female aviators. There is of course Amelia Earhart, the American who became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Here in Australia, many would recognise the name Nancy Bird Walton, who is known for gaining her pilot’s licence at the age of nineteen, as well as for helping to establish a flying medical service in regional New South Wales. But what of the Australian female aviator who is the subject of James Vicars’s début, Beyond the Sky: The passions of Millicent Bryant, aviator? Millicent Bryant (1878–1927) has largely passed into obscurity, but in her day she was a sensation. Vicars would like his great-grandmother to become once again a household name, celebrated for her achievement as the first woman in Australia – indeed, the first in the Commonwealth outside Britain – to gain a pilot’s licence.
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’.
The international air hostess was the ultimate twentieth-century modern girl – mobile, cosmopolitan, glamorous. She was paid to travel around the world, journeys that, in the early years of intercontinental travel, could take several days and involve stopping at exotic places such as Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, and Cairo on the ‘Kangaroo Route’ between Australia and London. She was, of course, a ‘girl’ (she had to resign from her job on marriage), she had to have a ‘good appearance and personality’, and her height and weight had to fall within narrowly defined limits. Her look had to match the glamorous mobility and cosmopolitanism that she signified. At the same time, her job was to look after people: she had to be easily identifiable as a staff member, and one belonging to a specific company. She had to wear a uniform – something anonymous that might seem to counteract the glamour of the job.