Kathy Mexted, Australian Women Pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air

NewSouth Books, November 2020, p/bk, 272pp, ISBN: 9781742236971, RRP: AUD$34.99

Thanks to the determination, grit, and spunk of the ten women Kathy Mexted chronicles in her first book Australian Women Pilots, the career opportunities now available to women aviators in Australia are as diverse as the landscape itself. Inspired to write after hearing aviator Patricia Toole recount her emergency landing in a river bed deep in the New Guinea Jungle in June 1953, the text spans almost 100 years of Australian aviation history.

Fittingly the book begins with the extraordinary account of the ‘darling of Australian Aviation’ Nancy Bird, the first Australian woman to work under a commercial pilots licence. Mexted then goes on to tell the story of Mardi Gething, the only Australian woman to fly with the Air Transport Auxillary (ATA) during WWII, ferrying aircraft from factories to locations for the RAF. In her time Gething, like Bird, achieved celebrity status for her aviation pursuits. Shortly after finishing her service with the ATA she toured Australia as part of the crew of the Lancaster Bomber G for George that is currently interned in the Australian War Memorial.

Aviation also provided opportunity for international travel for Mexted’s next study, Patricia Toole, who moved to New Guinea to take up a position in WWII RAAF fighter ace Bobby Gibbes’ company Gibbes Sepik Airways. The same may be said for Gaby Kennard who, inspired by Amelia Earhart, whilst ‘juggling a job, two children and a mortgage’, was the first Australian women to fly around the world solo. Marion McCall was also called to travel internationally having won the Duke of Edinburgh’s Dawn to Dusk three times. However her achievements may be attributed to home turf as McCall – a singer, teacher, and conductor – learnt to fly to assist her bishop husband in his vocation after they became empty nesters.

The account of Lyn Gray, flying instructor and ferry pilot, requires uninterrupted reading time to allow for Mexted’s narration of Gray’s dramatic ‘ditching’ in the Pacific. The same may be said of the story of Deborah Lawrie (Wardley) Australia’s first commercial airliner pilot who cleared the path for women pilots in the airlines with her unprecedented win against Ansett under the Equal Opportunity Act in 1979.

The physical demands of flying are typified in the narratives of Georgia Maxwell, an aerial application and firebombing pilot, and Nicole Forrester, a city girl from Brisbane who donned an Akubra and moved to a remote property in outback Northern Territory. Forrester later developed a taste for aerobatics and became a pilot in the RAAF.

The final account belongs to Esther Veldstra who in spite of numerous challenges achieved her dream of flying for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).

Mexted’s text provides countless examples of the universal struggle faced by the modern women – whether to, or not to, have a family – and the compromises demanded by both family and career. These questions are well explored in the accounts of Bird, who abandoned her professional aviation pursuits after getting married, and of single mothers, Kennard who put herself through flying training aged 33, and Veldstra, who adhered to the unpredictable and demanding hours of the RFDS.

Mexted also doesn’t shy away from honestly discussing the challenges brought to the industry by the aversion to women aviators that was faced by many of her subjects to varying degrees, and as typified by Kathy’s account of Reg Ansett’s battle with Lawrie (Wardley).

The extensive interviews conducted by Mexted add new details to historical accounts. These are also bolstered by helpful references to contemporary events, terms, and culture. Similarly aviation jargon is explained in laymen’s terms, while there is just enough technical detail to satisfy pilots without boring those of us without wings.

As endorsed by top gun and aerobatic champion Matt Hall, the book should be passed onto any and every young woman ‘who has a dream’, as between its covers are examples of ten of her predecessors who overcame diverse challenges, and from whose stories she may draw strength. Likewise, those with an interest in the history of aviation in Australia and stories of the unbreakable Australian spirit will thoroughly enjoy the read.

 

Reviewed by Anna Gebels, January 2021

Anna Gebels is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. Her research is focused on the collected heritage of the Empire Air Training Scheme in Australia in an attempt to ascertain what we have, and what we need in order to tell an inclusive account of the Scheme. By day Anna is a museum curator and educator who has worked in quarantine, military aviation and medical museums. By night Anna enjoys singing for and with military veterans, transporting them to yesteryear with the sweet harmonies of the WWII era with her vocal group Company B.

 

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