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Jan 14, 2009

Flights of Nancy: A colourful life

Nancy-Bird Walton was one of the wittiest and most perceptive people in aviation in Australia, writes Ben Sandilands.


Nancy-Bird Walton was one of the wittiest and most perceptive people in aviation in Australia.

In 2004 she had a Boeing 737 cockpit simulator named after her at the opening of the jointly-owned Virgin Blue and Boeing Alteon training centre at Brisbane Airport.

Inside the simulator she gave it and the experienced 737 captain who was there to guide her through the “photo opportunity” a real work out.

First she asked some seriously technical questions about 737 operations, and then flew it, hard but well down the Brisbane River, then high over the CBD and then for fun, a bit low over Mt Cootha, before carefully following advice as to how to flare the jet on the final stages of the return landing.

She even knew not to get her dress caught in a wheel-like control that spins rapidly at knee height after the main gear settles onto the virtual runway.

Joining the then Premier Peter Beattie on the dais for speeches she said aviation was still important in Queensland “because the roads are so awful”.

The next morning, when the Courier-Mail headline read VIRGIN OPENS FLIGHT TRAINING CENTRE she said “I felt a bit offended by that”.

Last year she would joke about staying alive long enough for Qantas to name its first Airbus A380 after her, doing a little jig just before the champagne bottle was broken over its side, saying “…and I did it.”

The previous year on a clear winter’s day visiting the cockpit of an Airbus A380 that was making a demonstration flight out of Sydney, she leaned forward toward the captain’s ear and said “Young man, you are too far to the west” and burst out laughing.

The gentle giant of a jet was nearing Gundaroo to one side of the usual air route into Canberra, and Nancy knew exactly where she was at a glance, making light of it being off course even though it was flying a set of lazy sweeps over the countryside while Qantas and Airbus executives and board members hosted cocktails for several hundred guests to preview the flagship airliner it was to introduce into service the following year.

Nancy-Bird as she liked to be called would lend her time and opinions to any event involving aviation and always wanted to know what was the latest, rather than talk about the past.

But she was a living connection with the heroic age of aviation and a whole cast of adventurers and entrepreneurs obsessed with fame and fortune. Nancy knew their secrets but never to my knowledge told about the jealousies or competition between them other than to laugh those times off as “wild.”

Yet for us what were scenes in sepia in fading newspapers or newsreels were for her real people, full of foibles, and in full colour, in the real world of Australia in the late 20s and 30s.

Nancy-Bird took her first joy flight when she was 13 and, later, her first flying lessons with Charles Kingsford Smith, becoming the youngest woman to attain a private flying licence aged 17, and the youngest female to hold a commercial pilot licence at the age of 19.

The news reel vaults show her standing beside her small plane on paddocks at country towns or fairs with her co-pilot friend Peggy McKillop saying “come fly with us. It’s only ten shillings”.

That was a lot of money in the depression years, but a fantastic dare and an irresistible way to break free from everyday worries.

Asked more than once what she had learned from life she would say “Try not to fly through clouds, and be self reliant.”


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3 thoughts on “Flights of Nancy: A colourful life

  1. Cherie Douglas

    Another Story on Nancy

  2. Tom W

    An Australian Aviation Legend.
    She will be missed.

  3. paddy

    Beautifully written piece Ben. Thank you.


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