Freda Mary Thompson was a pioneer aviator. A perfectionist in her flying, yet modest about her achievements, she was the first Australian woman to fly solo from the United Kingdom to Australia. Born in Melbourne on 5 April 1906, Freda Thompson was the elder daughter of Frederick and Martha Thompson. She was educated at Toorak College, Melbourne. It was while attending school she saw a small plane flying low over houses and decided “that was how I wanted to see the world – flying”.
Freda Thompson travelled extensively in Australia and overseas. In 1926, she sailed to Europe with her parents and sister, Claire, where she made her first flight with British Airways from Paris to London. Three years later, she persuaded her parents to let her have a car so that she could get to Essendon Aerodrome where she started taking flying lessons. Freda became a founding member of the Royal Victorian Aero Club.
On 16 September 1930, Thompson obtained her “A” (Private) Pilot Licence (No. 596) and a short time later, won the South Australia Aerial Derby Trophy. The following year she studied night and instrument flying and navigation and on 30 April 1932 obtained her “B” (Commercial) Pilot Licence (No. 390). In 1933, she became the first woman in the British Empire to obtain an Instructor Licence (Rating), which she used to help aero club members increase their hours.
In April 1934, she set sail to England with plans to take part in the England to Australia Air Race. At that point, she had just 250 hours flight time logged. Once in England, she paid 1000 pounds for a new De Havilland Moth Major with long-range fuel tanks, which she named ‘Christopher Robin’. However, Thompson was too late to enrol in the race and instead decided to make the journey on her own. Months had been dedicated to careful planning, collecting visas and permits, flight planning and organizing fuel.
With allowance for only one small bag and a maximum flying range of 10 hours, Thompson departed from Lympne in Kent on 28 September 1934. No food was carried and only a small thermos flask of water was allowed as there wasn’t room for anything else due to the extra fuel tanks, including 17 gallons in the luggage locker, 19 gallons in the normal overhead centre section tank and 30 gallons in the front cockpit plus an extra oil tank which was interconnected with an oil tank on the fire-wall behind the engine. The trip took 39 days although only 19 days (155 hours) were actual flying time, with 20 days spent at Athens waiting for spare parts for a damaged wing.
In August 1936, her younger sister, Claire Embling, also obtained her ‘A’ Pilot Licence. Prior to learning to fly Claire took up parachute jumping and Freda was pilot for her first jump.
From 1940 to 1942, Freda Thompson was Commandant of the Victorian branch of Women’s Air Training Corps, the forerunner of the Women’s Australian Air Force. When she did not receive a reply to her application to join the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, she enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) as an ambulance driver. She was promoted to Acting Sergeant before being discharged from the AWAS on 25 August 1944.
At the start of the war, Thompson sold ‘Christopher Robin’. In 1945, she bought a de Havilland Hornet Moth and named it ‘Christopher Robin II’. She flew the Hornet extensively around Australia and in 1952, co-piloted it to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and back.
In 1947, Thompson became the first woman elected to the Royal Victorian Aero Club Committee at a time when there were only 10 women members of the Club and the following year, she was elected as its first female president. In 1950, she became a founding member of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. That same year, she flew around Australia in three weeks in the DH Hornet Moth she’d bought five years and piloted to New Guinea.
Thompson loved competition and entered many aerobatic competitions, and derbies, both on an individual basis and as a team member. In all, she won 47 trophies and three times was open champion of the Royal Victorian Aero Club. She did not seek a career in aviation, but supported women who did, arguing that, for any pilot, solid nerve was more important than brute strength.
In recognition of Freda Thompson’s achievements, the Australian Women Pilots’ Association honours her with an annual award the “Freda Thompson and Claire Embling Aviation Award”, to assist in the advancement of practical and/or theoretical training.
In 1972, Thompson was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to aviation. After 50 years as a pilot, she had her last flight as co-pilot in a Tiger Moth in May 1980. By that time, she had logged 3330 hours. Freda Thompson died on 11 December 1980 from cancer after a short period in hospital.