1915 – 2009
Nancy-Bird Walton was an Australian aviation pioneer whose passion for flying saw her become the country’s youngest female commercial pilot and led her to found the Australian Women Pilots’ Association.
The daughter of William and Fanny Bird, Nancy was born in Kew, New South Wales on 16 October 1915. Nancy, later to become known as Nancy-Bird, was fascinated by aviation from an early age and as a teenager during the Depression, left school at the age of thirteen to assist her family.
In 1933, at eighteen, she took her first flying lessons with Charles Kingsford-Smith. The latter had just opened a flying school at Mascot and Nancy-Bird was one of his first pupils. While female pilots had preceded her, Nancy-Bird planned on making flying her paid career, most unusual for that period of time.
After gaining her commercial pilot’s licence the next year, the youngest woman to do so in the British Empire, Nancy-Bird was fortuitously left £200 by a great aunt. With an additional loan from her father (which she paid back), Nancy-Bird bought her first aircraft, a de Havilland Gipsy Moth VH-UTN.
With her friend Peggy McKillop, Nancy-Bird formed a commercial aviation enterprise and took off on a barnstorming tour of New South Wales, dropping in on country shows giving rides to people, many of whom had never seen an aeroplane before, let alone a female pilot.
Whilst touring, Nancy-Bird met Reverend Stanley Drummond the founder of the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme. He asked her to establish a flying medical service in outback New South Wales which would be assisted with government funding. In 1935 she was hired to operate the new service and Nancy-Bird’s own larger Leopard Moth cabin aircraft was used as an air ambulance. Her flying in the region earned her the nickname “Angel of the Outback”. She sometimes mentioned that it was very rewarding, but lonely work.
In 1936 Nancy-Bird entered the South Australian Centenary Air Race: Brisbane to Adelaide via Sydney and Melbourne and won the Ladies’ Trophy. In 1938 she decided to have a break from flying and was invited by Dutch Airline, KLM, to do promotional work in Europe. She returned to Australia soon after the outbreak of WWII and began training women in skills needed to back up men flying in the Royal Australian Air Force.
At 24 she married Charles Walton and had two children: John and Anne Marie.
In 1950 Nancy-Bird founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA) and was the inaugural President. She became Patron of the AWPA in 1983 following the death of The Lady Casey, the original Patron.
In 1958, she decided to return to flying after a 20-year absence. She was active at many aviation events including the famous Powder Puff Derby that traversed the continental United States of America.
Throughout her life Nancy-Bird was notable for her support of charities and people in need. This generous spirit saw her invested as an Officer of the Order of British Empire (OBE) in 1966 and appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990.
She assisted generations of Australian pilots to get a start in aviation. The National Trust of Australia declared her an Australian Living Legend in 1997.
The first Airbus A380 delivered to Qantas was named in her honour.
One of her last interviews was in the documentary film, Flying Sheilas (2008), which provided a detailed insight into her life, along with seven other Australian female pilots.
Nancy-Bird held her pilot’s licence until three years before her death, aged 93, in Sydney in 2009.