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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.

Aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton took her first flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, pioneered outback ambulance services and founded the Australian Women’s Pilots Association.

Born into the Bird family of Kew (NSW) on 16 October 1915, Nancy seemed destined for the skies. At 13, she went for a flight in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth at a local fair and was hooked. She took flying lessons from Kingsford Smith, gaining her class A flying licence when 17 years old.

Nancy Bird Walton AO

Photographic portrait of Nancy Bird Walton AO, taken in the late 1930s. Nancy was a pioneering aviator; taught by Charles Kingsford Smith, helped set up Royal Flying Doctor Service, trained women pilots during WW2.

Image: Russell Roberts
© National Library of Australia

Although Nancy wasn’t the first qualified female pilot in Australia, she was the first to gain her commercial licence two years later, and bought her first plane, a Gipsy Moth. With that, she took off on a tour of Australia, giving joyrides at country fairs to people who had never seen a plane before, let alone one being flown by a tiny female pilot (she was 1.5 metres).

Reverend Stanley Drummond asked Nancy to help set up a remote air ambulance service based in Bourke (NSW), and so in 1935 she began flying for the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme. For navigation she often used road maps, and made many landings in paddocks dotted with dangerous rabbit holes. Despite this, she never had an accident in all of her flying career. In 1936 Nancy won the Ladies Trophy in an air race from Brisbane to Adelaide.

When she was 24, Nancy married Charles Walton, who liked to call her Nancy-Bird, a name she too preferred. During World War II, Walton set up and was commandant of an Australian Women’s Air Training Corps. She founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association in 1950, and remained its president until 1990. In 1966 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990.

Walton held her pilots licence until three years before her death, aged 93, in Sydney in 2009. The terminal at Bourke Airport is named after her, and an annual sponsorship for young female adventurers was set up in her name by the Australian Geographic Society.

Nancy Bird Walton’s achievements are remarkable in an era when women were discouraged from wearing pants, let alone flying planes. Her autobiography, published in 1990, is not surprisingly called My God, It's A Woman!

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