Australians are mourning their "Angel of the Outback", otherwise known as Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering aviatrix who operated an air ambulance service while a teenager.
Ms Walton, who died today aged 93, was the first Australian woman to acquire a commercial pilot's licence. A diminutive figure, she learnt to fly at 17, but needed two cushions to reach the pedals and see out of the cockpit. Her instructor was Charles Kingsford Smith, who made the first trans-Pacific flight from the US to Australia in 1928 and later founded a flying school in |Sydney. Ironically, "Smithy" disapproved of female pilots.
With her family's help, Ms Walton bought a Gipsy Moth aircraft and flew around New South Wales, promoting aviation and taking paying passengers on joy rides. At 19, she was hired to operate an ambulance service in remote outback areas, ferrying medical staff, patients and expectant mothers.
It was the 1930s, and aviation was still in its infancy. The young pilot would land on unsealed roads and in cattle-filled paddocks, glancing at nearby washing lines in an effort to gauge the wind direction.
Ms Walton, who wanted to fly from the age of four, lived to see the latest super jumbo jet, the Airbus A380, land in Sydney last September. Qantas paid her the compliment of naming its first A380 after her. The airline's chief |executive, Alan Joyce, described her yesterday as a "trailblazer for Australian women pilots and an inspirational figure in Australian aviation".
He paid tribute to her "boundless energy, her courage and her vision for the role of women in aviation".
Ms Walton, who was Commandant of the Women's Air Training Corps during the Second World War, enjoyed family life and had two children. Her granddaughter, Anna Holman, said: "I most remember her as my grandmother, who was a part of my everyday life and who was exceptionally inspirational to women all over Australia. But most of all, she made great chocolate cakes with peppermint icing."
In 1950, Ms Walton founded the Australian Women Pilots' Association, which mentors female pilots, and went on to become its president for four decades. She received numerous honours, including an OBE and Order of Australia. In 1997 she was named one of the country's Living National Treasures by the National Trust of Australia.
In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2006, Ms Walton spoke of the exhilaration of flying. "The freedom of the air. The freedom of flight," she said.
"You can completely remove yourself from the world … you can voluntarily remove yourself from … everything that's near and dear to you. And you voluntarily return."
Her father had wanted her to run the family business, a general store in northern New South Wales. However, during a visit to Sydney in 1930, at the age of 14, she went on a trial instruction flight – and was instantly hooked. She returned home, bought herself a flying helmet and waited until she was old enough to learn to fly.
Ms Walton is to receive a state funeral. The New South Wales premier, Nathan Rees, said: "Her achievements have become the stuff of legend."
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