Update – December 2015
Many great airports are named after famous people.
I propose that Sydney Badgerys Creek airport be named “Sydney Nancy-Bird Walton International Airport” in honour of Australia’s greatest aviatrix.
Her airport would sit beside “Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport”, named after Australia’s greatest aviator.
The Airbus A380 registered VH-OQA, named “Nancy-Bird Walton” is a special aircraft.
Nancy-Bird was a remarkable woman.
My God What a Woman!
- This was around the time of the earliest aviation services. Australia’s first subsidised air service was the Adelaide/Sydney flight in 1924. Flying took two hours longer than the train!
- Nancy-Bird had her first flight in 1928 at the age of 13, then four years later had saved 200 pounds to learn to fly.
- Her first lesson was with Charles Kingsford Smith in a Gipsy Moth. Like all pilots of that time she wore a scarf to wipe the rotary engine’s castor oil from her goggles.
- She received her commercial licence at the age of 19. She was the first woman to operate an aircraft commercially in Australia. At that time pilots did not have radios, which would have been useless anyway because there were no ground facilities.
- This was around 1935 when passengers in KLM aircraft were equipped with a helmet, goggles and hot water bag! The Australian Defence Minister H Thorby proclaimed: “Flying was not consistent with a women’s role in life”.
- Nancy-Bird later joined the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
- She founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA) in 1950 and was made its Patron in 1981.
- Nancy-Bird mentored female pilots. She had an open house policy where pilots could come and stay with her for no charge. She said: “the good things I have had in life, and the wonderful opportunities, have come through friendship, not through my bank account.”
VH-OQA was Qantas’s first A380. This aircraft was named “Nancy-Bird Walton” at a ceremony in Sydney on September 30, 2008 where Nancy-Bird said: “I’ve made it my business to stay alive for today’s ceremony – and I’ve made it! I’ve made it!”
As the swinging champagne bottle approached the fuselage Nancy-Bird cried “don’t scratch my aeroplane!”.
Please click here to see the Nancy-Bird Walton (VH-OQA) Naming Ceremony .
“I’ve made it my business to stay alive for today’s ceremony – and I’ve made it! I’ve made it!”
Nancy-Bird died three months later on the 13 January 2009 aged 93. Her namesake A380 made a fly-past at Nancy-Bird’s funeral where below, AWPA members had turned out in pink and pearls to inspire more female aviators.
“No matter how foolish, it is not the things in life that you do, but the things that you don’t do, that you regret” (Nancy-Bird Walton)
On the 4th November 2010 I was flying “Nancy-Bird Walton” on Qantas flight QF32. Engine number 2 exploded four minutes after takeoff, starting a chain of events that would change the lives forever for the 5 pilots, 24 crew and 440 passengers:
- “Nancy-Bird Walton” suffered over 500 fuselage impacts from shrapnel. I wrote that the probability of this incident happening again is one in 10^-14, that is, one million times less probable than the most stringent certification standards.
- The aircraft flew remarkably well, which is a testament to the Airbus designers, builders, testers and maintainers. Nancy-Bird would be proud.
- I wrote in “QF32” at page 294: “Nancy-Bird had died a few months after the VH-OQA naming ceremony and now, two years later, here was her plane, deciding also to stay alive until she returned 469 souls to safety. I’m not a religious person, but if Nancy was watching us from afar I am sure she would have been so very proud of how her aircraft performed and to have her name emblazoned on that wonderful machine.”
My God it’s a Woman!
Nancy-Bird wrote her biography aptly entitled “My God! it’s a Woman!” This was a passenger’s response when he discovered Nancy-Bird in the action seat. “My God, I’m not going to fly in that. The pilot’s a woman!”
At page 13 she writes “A pilot has it in the head and hands, not just by flying off into the distance”. Nancy-Bird had in the head and hands and she has pioneered into the distance, but she will never be forgotten.
“Nancy-Bird Walton” lives on
Naming aircraft after famous people is a recent change for my company. I had met Nancy-Bird before my QF32 flight. She was a short but tough role model, an inspiration and stalwart for female pilots.
“My God, I’m not going to fly in that. The pilot’s a woman!”
“Nancy-Bird Walton” was repaired after the QF32 event and returned to service. It was probably the longest and most expensive repair in aviation history:
- Click here to read: Repair report for “Nancy-Bird Walton“
- The QF32 flight concluded, 535 days late, but still very welcome. There was not a dry eye in the cabin when we touched down in Sydney. Click here to view the video: Welcome home Nancy-Bird Walton
Nancy-Bird, Matt Hicks and QF32
Nancy-Bird influenced the outcome of the QF32 event.
Nancy-Bird mentored Matt Hicks, my remarkable First Officer on board QF32. Matt continues to excel and is now a Captain on Boeing 737s. When he was a first officer, Matt Hicks made every captain look good and there is more to Matt’s story than my comments at QF32, page 333:
“Nancy-Bird Walton had helped Matt, fifteen years earlier, by providing a character reference for him when he applied to join Qantas. ….”
Nancy-Bird shared her love of flight with Matt, then helped him gain employment with Qantas. Matt kindly writes:
My grandmother Dulcie Donkin (“My God! it’s a Woman!” page 21) was one of Nancy’s friends growing up on neighbouring properties in St George, outback Queensland. Even though they rode horses together and consumed stolen liquor together, my grandmother was not a fan of aviation!
My mother is Nancy’s God Daughter.
Dulcie (Gran) went up with Nancy on one of Kingsford-Smith’s barnstorming trips to Wingham. The pilot was Pat Hall, the aircraft was the Southern Cross Junior. It was one of Nancy’s first exposures to the world of flying. Gran funded part of the 200 pounds to fund Nancy’s flying training.
Nancy dropped into Wingham again much later while doing her training with Dan Collins her instructor. Gran went up with Nancy again, this time with Nancy flying. The story has it that Gran was Nancy’s first passenger.
Nancy gave me the copy of her book and her photo at her house in 1990. She also wrote my reference for Qantas on that day.
Nancy and Gran remained friends up until Gran’s death at the age of 101. Nancy unfortunately passed away not long after.
As a side note, Gran was also my first passenger when I gained my Private Pilot’s licence. We did this as a laugh as Gran wasn’t a great passenger, however she talked it up with the best of them!
Spirit of Australians
Nancy’s represents the best of the Australian spirit and our national culture. Her memories endure for every passenger lucky to fly on board VH-OQA “Nancy-Bird Walton”.
VH-OQA, the namesake of a great Australian, has a special meaning for me that will live in my heart and mind forever.
When I have the privilege to fly “Nancy-Bird Walton”, I tell my passengers before the flight that they are lucky to be travelling on an aircraft that is dear to my heart. “Nancy-Bird Walton” has been stress tested and case hardened more than any other aircraft in the sky – and it proved itself indestructible that day.
I walk the cabin and talk to the passengers – they share my emotion and pride.
Nancy-Bird’s 100th Birthday Celebration
Nancy was born on the 16th October 1915.
The Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA) celebrated Nancy-Bird’s 100th Birthday at a dinner on Friday 16th October 2015.
120 people lifted their glasses and toasted to the memories of one of Australia’s greatest adventurers.