- Australian Women Pilots: Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air, by Kathy Mexted. History. NewSouth. $34.99.
This book deals with 10 women who were (or still are) pilots, from Nancy Bird Walton to Esther Veldstra. It covers all fields of aviation, and the various barriers put in the way of the women in the cockpit. The focus is firmly on the achievements of a diverse and determined set of individuals, and it makes for fascinating reading.
Nancy Bird Walton is arguably the best known of the women pilots discussed, and her struggles to make a living in the 1930s as a commercial pilot make up most of the engrossing first chapter.
Unlike many early recreational women pilots, Walton did not inherit wealth, and had to make a living from aviation. Her role as founder of the Australian Women Pilots' Association is also highlighted.
Women served as pilots in the Second World War in the UK, not fighting, but flying planes to where they needed to be before missions.
Australian Mardi Gething was one, and Mexted's vivid telling of her story emphasises how dangerous it was.
Barrage balloons and the lack of radio communication were two of the hazards. At 151 centimetres tall, Gething piloted everything from huge bombers to Spitfires.
Interestingly, the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary were the first to gain "equal pay for equal work" from the British government. The much later career of Nicole Forrester, who became an RAAF pilot, highlights the changing opportunities available to women.
Access to ongoing, secure work is a theme that emerges throughout the book, with details about the legal fight of Deborah Lawrie (Wardley) to become a pilot with Ansett.
Alongside this effort, there are stories of women working as pilots in Papua New Guinea, flying in horrendous conditions, and the stories of careers in aerial application (crop-dusting) and firebombing, and in the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
We also read of Gaby Kennard's gruelling effort to "become the first Australian woman to fly around the world in a single engine aeroplane", a phrase that made one cautious reader feel vaguely apprehensive.
Incidentally, excellent maps and photographs accompany the text.
Even a reader without a particular interest in aviation will find more than enough moments of tension and historical interest in Mexted's book to keep them fully engaged.
Any reader who flies, or wishes to, will find the work absolutely gripping.
Australian Women Pilots is an approachable and well-researched introduction to a group of women who allowed their dreams to guide them.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier