Women in Aviation


The First Aviatrices

Elder's Weekly photo of Amy Johnson

The term "aviatrix" (plural "aviatrices") looks antiquated now, but prior to World War II it was common parlance; fliers like Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson captured public attention, promoting aviation as well as setting the stage for changes in attitudes to women in decades to come.

Western Australian women were part of the movement, partly because the demands of a harsh country had always called on the resources of both halves of the family. Archival photos show that, while most of the passengers in early WA flights were men, many of the passengers were female (also a later example).

But women were sometimes more than passengers. It is a little-known fact that, on the day when Gerald Austine Taylor become the first man in Australia (in NSW) to achieve heavier-than-air flight, his wife Florence Taylor became the first woman, in the same solo glider.

Taylor was not the only early aviator to make his wife an "aviatrix". On Ferbuary 20, 1911, when J.J. Hammond (who was the first to fly in W.A.) flew Sydney Smith's Bristol Boxkite in Melbourne, he not only made the first Australian passenger flight, the first multi-passenger flight and the first paid passenger flight, but he also took his wife aloft, making her the first woman to fly in controlled powered flight in Australia.

Amongst many Australian women aviation pioneers, Jessie ('Chubbie') Miller, born in Southern Cross, WA, became the first woman to complete a flight from England to Australia, making the journey with Captain Bill Lancaster in 1927, in an Avro Avian. She would probably be W.A's first true "aviatrix".

Women did not figure prominently in the development of W.A.'s airlines in the 1920s and 1930s. In the eastern states, Nancy Bird (later Nancy Bird-Walton) became the first woman to gain her commercial pilot's licence, but that was not until 1934. She was Australia's first female commercial pilot, starting with the Far West Children's Health Scheme in 1935, flying her aircraft as an air ambulance and providing baby clinic services.

The first WA woman to gain a commercial pilot's licence was Irene Dean-Williams. However, she was never employed by an aviation company, working only as an independent operator.


World War II

The Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) recruited about 27,000 women during the war. While they filled the "traditional" roles (like nursing, kitchen, office and communications jobs), they also moved into areas previously not open, like equipment stores and aircraft maintenance.

However, unlike the service of women in the RAF or the USAAF, there is no evidence that they flew any RAAF aircraft (even in support roles), and in the tradition of the times, their pay was much less than that of equivalent male staff. On the positive side, women serving with the air force demonstrated, like their counterparts in the factories, that they could perform their technical jobs at least as well as men - some jobs arguably better.

With the end of the war, and large numbers of servicemen and women "demobbed" (demobilised), the career openings of wartime disappeared. It would be some decades before female engineers made their way back to the hangar floor.


Post War - "Air Hostesses"

While many female pilots gained commercial licences through the post-war period, airlines initially did not recruit them. Perhaps the large supply of experienced wartime pilots more than filled their needs.

So it is not surprising that women sought other ways to enter the industry. The largest opportunities were in the cabin crew, as flight attendants - or, as they were first called, air hostesses.



The tradition of in-flight service by flight attendants was started in the German Zeppelin airships, in 1912; at the time, of course, there were no truly passenger aircraft. Airlines commenced using in-flight stewards in the 1920s (There is little agreement on who was first, partly because of the gradual introduction of staff with slowly growing stewardship functions). The first female attendant is said to have been Ellen Church, working with United Airlines in the USA, in 1930. She was a trained nurse, reflecting the wide range of functions she could be called on to perform.



In Australia, the predominance of smaller aircraft on many routes meant that flight attendants were late inclusions. Qantas first used flight attendants on Short "C" class flying boats, flying the England-Australia route, in 1938. But these were male, female attendants not being employed by Qantas until December 1947.

There is disagreement on who was Australia's first air hostess. Holyman Airlines, flying a route between Launceston and Melbourne, introduced air hostesses in 1936, but it is also documented that Marguerite Grueber was appointed by Australian National Airways to work on their Adelaide-Perth service in 1936.


Western Australia

An air hostess poses in front of an F27

In Western Australia, WA Airways was the first to operate large passenger aircraft, on the Perth - Adelaide route. However, its DH-66 Hercules and Vickers Viastras did not provide in-flight facilities, and the cross-Australia flights were interrupted by lunch and overnight stops. MMA commenced its operations with DH-84 Dragons, of smaller size, while Airlines (WA)'s largest aircraft was a Monospar, essentially a light aircraft.

The first aircraft on WA routes large enough to accommodate a flight attendant was the de Havllland DH-86, introduced by MMA in 1938, but this opportunity seems to have been missed. It was not until after World War II that other aircraft large enough to carry a flight attendant came into use in this state. MMA and Airlines (WA) both initially re-eqipped with Avro Ansons, carrying 7 or 8 passengers and with two crew places "up front".

Airlines (WA) employed its first hostesses in 1946, but initially as "ground hostesses" - checking in passengers at the city depot, driving them to the airport in the airline's coach, and ensuring all were correctly on board at departure time (Later, they were required to prepare, and load on board, packed meals for the passengers). In the face of competition from MMA, it was not long before they joined the pilot in the other front seat, and provided personal service for the passengers during the flight.

Airlines encountered a problem when it upgraded its fleet to de Havilland Doves. The Department of Civil Aviation insisted the aircraft needed a crew of two, leaving no seat for the flight attendant. But the problem was covered by training the flight attendants as radio operators - an early example of the current cliche of "multi-skilling".

MMA commenced in-flight service when it introduced its Ansons, and expanded it with the adoption of the DC-3. With greater sophistication in passenger aircraft came increased responsibilities; archival photos show hostesses training to use the public address system, as well as learning to serve in-flight meals. But the attitudes of the fifties and sixties were equally well shown by the emphasis of the glamour of the job and the fashionability of the latest uniforms.


Taking The Pilot's Seat

Christine Davy, Australia'sWomen had been operating as commercial pilots before the start of World War II, but numbers grew more after its end. Nancy Bird-Walton was the main organiser of the Australian Women Pilots' Association, which was formed at a meeting of 15 women pilots in 1950. Reflecting the trend, the nation's first female agricultural pilot was Margaret Clarke, in 1949, and in 1967, Rosemary Arnold-Harris became Australia's first woman commercial helicopter pilot. The first female airline pilot in Australia was Christine Davy, who became a Senior Captain with the Northern Territory operator Connair, flying from Alice Springs, in 1974.

But to say that the post-war uptake of female pilots by the major airlines was slow is a major understatement. Ansett Airlines did not employ its first female pilot (Deborah Wardley) until 1979, and even then only after a protracted battle in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board, and positive intervention by Ansett's new owner, Rupert Murdoch. No record has been found of a female pilot working with either MMA or Airlines (WA). Even in 2008, although Qantas employed over 100 female pilots, that number comprised only 3% of its total pilot workforce.

Robin Miller Dicks: "Sugar Bird Lady"

Robin Miller with her Mooney 21 - (Courtesy State Library of Western AustraliaNo account of women aviators in Western Australia would be complete without mention of the contributions of Robin Miller Dicks.

Robin was the daughter of writer Dame Mary Durack (of the Durack pastoral family) and Horrie Miller (the founder of MMA). No doubt by her upbringing, she felt a strong bond to the state and its rural areas. She trained as a nurse, and also gained her private pilot's license. She persuaded the state's Department of Health to allow her to use her skills to conduct a polio vaccination program in the remote areas of the state, by flying into the rural comunities.

The Sabin vaccine she dispensed was administered orally, on sugar cubes, and that led the local children to come to call her the "sugar bird lady".

Later, she joined the Royal Flying Doctor Service, continuing her work through them. In 1973 she married the Service's director, Harold Dicks.

Tragically, she died of cancer at the age of only 35.

Perhaps a fitting reminder of the contribution of our airwomen to the attitudes of the community at large is the difference between the photo at right, and an earlier one also in the State Library's archives. It would be appropriate to look at the difference in the way she is depicted as a reflecting change of the community's attitudes to women in general, even over the few years between the photos.




Qantas 2007/2008 Annual Report for the Equal Opportunity for Women Agency, May 2008

An account of early female Australian aviators

Australian National Aviation Museum - Early Australian Aviation

"Forgotten Flyer", biography of Charles Snook on Google Books

The Pioneer Women's website, women in aviation