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5 pioneering women in Australian aviation

written by Malavika Santhebennur | April 21, 2022

Nancy Bird Walton in a Gipsy Moth, left, and Deborah Lawrie in the cockpit, right. (State Library of NSW)

As Australian Aviation proudly invites women in the aviation industry to enter for Female Aviation Leader of the Year at our inaugural Australian Aviation Awards, we recount the stories of five highly influential women in Australian aviation history who have paved the way for future generations.

The Female Aviation Leader of the Year category is just one of 24 included in our first awards program, which will culminate in a gala dinner in Sydney on Thursday, 25 August 2022. Nominations and submissions will close on 30 June 2022.

Before recognising the achievements of the next generation of female leaders in aviation at the awards ceremony later this year, we thought it fitting to dive into the history books to highlight the achievements of female aviators.

Millicent Bryant

Millicent Bryant was the first Australian female to receive her pilot’s licence in March 1927 at 49 years old, but she has sadly been largely forgotten by aviation history. This is likely because she was tragically killed in the Greycliffe ferry accident in 1927 that claimed the lives of 40 Sydneysiders.


Before her untimely death, Bryant was a widow and a mother of three children when she secured a private pilot’s licence. She is also believed to have been the first female in Australia to undergo formal flight training.

She was striving towards also becoming the first female Australian pilot to receive a licence to fly with passengers at the time of her death. Nancy-Bird Walton ultimately became the first Australian woman to receive this licence.

Nancy Bird Walton

Born in 1915 in the small NSW mid-north coast town of Kew, Nancy Bird Walton would go on to become one of the most famous pioneers of women in aviation. She took her very first trial flight in Sydney in 1930 aged 16, which ignited her lifelong passion for the skies.

In 1933, at 19 years old, Walton became the youngest woman in the British Empire to receive a pilot’s licence. She was among the first pupils at Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s flying school at Mascot.

Shortly after, Walton purchased a de Havilland Gipsy Moth with some assistance from her family. Together with friend and fellow aviator Peggy McKillop, the two young women flew around the country, working at fairs and race meetings.

In 1936, Walton won the Ladies Trophy at the South Australian Centenary Air Race from Brisbane to Adelaide.

Mary Bell

Mary Bell was a pioneer for women’s contributions to the RAAF during war times long before women were welcomed, as the founding leader of the Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC) and later the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF).

Born in Launceston Tasmania in 1093, Bell first learnt to fly at the age of 24 in 1927 and received her Grade “A” private pilot’s licence that same year.

She had married RAAF officer and WWI veteran John Bell around this time, and by 1939, the two were living in Brisbane, where Bell first became leader of the 40 women-strong Women’s National Emergency Legion Air Wing, which was an early volunteer group that assisted with aircraft maintenance during war times.

This group later became the WATC, a female-driven volunteer organisation that provided support to the RAAF during WWII.

The WATC grew to be a national organisation, with Bell as its Australian Commandant. When WWII broke, Bell and the WATC pushed the RAAF to allow women to assist with the war effort for the first time in forming the WAAAF.

Formally established on 25 March, the WAAAF was the first and largest uniformed women’s wartime service in the country, which burgeoned to more than 18,000 members by 1944.

Deborah Lawrie

Four decades ago, Deborah Lawrie became Australia’s first female airline pilot, but she battled unapologetic misogyny and blatant discrimination along the way, something she said was “par for the course” in her time.

The roots of Lawrie’s career in aviation can be traced to her father, James. Not only was he taking a pilot’s licence himself when she was a teenager, he presented her with two flying lessons for her 16th birthday at Moorabbin, a one-hour drive from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

After graduating with a degree in maths, science, physics, and chemistry, and a final year specialising in nuclear physics and pure maths, Lawrie began teaching at a high school while working part-time in Moorabbin as a flight instructor.

However, what she really yearned for was a job at a major airline, so she accumulated 1,000 hours of single-engine and 120 hours of twin-engine experience and applied at Ansett Airlines despite knowing it had previously rejected applications for female pilots.

This saw her engage in a punishing year-long legal battle with Sir Reginald Ansett, founder of Ansett Transport Industries, at the end of which she broke down sexist barriers and opened doors for other women in aviation.

She was able to pursue her case with the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board under the recently enacted Equal Opportunities Act 1977.

When Sir Reginald surprisingly stepped down from his position after he was also reportedly exhausted from the proceedings, new owners Peter Abeles and Rupert Murdoch took over. Murdoch himself intervened and issued a memo directing that she was to be treated equally to the male pilot candidates.

At the same time, justices in the High Court ruled in her favour 4-2, meaning she could finally forge a magnificent career in aviation.

She flew Fokker 27s, DC9s, and the slightly larger 737, and cleared the path for a second female pilot to join Ansett.

Sharelle Quinn

Sharelle Quinn was among the first of two female pilots working for Qantas, joining the airline in 1985 following the landmark win of Deborah Lawrie, who fought for women’s right to fly for commercial airlines.

Quinn’s career took flight, and within eight years she became Australia’s first female Qantas captain in 1992.

Quinn nursed her dream of becoming a pilot since she was a child but stuck to the conventional route of finishing high school and heading to university. Halfway through her degree, she could no longer ignore her ambitions, and took up flight training at the age of 21. However, she had no financial support and had to take a job working in a factory to pay off the cost of her training.

She was 24 years old when she saw the job listing for Qantas pilots. It was only after she landed the job that she realised she was among the first of two women pilots working for the airline.

Get into the awards game

These and countless other women have acted as the guiding light for future generations of women in the aviation industry.

Australian Aviation is calling on female leaders in the sector to come forward and tell us about your achievements, how you believe you have propelled the industry forward and made it more accessible for other women who wish to carve their niche in aviation.

All aviation-related female leaders are encouraged to enter the Australian Aviation Awards, irrespective of age or geographical location.

To enter the awards, visit the website below to register, download the category criteria, follow the criteria and submit an entry. Finally, simply save and confirm your submission.

The awards are peer-reviewed and judged by a respected and trusted panel.

The gala event will be held in person on Thursday, 25 August 2022 at 7pm at Australian Turf Club, Royal Randwick Racecourse, Sydney where professionals can network with their peers and showcase their successes. 

Nominations and submissions will close on Thursday, 30 June 2022.

Click here to submit your entry or nominate a colleague.

For more information about the awards, click here.

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Comment (1)

  • Warwick


    The way Capt Deb Laurie was treated by the misogynistic Reg Ansett was beyond the pale, & would’ve broken a less strong person.

    He even called his female cabin crew ‘old boilers’, such was his manner.

    Deb rose above all his dislike, & certainly paved the way for female pilots’ of the future.
    They owe much to her.

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