NewSouth Publishing, 2020
Review and interview by Richard Scherer
It was a speech in 2016 by former New Guinea bush pilot Patricia Toole at a women pilots’ conference which inspired writer, photographer and private pilot Kathy Mexted to put together this collection of 10 stories of women pilots from the 1930s until the present day.
Patricia Toole’s story of flying in the early 1950s, like many of the others in this book, is a real page-turner. Kathy Mexted paints a vivid picture of the perils faced by a lone pilot lost in cloud with dwindling fuel and only basic navigation instruments, in an area with mountains which she cannot see. The account of how both Patricia and her aircraft survive is both fascinating and laced with humour. And the story of how Lyn Gray handled a forced ditching in the Pacific Ocean in 2006 while piloting the delivery flight from the US of a light twin aircraft, is truly inspirational.
The names of most of the women in this book will be unknown to many readers, but one – Deborah Lawrie (Wardley) – will be familiar to many. Kathy Mexted’s thorough account of Lawrie’s ultimately successful battle with Ansett Airlines in the 1970s for the right to be a woman airline pilot demonstrates eloquently that well written, factual reporting has far more impact than descending into polemic.
Reg Ansett’s intransigent opposition to women pilots wasn’t the only misogyny with which Deborah Lawrie had to deal. As Kathy Mexted puts it, in the midst of industrial action by pilots in 1989, “When Deborah received a letter from Prime Minister Hawke addressing her as ‘Dear Mr Lawrie’, she knew that she was no more than a number.”
While the 10 stories follow a timeline from Nancy Bird Walton in the 1930s through World War 2, the 50s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the 21st century, each is self-contained and can be read (as I did) in any order. The author has also selected stories covering a variety of geography, experiences and opportunities.
Kathy Mexted became a private pilot in her late 20s, and came to professional writing in her 40s, after the birth of her youngest child. This is her first book, though she has plans for others on aviation and other topics.
The aviation world is full of jargon, and books about pilots and flying can end up being of interest mainly to those in the industry. That’s certainly not the case here. Kathy Mexted is a masterful storyteller who, where necessary, explains technical concepts in concise and plain English, and moves easily back and forth in time without confusing the reader.
While Australian Women Pilots will resonate with private and professional pilots alike, it is a very readable social history which has proved itself of interest to a wide audience. Highly recommended.