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Nancy Bird Walton
, c. 1973

by Judy Cassab

oil on canvas (frame: 107.5 cm x 92.5 cm, support: 91.5 cm x 76.5 cm)

Nancy Bird Walton AO OBE (1915– 2009), aviatrix, decided she wanted to be a pilot when, at age eight, she saw a plane make an emergency landing on a beach near her home. ‘It was an old wartime First World War aeroplane’, she recalled, ‘and it seemed to have a magnetic attraction for me’. At seventeen, she went to Sydney to have flying lessons with Charles Kingsford Smith, paying for her helmet, leathers and goggles with the money she’d saved from working in her father’s general store. She obtained her commercial pilot’s licence in 1935 and was hired as the pilot for the Far West Children’s Health Scheme. Using a road map to navigate (there were no aviation maps available), she flew nurses and doctors to patients in remote areas. Certain male aviators declared that a woman would never last in such a role, yet Bird Walton flew this aerial ambulance service – first in north-west New South Wales and later in Queensland – without giving a thought to the perils of her work: ‘You learnt to fly an aeroplane and you went out and did a job’, she said. In 1938, the Dutch airline, KLM, invited her to Europe for promotional work and to study the aviation industry. She met Englishman, Charles Walton, on her return journey home. They married in Sydney in 1939 in a ceremony conducted by John Flynn, whose innovations led to the forming of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. During the war, she was a commandant in the Women’s Air Training Corps; and in 1950 she founded the Australian Women Pilots’ Association, which subsequently encouraged many to defy the notion that women were unsuited to careers in aviation. She was awarded an OBE in 1966, an AO in 1990, and named a National Living Treasure in 1997. Her 1990 autobiography, My God, It’s a woman!, took its title from one cattle station owner’s reaction to her diminutive, feminine frame emerging from the cockpit on landing on a remote airstrip. She died at her home in Sydney in January 2009, aged ninety-three.

Judy Cassab (b. 1920) was commissioned to paint a portrait of Nancy Bird Walton’s husband, Charles, in 1973. It was such a success, the couple commissioned this portrait, which was in Bird Walton’s possession until she donated it to the National Portrait Gallery in 2008.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of Nancy Bird Walton AO OBE 2008
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2008.9