By Squadron Leader Barrie Bardoe
Linda Cole was excited.
She was about to take to the air in a Sopwith Tabloid biplane piloted by celebrity aviator Harry Hawker. She was fortunate that her father was a great believer in the emerging technology of flight, and an even greater believer in her. It was February 1914, and there was a common school of thought that women would be unsuited to aviation. It was believed by many, that the unfamiliar sensation of rising far above the ground would make women hysterical, and there was a risk that the calm male at the controls would be distracted, or even interfered with, resulting in things ending very badly. However, Cole was having none of it. She wanted to fly. “Miss Cole was perfectly calm and collected when entering the biplane and showed no signs of nervousness”, noted Melbourne publication, Punch. During the flight, which took place over St Kilda, Sandringham and the adjacent bay area, she calmly conversed with her pilot and commented on the panoramic views. She made an observation that had been at the core of the decision to form a military aviation capability, namely that when able to look down into the water it was possible to see objects clearly. She speculated that this would be very helpful for locating mines, among other things. Hawker took another woman – Mia Stutt – for a flight on that same day and just like Cole, she proved to be calm and collected.
Despite the fact that the experience of aviation clearly did not make women hysterical, pilots’ licenses would not be available to women until 1927, and it would be decades before they achieved equal pay and conditions in the nation’s military.
The history of military aviation is far longer than many people realize, beginning in France in 1794 with the establishment of the French Aerostatic Corps. The Corps played a pivotal role in French military success during the period and leveraged technology that was advanced for the age, namely portable hydrogen producing units. On 24 September 1861, a notable first was achieved in the American Civil War, when a balloon was used to direct fire on Confederate positions beyond ground level visual range. From the Australian experience, military aviation began in earnest when the 1909 Imperial Conference in London decided that the British Empire should develop a military aviation capability. The decision had been largely prompted by Louis Bleriot’s crossing of the channel that year, which put the Empire on notice that the world’s most powerful navy may no longer be the final word in protecting the mother country.
The first flight in Australian military aviation occurred on 1 March 1914. The nation’s fledgling military aviation capability had been under immense pressure to get airborne and on the morning of 1 March, this finally happened when one of the two instructors, Lieutenant Eric Harrison, took to the air in a Bristol Boxkite. As part of what now might be termed a Public Relations exercise, the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), which was at that stage an Army formation, was instructed to take local residents and VIPs flying. Local girl, Jo Cunningham, turned up at the aerodrome dressed in sturdy boots and clothing as stipulated, but was advised that flying was not available to women. She lived into her 90’s but never got over the disappointment. Harrison was however clearly having none of it, and a photo dated 11 March shows him in civilian clothes at the controls of the Boxkite, with female passenger Ruby Millen.
During World War One, the AFC was exclusively male, but by war’s end the British Royal Air Force was drawing heavily upon women in technical roles. Harrison was especially interested in the technical and engineering aspects of flight, and by the time of World War Two, women would be playing a significant role in the war effort.
By January 1919, the idea for a military aviation capability independent to the Army and Navy was already taking shape in Australian government circles. This became a reality in March 1921, when the Royal Australian Air Force was formed, only the second such force in the world behind Britain’s RAF. For a singular moment in history, Australia’s military aviation capability had more aircraft than officer pilots – there were 21 officers and 151 personnel in total with an aircraft inventory of 164. No wonder the new force was sometimes referred to as the ‘Gentlemen’s’ Flying Club’!
In the civilian world, women started making serious inroads into aviation, once licenses were granted in 1927. Female aviators, or “aviatrixes” as they were known at the time, soon became commonplace. Women set important aviation records including many long distance solo flights. The media of the day was filled with stories of their exploits and some enjoyed celebrity status. Despite the very real evidence that women could be accomplished pilots, the RAAF continued with a male only policy. The pragmatic reality of world war however, meant that Australia had to draw upon a wider pool of human resources, and in 1940, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed. The rejection of women in frontline roles was the norm at the time with only the Soviet Union using women pilots in combat roles, but the WAAAF contributed in every other area of the war effort. Many members had been in the volunteer organization the Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC), which had been established by female aviators keen to support the war effort. By 1944, the WAAAF had over 18,000 members, making it the largest wartime female force in Australia. Women pilots flew cutting-edge aircraft to maintenance depots and the squadrons as male pilots were in high demand for combat roles. According to the book ‘Shaft of the Spear’ (Grantham and Bushell, 2003), women dominated some technical categories making up to 90% of capability in some trades by war’s end. In December 1947, as the RAAF underwent demobilization and a radical shrinking from its temporary post war status as the world’s fourth largest air force with over 7,000 mainly cutting edge aircraft, the WAAAF was unceremoniously disbanded.
By 1950, Australia faced a new perceived threat from Communist expansion and became involved in the Korean War. In July of that year, the Australian Women’s Air Force was formed, and in November, it became the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF). Wing Officer Doris Carter was the organisation’s inaugural commander. It was not until the late 1960’s that the ‘marriage bar’ was lifted which had precluded married women from serving and provisions were made for unpaid maternity leave. In 1972, the WRAAF finally achieved equal pay with its male counterparts, although this took until 1979 for the wider ADF. Paid maternity leave began in the mid 70’s. In 1977, the WRAAF was disbanded, and female members absorbed into the RAAF. However, in many ways the battle for equal treatment was just beginning. For example, in 1978 Air Marshal Sir James Rowland, Chief of the Air Staff, said to a joint parliamentary committee on the likelihood of women pilots in the RAAF, ‘Do you want me to spend $1M of your money producing a Mirage pilot who is going to leave in a couple of years?’.
On 1 February 1978, the Air Force appointed its first female engineering student, Pilot Officer Margaret Maxwell. It appears that she had already completed two years of tertiary education as an engineer before enlisting, because in 1980 she was posted to an Aeronautical Engineering position. On 21 August 1979, the Air Force appointed Flying Officer Rosalea Hotchkies as the first qualified engineer. She was a direct entry Radar Engineer. The first female Royal Australian Air Force pilots were Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams and Officer Cadet Deborah Hicks. Both graduated from the same flying course (No 144 PLTCSE) on 30 June 1988. In 1992, the Keating ALP government announced that women could serve in all ADF units except for direct combat roles and in that year, Wing Commander Julie Hammer assumed command of the Electronic Warfare Squadron at RAAF Base Edinburgh, becoming the first woman to command an operational unit of the RAAF. She was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in the Australia Day Honours list in 1997, and in 1999 became the first woman to achieve the rank of Air Commodore. She ultimately achieved the rank of Air Vice Marshal.
The year 2000 saw the first female officers in the RAAF to graduate to fast jets. Flying Officer Brooke Chivers and Pilot Officer Aroha Fifield became the RAAF’s first women to graduate to fast jets earning their brevets as navigators in the RAAF’s frontline F-111 squadrons. In 2011 Minister for Defence Stephen Smith announced the federal government had agreed to remove gender restrictions from combat roles. In April 2014, Squadron Leader Samantha Freebairn – a C-17A Globemaster II pilot – became the RAAF’s first female pilot to return to operational flying after maternity leave. On December 2017, one of the last big hurdles was overcome, when Australia’s first female fighter pilots completed their operational conversion course on the F/A-18 Hornet. Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne stated: “I congratulate the six graduates of our most recent Royal Australian Air Force fast jet pilot course – including the first two female pilots to graduate from this course.” Two years later in November 2019
Warrant Officer Fiona Grasby was appointed the first female and ninth Warrant Officer – Air Force, the highest non-commissioned position in the RAAF.
It has been a long road, but a century after the formation of the RAAF, women are now able to undertake all roles.
Barrie Bardoe is a widely published writer and author. He holds a senior officer rank in the RAAF Specialist Reserve and is currently finishing a PhD. barriebardoe.com
Women in Aviation waiaustralia.org.au