Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2022

Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air, by Kathy Mexted

Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air is a book that came my way last year when we were finally out of Lockdown and celebrated with a few days in the beautiful Victorian town of Beechworth.  Throughout Lockdown everyone I knew was very conscious of the need to spend money in support of businesses that were doing it tough, and in my neck of the woods we take pride in the fact that loyal and supportive customers ensured that every one of the shops, cafés and restaurants in the local area survived.  However, my local area doesn’t boast a bookshop.  (That’s a wasted opportunity, imagine how much money they could make just from my purchases alone, eh?)  So I alternated my online book purchases between Readings and Benn’s Books in Bentleigh and I’m pleased to see that they survived as well.

That meant that our November sojourn in Beechworth after the Lockdown/s was the first time in nearly two years that I was actually in a bookshop. And yes, I did have a rush of blood to the head, restrained only by the fact that I had already bought (literally) hundreds of books during the pandemic.  But Beechworth Books was up to the challenge and Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air by Kathy Mexted was one of the books I bought there.

This is the blurb:

From pioneering and outback flights to delivering Spitfires or tackling the jungles of New Guinea, Australian Women Pilots tells of ten Australians with extraordinary stories. Women have been flying since the early days of aviation but, with a few notable exceptions, they have rarely been visible or well known. Kathy Mexted shares the feats of trailblazers like Nancy Bird Walton, Deborah Wardley, who was told by Ansett that women couldn’t be pilots, and Gaby Kennard, the first Australian woman to fly solo around the world. Others are perhaps less known, but as pilots involved with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary, the RAAF, aerial agriculture, or long-range ferrying, their stories are just as extraordinary. Packed with drama, adventure, and sometimes heartbreak, this riveting book is a salute to those women who refused to keep their feet on the ground.

My mother in uniform, 1945

Today, since it’s Anzac Day, I’m going to share the story of Mardi (Margaret Helen) Gething (1920-2005), a WW2 ATA Ferry Pilot.  Like my mother in the ATS, (Auxiliary Territorial Service) providing crucial and sometimes dangerous support to soldiers on the ground, women in the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) provided similarly crucial support to the male fighter pilots of WW2.  They were a small band of women in a male-dominated role during that time who ferried the aircraft from the production line to the airfields from which the fighters were launched for battle.

Mardi Gething, Source: Spitfire News,

Twenty-two years old, Mardi Gething was only 151 cm (5 feet) tall and she needed a booster cushion to reach the cockpit controls.  But she had a B (commercial) licence and 194 flying hours when she enlisted in 1942.  In her two years at ATA, she flew 600 hours in 26 different aircraft types, and — to the envy of every star-struck aviation enthusiast — she made 233 flights in the British hero, the cutting-edge Spitfire.  She also flew the Hurricane, the Tempest, the Typhoon, the Mustang and the Blenheim Bomber.

Born in Melbourne in 1920, as a child Mardi begged her way onto joy flights above Essendon with her siblings but wasn’t able to take to the air as a pilot until 1939.  She had graduated from Melbourne Girls Grammar in 1938 and set off for England on the SS Orford to do ‘the season’. While onboard she heard inspiring  tales of derring-do from future husband Flight Lieutenant Richard Gething who at 27 years of age had just established a long-distance record flying from Egypt to Darwin.  With war imminent, society plans were on hold and Mardi was reluctant to return home, but her parents were understandably anxious.  However, with Nancy Bird Walton* reassuring them that it was okay for Mardi to stay in England, she took lessons at the Thanet Aero Club and flew solo after just seven flying hours.

Her parents, however, then intervened, and Mardi had to continue her flight training in California.  She was home again in Melbourne by Christmas 1939, and old enough to qualify for her B licence.  Whatever plans to help with the war effort from Australia she had, they were shelved by Richard’s proposal, and she married him back in Canada where he had been posted. Once he was posted back to the Air Ministry in London, Mardi was intent on joining the ATA.  Her height didn’t meet the minimum, but when the need eclipsed the need for them to be tall, Mardi joined a team of about 60 women proving their worth to the war effort.

Richard was posted to India and she didn’t see him again for two and a half years.

Whereas combat airmen were endorsed to fly only one type of aircraft, the ATA pilots had to be adaptable, flying many types of craft, often with no prior knowledge, let alone training. And Spitfires, I learned, had different variants, all with different instructions.  The wartime rate of aircraft development meant that in no time Mardi was flying planes that were more than three times faster than the speed of the fabric biplane that she’d flown for her initial flight training. Without radios or navigational aids, the women relied on their personal knowledge of the countryside, supplemented by a paper map.

Adding to the hazards, including the risk of being bombed or caught by ‘friendly fire’, then there was the weather in Britain… Pioneer aviatrix Amy Johnson, also in the ATA, had died because she was caught in cloud over the Thames Estuary. 

Remarkably, in 1943 these women achieved equal pay, the first time women in Britain were paid the at the same rate as men.  (In the US women were paid 65% of the male rate.)

After the war, Mardi was reunited with her husband Richard, and they had two children who travelled with them to various RAF postings including in Singapore. Back in Australia after Richard’s retirement, Mardi became an award-winning gliding instructor and didn’t retire until she was 60.

It took until 2008, three years after Mardi’s death, for the women of the ATA to be acknowledged for their wartime service with a special veteran’s badge.

There is, apparently a BBC doco about the ATA, but it’s not accessible here in Australia.  But you can watch archival film of the women’s exploits:

 

You can read more about Mardi Gething at Spitfire News here.

*See my review of My God, It’s a Woman

Image credit: Mardi Gething, Spitfire News, https://www.spitfireassociation.com/single_article.php?post_id=siLajzysvuZ7qGzj0rY2dz12uiGKpeIF

Author: Kathy Mexted
Title: Australian Women Pilots, Amazing True Stories of Women in the Air
Publisher: New South Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781742236971, pbk, 272 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at the bookshop in Beechworth $34.99


Responses

  1. Great story Lisa … and beautiful tribute for today. I love this: “Her height didn’t meet the minimum, but when the need eclipsed the need for them to be tall …” BTW That’s a lovely image of your Mum. (I think you’ve shared it before?)

    Like

    • The other stories are great too, ideal for International Women’s Day at some time in the future.
      Re the photo, I thought I had posted it before, but I couldn’t find it when I searched the media library. I have the pair of these photos on the wall beside my desk, my father in his uniform too, in the same oval frames now very fragile so I don’t dare remove them for scanning the original photos.

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      • I thought you had … but WordPress knows best!! I have some old framed photos like that too from the 40s and 50s.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a great shame that with women so active in the 1940s men were so completely able to shut them down in the 1950s, A married woman doing a man’s job. The horror!

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    • Well, this one doesn’t seem to have been shut down… she had a career as a gliding instructor and she didn’t retire till she was 60.

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  3. Thanks for this great review of my book, Lisa. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. Mardi was such an interesting one to research and dive into. At the book launch in Tocumwal, my husband’s gliding instructor said he was taught to glide and got his Instructor Rating from Mardi! That was two very short degrees of separation! She was widely regarded as a pilot and well remembered by the members of the Australian Women Pilots Association also who knew her down here in Victoria.

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    • Hello Kathy, thank you for writing such an interesting book!
      I find it fascinating that it’s only now that these stories are coming to light, thanks in part to authors like you:)

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  4. What an amazing story! I love that she needed a booster seat! I have great admiration for anyone who can fly because I get violently air sick and like to have my feet firmly on the ground at all times

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    • I don’t mind big planes too much, but I spent my one flight in a little one in a lather of abject terror. I like the ground, a lot, but flying in a little plane means I’m too close to it…

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      • Well, I won’t share my story of going on a scenic flight over Kalgoorlie in Dec 2020. The poor pint-sized pilot (a woman) had to turn the plane around I was so sick!

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  5. It is interesting to read some of the stories that are still being uncovered even alll this time after the war was over!

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    • It is, isn’t it? I saw something on TV the other day about Aboriginal servicemen finally being acknowledged too, which was good to see.

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  6. […] posted today in recognition of ANZAC Day, Bill’s titled ANZAC Day 2022, while Lisa’s is about Martha Gething who is featured in the book, Australian women pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air. My […]

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  7. I saw these book in the book shop recently and was looking at it with interest. I resisted though as I have a stack I need to read at home. By the way, hoping my blog is finished and up and running soon. Interesting post.

    Like


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