success 1967, 1977 and 1980 style
Further to International Women’s Day 2022, Catherine Fitzsimons rang me and we chatted about the day and what it meant for us. This gave me the idea to write down my story of experiencing Early success 1967 style, but before I can write them, I need to fill in the backdrop.
In the UK I had been brought up to believe, I could swim the channel, be Prime Minister and do whatever I wanted. It was expected that I would go to university. The only problem was I never received an academic education in order to fulfil my parents’ dreams as we were travelling a great deal throughout my childhood. Going to about 8 schools did not help. My dream was to fly and the only way I could do this was to leave the United Kingdom.
When I came to Australia, I realised that some women had a slightly different place in life and some men had their own clear opinion of what a woman could or could not do. A few months after arriving I discovered the wages in Thredbo were enormous in comparison to London so I went down there to work in the winter of 1964 in order to save money for flying and learn to ski. One night a car went into the creek and the passengers were entrapped. I went down to see if I could help and was told in no uncertain terms that this was not women’s business! Aah! Well! There you go – Welcome to Australia – the great egalitarian society?
I saved up lots of money in Thredbo. I believed my only chance of getting a government scholarship was to go bush and keep an eye on the competition. Connellan Airways in Alice Springs advertised for a Traffic Officer and the advertisement read “Wanted: Traffic Officers, male and under 21” I applied and said that I was neither male nor under 21 but I had all these assets. I got the job. I flew up to the Alice and over the next 18 months I worked and did my flying training and on 27 August 1967 I gained my commercial licence. I had received huge help from the Government by gaining a scholarship which paid $13 out of the $14 required per hour. The question then became where could I get a flying job? I wrote about 40 letters to companies all over Australia and I received three replies.
· One from Kingsford-Smith Flying school at Bankstown Airport said “if you do your instructor rating with us, we will give you a job for one month and see if anyone wants to fly with a woman.”
· A Cherokee 6 operator at Port Augusta, and
· A man form WA who wrote a very nice letter saying roughly “your letter to me indicated hesitancy and worry about being a woman and not getting a job because of it. Forget it and go for it.” Now that was a good letter as I had not realised my letter indicated that view. However, he did not have a job to offer me, but he had taken time out to write to me. I have not forgotten him although now I have no idea who he was, I am extremely grateful for his kick along.
I wanted to return to Sydney so I took the opportunity of one month’s work and possibly more. I went for the instructor rating at Kingsford-Smith flying school.
Kingsford-Smith Flying School had started in the 1930’s, was well established and was the best opportunity for me in Sydney. I arrived on the 10 September 1967 and was promptly interviewed by two directors, who presented their view of my potential future. As an afterthought they told me the CFI had returned to his home country Hungary, for a holiday and he would not hear about me until he returned.
I was pleased to get the job. I accepted that situation and pondered the opportunity to learn with an ex-military officer.
I was told he was in his late 50’s and was not enthusiastic about women being pilots.
My time in the UK
As an educational boost I went to a university cramming college in London in 1956-58 called The City of Westminster College. Francis House, near Victoria station. This was specifically a college for cramming university entrance subjects.
I was amongst 2000 international students some of whom came from Britain, the rest were from all over the world. Brits, Israelis, Hungarians, Thais, Arabs, Turks, Indians, Chinese, people from all over Africa. Our main meeting place was a huge canteen where we went for morning tea and afternoon tea and lunch.
This is why I was thinking about the CFI from Hungary, because I had had a close association with them at the college and found them to be quite forthright.
(Needless to say, I benefited from the university cramming education, but despite two years of attendance I did not pass the entrance exams. It was not an easy course due to the differences in languages and a poor educational grounding).
I later found that the CFI had flown for the Hungarian Airforce in WW2, but actually on the German side. Considering my English origin, it did make me wonder how our relationship would go. I understood he had been quite senior in that system.
He told me much later that when he first came to Australia he applied for a job with the Department of Transport as an examiner. The current examiners then were all ex-RAF or RAAF. They asked him whether he had ever been to the UK and his reply was “last time I saw London was through a bomb site.” He did not get the job.
I had an excellent instructor at Kingsford Smith which we used to call Kingies, called John Relaid, who undertook and supervised my training as an instructor. Interestingly he came from Estonia and during WW2 aged in his early teens, he had been throwing hand grenades around in defence of his homeland.
On 23 October I failed my instructor rating and simultaneously Jo Somorjay the CFI returned from holidays. Great beginning. At the time I was exhausted by the concentration and study required given that there was no standardised training materials available, plus travel to and from the airport. First thing the CFI said to me was words to the effect that he had not been asked about employing a woman and he did not want a woman working here because women should be at home in the kitchen sink!! I told him “I did not own a kitchen sink.” Having also been brought up in a dysfunctional household I took one step forward and said “Jo, whether you like it or not I am here and I intend to stay.”
I undertook further flying training, and the same examiner re-tested me. He asked me how old I was on finals for a touch and go runway 11 at Bankstown. I said I was 25. “Oh”, he said “I thought you were an 18-year-old and thought you could have trouble with the young men. Make it a full stop landing and I will pass you.”!!!! This was the first time that I had heard that a flight test success could depend on your age. But there you go. Although this should not be a factor, he never really said what he was looking for. But he did have my welfare at heart. Over the years he became a good friend and conducted many of my flight tests.
Success – now I was an instructor and I had one month to get the people in charge to believe that students did wish to fly with me. Another supporter was an older instructor called Peter Jones who took me under his wing. He would fly with a student for their first hour then bring them back and say “Aminta will be flying with you from now on.” Peter Jones was so good; I was very grateful. The other young instructors were helpful too but they were very quickly destined for the Airlines.
Many of the older students quite openly were reluctant to fly with a woman and one said “I do not wish to fly with a woman.” When I asked why – their explanation for this attitude was “Oh, a woman goes mad every month.” My reply was “well, have you noticed me go mad yet?” I said “see those two young men over there that you wish to fly with. In about 6 months they will have left and gone to the airlines. Then you will have the choice of me, by then a more experienced instructor or someone more junior than myself. Why don’t you give me a go?”
Some did give me a go and they generally stayed. They were pleasantly surprised how well it went. I slowly built up a clientele and my job lasted beyond one month.
During the course of my work, my interaction with the CFI was up and down. I don’t know why. But one day he said something to me which really annoyed me (I have forgotten what) and I lit up. I started yelling at him, pushed him into his office, slammed the door and gave him a hum dinger rounds of the kitchen. The whole school, directors, staff and instructors vacated onto the tarmac. Returning students stayed outside. The “argument” lasted for 20 or so minutes whilst insults and accusations were hurled at each other. When I had finished and he had become quiet I stormed out and drove home. (Unfortunately coming from a dysfunctional family, I was used to arguments like this. Although I avoided conflict it was quite fun when it actually worked).
The next day was like a new horizon – and from then on believe it or not a friendship evolved and he became a great supporter.
During the course of March 1977, I did my instrument training at Navair. Ray Clamback was my instructor. The examiners all had a much closer connection with General Aviation companies in those days and consequently they knew when people were approaching the time of their test. One of the examiners who shall remain anonymous went to Ray and asked him when I was likely to be ready for my test as he would like to conduct it. My name was put into the examiners section and this particular examiner was appointed to conduct my test. Ray warned me that this fellow had a reputation of pursuing women.
The day came and the test consisted of departing Bankstown, fly to Bathurst for the NDB (Non directional beacon) approach, Mudgee for the VOR (Very High Frequency Omni directional Range) approach and return to Sydney for the ILS approach (Instrument Landing System is a precision approach).
All was going well – I had not been asked to return to Sydney half way through the test which would have meant that I had failed. I was on to my last approach, the ILS at Sydney. About half way down the approach I felt a hand on my right thigh just above my knee. “Uh Oh. Quick as a flash, I said “have I passed?” He took his hand away and said “Well I think you are good enough to be let loose in the system!!” No more was said about the hand on the thigh. After landing back at Bankstown, he signed my licence and that was that!! I was pleased that I had kept calm.
In 1980 five Sydney shareholders bought a Beechcraft Kingair 200. Navair Pty. Ltd. was to operate it. With every sale there were two pilot training positions. Ray was given the first training position and I was lucky enough to be awarded the second training position. Fortunately, others did not seem interested in going to the USA.
So off we both jetted to the USA in a 747 then from Los Angeles to Wichita we flew in a 737.
This was exciting for us as we were joining the turbo prop pilots.
We were given lots of homework every night which I did trying to keep awake – but Ray never managed his home work because he found it difficult to keep awake after dinner having studied all day and given the time change.
The correction of home work answers was always the first topic of the morning. The trainer would go round the class and ask for answers. When it came time for Ray to answer a question – his answer was incorrect. The trainer said “No Ray you are wrong.” Ray replied “No I am not wrong and pointed his finger at me who had helped him fill in the answers. Everyone had a bit of a giggle when the trainer came over to me and said “Are you Ray’s secretary?”. I replied “I thought I had come to a pilot training facility not a secretarial college! I fly.!!” “What do you fly? a Cessna 150?” I responded “No I have never had the opportunity of flying a Cessna 150” “What do you do and fly?” I answered that “I was an instructor with twin training approval and flew Twin Comanches, Barons and Navajos and hopefully soon this new Kingair 200. With that he returned to teaching the class. The rest of the week went well.
The thing that I discerned throughout my working life was that some men were helpful and unfortunately there were those that were unhelpful. There had not been much open discussion about women’s equal rights, misogyny and sexual harassment in the work place in those years. As far as I was aware it was take it on – sink or swim.
I learned to remember the men that helped, tucking that information away in my brain. I also noticed the male helpers came mostly from the bush. Years later Ray told me why. Women on the farm did equal work with the men. Their labour was needed and expected. The only thing they were not to do was lift heavy huge bags.
I had received help from the
· The Australian Government in the form of a flying scholarship whilst in the Alice. The boss of the airline company in the Alice I learned later, lobbied hard to have my scholarship taken away as his traffic officers should have received the scholarships. One has to remember that he also had fired me saying I would never make a pilot. When I asked him why he was firing me he said nobody does any work when you are around they are always laughing. Years and years later Christine Davy told me he fired here at least three times but she just turned up to work the next day. I said “how come you never told me that.”
· John Relaid was a big help whilst he conducted my instructor rating at Kingies. Believe me I needed it – for some time I had no idea what he was talking about in relation to putting briefings up on the board. He finally made my briefings work.
· Peter Jones the Senior Instructor at Kingsford-Smith was a great pilot and a huge help to me.
· I received huge help from Ray Clamback and Jim Hazelton at Navair both of whom who were very skilled pilots.
I came to believe that women of my era had to be careful not to carry a chip on their shoulder, learn to recognise those who helped you and those that did not. Take the help offered graciously and ignore the recalcitrants.
There were some women who were always complaining about how bad the industry was. During the course of them continually complaining they actually missed out on noticing the men most willing to help. There are a few oldies around still with a chip on their shoulder to this day.
Yes, we were not wanted in airlines and yes there was harassment and unfairness but there was also much help on offer, but you had to notice and accept it. Had it not been so, I would not have had such a satisfying and varied career.