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‘I wasn’t a feminist trailblazer – I was simply a woman who wanted to fly a plane’

This story is part of a special series featuring older Australians looking back on their lives.

It was the mid-1940s and Jean McPhee, then just a teenager, went on her first plane trip with a work colleague.

“We’re flying over Sydney and he says, ‘Have a go at flying it, Jean’,” she tells SBS News. 

“I said, ‘I can’t fly an aeroplane’ and he says, ‘Don’t tell anyone Jean but it’s really easy’.”

“So with instruction from him, I started flying the aircraft around, and from then on I was hooked.”

Jean McPhee

Jean McPhee in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth in 1947.

Jean McPhee

Now 93, Jean can still remember the excitement she felt that day. 

“It was absolutely magical … You looked down and you looked on the world. It was good.” 

The pilot was squadron leader Jim Marks who had come back to work at the same Sydney metal factory as Jean after the war.

He was always asking the men there to go flying with him as he needed to keep up his hours in order to maintain his pilot license.

“None of the men had money to pay for flying,” Jean says, but he never ever asked me. I was the only girl.” 

“One day I plucked up the courage and said ‘Mr Marks would you take me flying?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You pay for the aeroplane … Be at Mascot at 7am and I will take you flying’.

I managed to get there at 7am and he took me flying. It was wonderful.”

Resistance from family 

Jean’s parents ran a fruit shop in Sydney during the depression. She left school at 14 with limited career expectations for her and other young women at the time.

“You got a job, normally in an office, and basically you just got married and you didn’t work. You stayed at home and looked after your husband and children. That was basically your expectation.”

Jean went to secretarial college but decided early on the work was not for her.

“I thought, ‘this is not what I want to do with the rest of my life’, so I changed and went into accounting, which was unusual at the time.”

Jean was employed as a bookkeeper and any spare money she had from her secretarial job went towards flying lessons. She was determined to get her private pilot’s licence.

But her desire to fly was met with resistance from her family and those around her.

“They were quite surprised to tell you the honest truth. Just one of those things isn’t it?”

Jean kept going though. She didn’t see herself as a feminist trailblazer, she says, she was simply a woman who wanted to fly a plane. 

‘Tiger Moth Lady’

The first plane Jean flew was a Tiger Moth and she would later be given the nickname ‘Tiger Moth Lady’.

The open tandem cockpit biplane was constructed from steel tubing and covered in a combination of fabric and thin plywood.

Now highly valued by collectors, it was used for training by the Royal Australian Air Force.

Jean McPhee and Tiger Moth plane

Jean’s preferred flying machine was the Tiger Moth.

Jean McPhee

“It could do aerobatics,” Jean says of the aircraft, and so could she.

“To get your pilots licence in those days you had to do what was called ‘spinning’. You would have to get a fair height and then put the plane into a spin and then pull out of it.”

“I don’t believe we do that these days at all. Most of the pilots today only learn on simulators.”

Eventually, Jean achieved her goal of becoming a qualified pilot, and she still has the original license, dated 1947.

“When I received that it was one of the great thrills of my life,” she says. 

Jean's private pilot licence

Jean’s private pilot licence, issued in 1947.

Supplied

A love story in the air 

Flying alone for the first time was a thrill, she says. 

“Absolutely wonderful, I cannot describe the elation and the feeling that you’re sitting up there and looking down on the world, it was wonderful.”

And her first passenger was the man who eventually became her husband.

“Lindsey was my first passenger, and I took all my friends flying and all that, but then Lindsey and I were getting serious and Lindsey asked me to marry him.”

Lindsey’s family were about as supportive as her own about her passion for flying. 

“I’m afraid my husband’s family were not impressed. They imagined Lindsey would marry someone who stayed at home, but that was not to be.”

Lindsey, who at the time worked in the mailroom of a local abattoir, also told Jean she would have to give up her favourite pursuit.

“Everyone said to me, ‘Why did Lindsey say you would have to give up flying?'”

But it wasn’t because Lindsey wanted her to, she says. It was simply the cost that was prohibitive for most people.

“Lindsey earned five pounds a week and I paid six-pound an hour to fly. I had done everything I could do as a private pilot and had no hope of becoming commercial.”

Women also faced gender barriers at the time and were far less likely to be able to find or maintain employment once they married and had children.

Jean McPhee and family

Jean with her husband, children and grandchildren on her 80th birthday in 2006.

Jean McPhee

Jean and Lindsey had two children and she is also a grandmother of two.

She says she has no regrets and continued to work on and off, even when she had her children.

“You know, it was a very expensive hobby and I say if Jim Marks the squadron leader had not come to work, I probably would never have got into it. But that’s life isn’t it?”  

Today, women still remain underrepresented in aviation.

Globally only around five per cent of commercial pilots are female, with similar rates seen in Australia, and the figure for those with private licences isn’t much higher.

The Fearless Flyers

While the cost of flying made it difficult to continue, Jean’s love of aviation didn’t end there.

She maintained an interest in it her whole life, becoming one of the first members of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association, advocating for women in aviation and occasionally flying with others.

“It was a time of big development for women to get into flying, because the men did not want women in the cockpit, so it was hard going for a lot of them.”

Nancy Bird-Walton, the youngest woman in the British Commonwealth to gain a commercial licence, had set up the association.

The Australian Museum website notes Nancy Birk-Walton “was remarkable in an era when women were discouraged from wearing pants, let alone flying planes”.

Nancy and Jean became firm friends.

Nancy Bird

Nancy-Bird Walton at Kingsford Smith Flying School, 1933.

State Library of New South Wales / fearlessflyers.com.au

“She was a wonderful, wonderful person,” Jean says of the woman who would become the first to gain her commercial pilot licence. 

“Shell sponsored Nancy and took her overseas to publicise that women were flying and flying was safe. She was a role model for all of us.”

The two women, along with Glenda Philpott and other female pilots, helped set up a voluntary organisation known as Fearless Flyers to help people overcome their fear of flying.

The course still exists today.

“With the graduation flight to Melbourne and back on the scheduled 747, all the graduates, probably about 20 on the course, were all individually invited to the cockpit to see the captains flying the plane, to see how relaxed it was,” Jean says.

Funds raised from the course also went to help people who wanted to train as pilots but could not afford to do so.

“We would then give scholarships to young people. It did not matter, women or men, who wanted to finally get commercial licences but could not afford it. We would help them with the money we were raising from that.”

An article about the Fear of Flying group appeared in a 1984 issue of Australian Playboy Magazine – without any sexy pictures, Jean insists.

The issue forms part of a collection of certificates, photographs and aviation memorabilia that Jean has kept over the years.

And Jean’s volunteer work didn’t stop with Fear of Flying. In 1985 she announced to Lindsey she was joining the police force and she wanted him to come along too.

Jean and Lindsey McPhee

Jean continued to volunteer with husband Lindsey.

Jean McPhee

Both she and Lindsey, who died in 2010, volunteered for 25 years with NSW Police; Lindsey would assist with court services while Jean helped out with administration.

Due to mobility issues, Lindsey would be driven to the local court.

“He would be picked up every Friday morning by two gorgeous young female police officers. They would take him away for the day and bring him back at 5pm. We had to tell the neighbours he did not do home detention, he actually worked for the police,” she laughs. 

Jean McPhee

Jean today.

SBS News

Jean says if she could go back in time, she wouldn’t do anything differently. 

Her love of aviation brought her so much. 

“I’d do it again, definitely. It opened doors that you never think would have been opened to you. It’s wonderful and you have friends all around the world.”

Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email [email protected]

Source: SBS

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