Women in Aviation

Women were just making inroads into aviation in the 1980s. Some were already working in the industry – Christine Davy was a senior pilot with Connair  – but it was still challenging for women wanting to pursue a career as a pilot. Deborah Lawrie had to take her quest to be accepted by an airline company to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board.

This was due to a combination of misogyny and sexist beliefs that suggested women were not strong enough for the job, or else would be restricted by hormones and PMT. They could even fall pregnant, heaven forbid. A lesser factor was the cost of training and the fact that women earn less than men as well, making financing training a more arduous process.

Kathy took up her new job in Alice Springs in this environment. She was conscious of the biased attitudes she was likely to encounter and knew she would have to prove herself, whether to her colleagues or to the local community. She was apprehensive about how she would cope. It was the unknown rather than lack of confidence in her flying skills that caused her anxiety. By nature, she was reserved and controlled, and her outward demeanour hid her inner turmoil.

I asked Kathy what attracted her to flying as a career:

Women in Aviation

Kathy Sullivan

Kathy: Learning to fly was something I dreamed about for years, but never really thought it was possible. They I met some private pilots in a social setting, and realised if they could do it, so could I. I booked my first trial flight and after that, I was hooked. I had no definite career objectives until then, but suddenly a new option opened before me.

So you knew you wanted to become a professional pilot?

Kathy: Not immediately. My first focus was going solo and then getting my restricted pilot’s licence. Just getting that far took a bucket load of money but by that stage, I was really focussed. I was working in retail, but took a part-time job in hospitality as well so I could save up enough to do the rest of my training in one hit. My unrestricted license followed and then I worked towards my commercial license.

Did you have much support?

Kathy: My family were surprised at my choice but didn’t raise any objections. I also joined the Australian Women Pilots Association, and that is where I really felt supported. Whenever I felt discouraged or that I was chasing an impossible dream, other members reminded me of what was possible.

What made you decide to take the job in Alice Springs?

Kathy: Getting experience is so important, and the type of work that was available with StationAir would not be offered to me in a major city. It was a fantastic opportunity to both gain experience and to prove myself. At times I wondered what I was taking on, but I kept looking around at other people who were doing similar work and knew that I was just as qualified as they were.

You seem to have made some good friends in Alice Springs.

Kathy: Absolutely. That made such a difference to starting a new job, in a new town and with unfamiliar requirements. Sarah was an absolute darling, going out of her way to make me feel at home. Brian showed me the ropes as well, and I am really grateful to both of them and the welcome they gave me when I first arrived in town.

What advice would you give to another young woman looking to aviation for a career?

Kathy: Don’t believe anyone who says it’s not a job for a woman. There are challenges – I don’t deny that,   but if you’re determined and are prepared to go where the work is, the opportunities are there. I’d suggest joining AWPA and getting to know other women in the industry.

There was a suggestion that you only took the job in the Northern Territory in order to find a husband.

Kathy: Spurious suggestions like that shouldn’t even be given air. I know I met Alex in Alice Springs, and yes, we’re now married, but that was a surprise to me as much as anyone. The last thing I was looking for was a relationship. Is that all? I’m running late for the northeast mail run.

Don’t let me keep you – you’ve been most helpful. Thank you.

Emily Hussey.

 

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