Ivy May Pearce felt a rising sense of panic as the aircraft she was flying kept rising and falling without her changing altitude.
- Ivy May Pearce was one of Australia’s first female pilots
- Experts say gender bias is prevalent in today’s aviation industry
- Only about five per cent of commercial pilots are women
She had no idea why it was happening until she her male passengers later confessed to running up and down the aisle to mess with the young pilot, so surprised were they to see a woman behind the controls in the 1930s.
It has been nearly 90 years since that incident, but retired pilot and aviation expert Natasha Heap said in all that time not nearly enough has changed for women in aviation.
“When I was flying you’d hear passengers saying, ‘I don’t want her flying me’, or ‘oh our pilot is a woman, that’s weird’,” Ms Heap said.
“Just like today, the gender bias Ivy would have faced probably didn’t come from within the industry — a lot of bias comes from outside.
“I remember even telling my Dad at 18 that I was going to be a pilot, but he said it would be too hard because I was a woman.
“Now he says he’s glad I didn’t listen to him.”
Aviation ‘the last frontier’ for women
Ms Heap, now a researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, said women only made up about 5 per cent of the world’s commercial pilots.
“Five per cent is not enough,” she said.
Ipswich woman Ivy May Pearce, later Ivy Hassard, was one of the first female pilots in the southern hemisphere, as well as one Australia’s first aerobatic pilots.
She competed in the 1936 Brisbane to Adelaide air race at the age of 21 and made national headlines as the youngest entrant — recording the fastest time of any female pilot.
Yet prior to 1927, Australian women were not allowed to hold a pilot’s licence.
Ms Heap said while a road at Brisbane Airport and a building at Gold Coast Airport were named after the ground-breaking pilot, many did not know who she was.
Ms Pearce’s daughter Laurene Hassard said it was a shame Australia still had so few female pilots, despite early pioneers like her mother, who died in 1998.
“She was amazing, an extraordinary person who was completely fearless,” Ms Hassard said.
“My mother was a daredevil and loved aerobatics.
“The manoeuvres were extremely dangerous. In some of those air races she would get lost and she’d fly so low over railway stations to read the name of the station.
“I don’t understand why more women are not pilots today because obviously they are equally as competent as men in the air. I hope that will change.”
Ms Hassard said her mother designed many of her own flying outfits and opened the first fashion boutique on the Gold Coast in 1946, after running a pub in Toowoomba.
“Her designs appeared in Vogue and her collection was showcased in the Middle East, Hong Kong and the USA,” she said.
“She was successful, but was always proud of being a pilot.
“Even after she retired, if anyone ever brought up aviation over dinner, the salt and pepper shakers would turn into the aerodrome and she’d be right back there showing how she did the loop-de-loops and turns.”
More women urged to take to the skies
Ms Heap said she hoped Ivy Pearce’s legacy would continue to inspire women to study aviation, despite the industry being grounded to a halt by the coronavirus crisis.
“We had a global pilot shortage of pilots leading into the pandemic,” Ms Heap said.
In January, the Federal Government increased the amount aviation students could borrow in a bid to encourage more people, particularly women, to meet the nation’s demand for pilots.
“Aviation is a boom or bust industry, it’s always been that way,” Ms Heap said.
“After September 11, when a lot of pilots were stood down, they didn’t come back, after Ansett collapsed a lot of pilots also didn’t return.
“I believe some pilots out of work due to coronavirus will look for something else to do and in three years’ time there will be a lot of opportunities.
“We just have to be ready for it.”