Reg Ansett & Deborah Wardley
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
The 1970s were not a great decade for Reg Ansett. As he entered his sixties, his airline was slipping against the government-owned opposition, he had lost his airport car-hire monopoly, a major investment disaster had set the sharks circling and a corporate takeover was looming. To add to his woes, he had woman trouble.
Sir Reginald Ansett was the very model of the self-made tycoon, commuting from his country estate in his private helicopter, his name on a fleet of jets. He’d left school at 14, qualified as a sewing-machine mechanic and got a job as an axeman in the Northern Territory. Buying a second-hand Studebaker with his earnings, he started a road transport company between Melbourne and western Victoria, invested his earnings in a Gipsy Moth, cultivated the local squatters and, in 1937, aged 28, floated Ansett Airways Ltd. Tall, lean and driven, he was addressed by his executives as ‘RM’. Others called him obstreperous, tough and pig-headed. He raced thoroughbreds and got a gong from the Queen.
Women were fine, as far as Reg was concerned, as long as they knew their place. Hosties could push trolleys along the aisles of his planes and hand out airsick bags as long as they remained young and decorative, but the travelling public did not want “old boilers” serving the drinks. And there was absolutely no question of a woman behind the controls. The pointy bit wasn’t called the cockpit for nothing.
In February 1976, a 22-year-old flying instructor named Deborah Lawrie applied to Ansett Airlines for a position as a trainee pilot. She was not the first woman to do so and company management could see the writing on the wall, but Reg was adamant. “Not while I’m here,” he told them.
By 1978, Lawrie, by then using her married name, Deborah Wardley, was sick of getting the run-around. Despite her unimpeachable qualifications, grounds were always found to reject her. She took her case to Victoria’s recently established Equal Opportunity Commission. The case became a cause célèbre as Ansett’s lawyers grasped at straws to satisfy their client, appealing all the way. Women were not strong enough to fly planes. What if their earrings got caught in the controls? Menstruation and aviation don’t mix. Who could guarantee passenger safety if a pilot was unable to pull a jetliner out of a nosedive due to her ectopic pregnancy? The unions might object.
On the day the High Court heard the case, Sir Reginald Ansett stood down as chief of his company. He was 70 and a lifetime of combat had taken its toll. Deborah Wardley made her first commercial flight for Ansett in January 1980. She’s currently a high flyer in air safety.