September 2012


Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

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.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: September 2012

September 2012

From the front page

Pub Test: Bad News for Turnbull

Media moguls did not knife the PM, his party did

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Ancestral Spirit Beings Collecting Honey, 1985-87

‘John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New’ at the MCA, Sydney

The celebrated bark painter’s ethos guides this retrospective exhibition

In The Big House

The quintessential American cultural experience is still college football

In This Issue

Quarterly Essay 47, 'Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott' by David Marr, Black Inc., 140pp; $19.95

Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott

Obama's election day cheer squad, Harlem, New York, 4 November 2008. © Ingvar Kenne

Waiting for Barack

The improbable president

'Hemingway and Gellhorn', Philip Kaufman (director).Screening on Showtime in September.

‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ by Philip Kaufman (director)

A ceremonial sunset aboard the HMAS 'Manoora' off Vanuatu in 2006. © Commonwealth of Australia

A Middling Power: Why Australia's defence is all at sea

Read on

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival