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

Mourning Tim Fischer

Today’s crop of Nats are an affront to the legacy of the former leader

Book covers

Robot love: Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’ and Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Frankissstein’

Literary authors tackle sentience and rationality in AI, with horrific results

Image from ‘The Loudest Voice'

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

Photo of Adam Goodes

Swan song: Documenting the Adam Goodes saga

Two documentaries consider how racism ended the AFL star’s career

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

Image from ‘The Loudest Voice'

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

Image of Peter Drew bike stencil

A meme is born: Real Australians Say Welcome

How one artist’s posters about politics took on a life of their own – an extract

Image of Nigel Farage at CPAC in Sydney

Making sense of CPAC

Why the Conservative Political Action Conference should not be dismissed lightly

Image from ‘Midsommar’

Pagan poetry: the studied strangeness of Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’

The ‘Hereditary’ director micro-manages the mania in his new film