Four decades ago, Deborah Lawrie became Australia’s first female airline pilot after triumphing in a gruelling, year-long legal battle with Reg Ansett. She talks to Adam Thorn about the case that took her to the cockpit – and its legacy today.
Originally published in Australian Aviation, 2021
First Among Equals
It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the career of Deborah Lawrie – Australia’s first female airliner pilot, the oldest woman in the cockpit for a major global carrier and the immovable object who grounded the career of industry titan Reg Ansett – that the manner of her demise at Tigerair still rankles. “They did it rather much by stealth,” she says. “They started by saying they were going to close down the bases one by one. Sydney was going to shut before Brisbane, but Melbourne would continue to operate. A week after that announcement, they closed the whole airline. It came as a shock to everyone.” It was long before the new owners, Bain, rescued the airline from administration and while Paul Scurrah was still CEO. “He made the decision,” she says. “He said something and did something else.”
It’s certainly not a fitting end to one of Australian aviation’s most enduring tales. During ten exhausting months beginning in January 1979, Lawrie battled through five separate legal cases to force Ansett to end its policy of refusing to employ women pilots. In that time, she had her family planning intentions questioned, was told women weren’t strong enough to fly large aircraft and was even informed that menstrual tension could hinder her performance. What started as a simple test case of Victoria’s new Equal Opportunities Act escalated into a very personal war of attrition between a twentysomething Lawrie and belligerent millionaire Reg Ansett. “He was… how would you describe him? He was a male chauvinist pig. He just had this idea of where women should be and what their roles were in life.”
Today, as we talk in late April 2021, the situation seems unrecognisable. For all of Lawrie’s grumbles, at its death, Tiger’s female representation in the cockpit stood at 8 per cent, making it among the highest in the world. That, though, wasn’t enough for brand CEO Merren McArthur, who said the figure was “nothing to crow about”. McArthur set about redressing the balance with the same single-mindedness as Lawrie. To fix what she called the human nature of executives promoting those similar to themselves, she broke the link by transforming an entirely male management team into a 60–40 split. And she encouraged the next generation to rise organically by setting – and surpassing – a target of ensuring 50 per cent of recruits on its cadetship scheme were female. It’s a goal Qantas matched.
I ask Lawrie what the landscape’s like now? What kind of introduction would her young self have received in 2021? “I would have walked through the door with my qualifications without any problems.” There is, she thinks, still a lot of work to be done for the higher ups, where men still dominate. Becoming a training or check captain is one thing but rising to a chief pilot or instructor or CEO is something else entirely. “There are areas where they put the token one or two in there, but that’s to tick a box, so they appear to be doing the right thing. It’s still very much jobs for the boys, patting each other on the back.”
It all harks back, I suggest, to what I think is the inherently sexist stereotype that persists in the industry. In the cockpit, you have the captain – an older white, well-educated and intelligent man – and serving the drinks and food is a pretty young girl on the cabin crew. Decades on, it still lingers in the mind. “Oh, there’s a stereotype, that’s for sure,” she agrees. “A lot of it is to do with aviation being mysterious. It was secret men’s business, and nobody knew what went on behind that cockpit door, or let alone how to fly the airplane.” That’s getting broken down by airlines and the Air Force putting their female pilots front and centre of their advertisements, but there’s a way to go.
One thing we disagree on over the course of our chat is gender quotas. On a recent episode of The World of Aviation Podcast, for instance, the team and I were unanimous that the only way to change long-held perceptions was by artificially inserting more women into senior positions to drive a more organic change further down the track. I ask why she thinks they’re so bad? The best people, she responds, should always be selected for the job, and quotas devalue the achievements of those who get the nod. “It’s just wrong,” she argues. “They’re attacking it from the wrong end. We need to encourage more women to get into aviation in the first place.” Too many girls in school don’t think of aviation as being a career possibility, so boosting interest would increase numbers and allow more natural competition with the guys.
But there is one final thing I want to run past her. Could it not be the case that gender imbalance doesn’t necessarily require a sinister motive? Maybe boys growing up just have more of a natural tendency to be passionate about aviation? “I disagree.” Look at somebody like Amelia Earhart, she argues, the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Back in those days, women were, more so than the men, constrained by being fortunate enough to have had access to someone who could give them a break.
“Some of the women who are involved in aviation are so passionate it’s incredible.”
Deborah Lawrie grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs as the oldest of four siblings. She caught the aviation bug from her dad, James, who was himself taking his pilot’s licence when she was a teenager. As a 16th birthday present, he paid for two lessons at Moorabbin, a one-hour drive on the other side of town. At this point, there was no turning back, and she continued to work weekends to fund extra lessons, managing to cobble together enough for one per month. It took a year of saving before she was able to fly solo and juggled all of this with her academic studies, finishing with a degree in maths, science, physics and chemistry and a mind-boggling final year specialising in nuclear physics and pure maths.
After graduation, she took a role teaching at Chandler High School but combined it with working part-time at Moorabbin as an instructor. She knew she needed to up her flying hours to put herself in a position for a job at a major airline, which is what she craved. And while she’d heard Ansett had previously rejected applications from female pilots, in 1975, she handed over her paperwork. When she asked Captain Henry Theunissen, the man in charge of intake training, what her chances were, he told her he wasn’t so sure. Undeterred by a rejection, two years later, she updated her CV and tried again. By now, she’d accumulated 1,000 hours of single-engine experience and 120 hours of twin-engine, more than enough to meet the threshold required at the time. Theunissen agreed and put her forward for an interview. She was more than qualified by this point, having notched up far more flying hours than the average applicant and acing her psychological assessment.
She was stunned when she was refused outright.
Sir Reginald Ansett had never employed a female pilot in his 40 years of operation and had no intention of doing so now, despite other global airlines taking a stand. The business avoided criticism by knocking back its applicants by the back door: Ansett had a rule of not employing new pilots after they turned 27. The policy was, superficially, to ensure the business got its money worth out of a recruit after an expensive training process. Lorraine Cooper, who flew with Lawrie as part of the Royal Victorian Aero Club, was one such case study: put on the waiting list at 24 and delisted three years later. It transpired that Theunissen was told to go slow with Lawrie’s application, too, and had to fight even to secure her a token interview in the first place.
What Reg didn’t count on, though, was the passing of new state laws that made this practice illegal. As a final roll of the dice, Lawrie approached Equal Opportunities commissioner Fay Marles, who arranged a personal meeting with Reg to inform him the business had no reason not to take on female applicants. Undeterred, he barked back that women wouldn’t have the strength to pilot an aircraft if the hydraulics failed and, anyway, the union would go on strike if a woman was recruited.
What started as a hearing at the Equal Opportunities Board the following January, in 1979, ballooned into a near year-long court battle, swinging back and forth between the Equal Opportunities Board and Supreme Court, before being referred for a final decision in the High Court of Australia. Lawrie’s lawyers had to contend with Ansett continually changing its line of attack as it created new and ever more spurious arguments against her recruitment. “They would go down one road, and it wouldn’t work, so they’d all change their mind and say, OK, let’s just make up something else.” When they couldn’t pin her down on a strength test, for example, they switched to arguing she would have too many absences for childbearing and raising.
“I didn’t even think that was outrageous because that was par for the course in those days,” she says. She was more miffed because she made it clear she wasn’t planning on having lots of children and couldn’t understand why they didn’t believe her. At points, Ansett’s arguments became ludicrous. “One guy looked at my earrings and said they might be a problem in an emergency if I had to get out of the aircraft. I mean, what the hell? So I told them I could remove them before I got out the window. They were clutching at straws, trying to think of something that would only affect women.”
It’s easy to forget that Lawrie was only young at the time, and the pressure became intolerable. She became thin and exhausted and just craved a sense of normality. Her mother pleaded with her to give up. “It was very, very stressful,” she says. “Ansett kept throwing more firepower in terms of lawyers and QCs. They had unlimited money in their coffers and were going to keep beating me down no matter what it took. And so it became a real personal battle between myself and Reg, although he didn’t personally engage in it, he got other people to do his dirty work.” The more she hung in there, the more she felt she couldn’t quit. And hearing her now, it’s clear the airline boss understandably got under her skin, too.
What made the process so unusual was that there wasn’t a moment where she knew she had definitely won. When the Supreme Court – during the effective fourth court case – made a final ruling that Ansett must hire Lawrie, a snap appeal to the High Court meant she started the job under a cloud, knowing it could end at any point. The tide only turned after Reg Ansett surprisingly stood down from his position – reportedly himself exhausted from the proceedings – and new owners Peter Abeles and Rupert Murdoch took over. Nonetheless, her early pilot training tests at Ansett were characterised by underhand tactics to derail her, orchestrated by foot soldiers still loyal to the Reg Ansett way of doing things. “They tried to get rid of me, they tried very hard, but they failed in their attempts.” Murdoch’s intervention made the final ruling of the High Court slightly irrelevant, but the justices still voted 4-2 in her favour, cementing her position.
Battle won, she enjoyed a remarkable career flying Fokker 27s, DC9s and the slightly bigger 737. Soon, a second female pilot joined Ansett, and she wasn’t so unusual anymore. She knew she’d been truly accepted when, after five years, she was invited to the men-only annual retirement dinner before being transferred to the 727, the second-biggest aircraft in the Ansett fleet. Years later, after moving on from the airline, she flew for KLM in Holland before returning to Australia to fly for Qantas and then Tiger.
I ask why she didn’t throw in the towel?
“I believed so strongly that this was my rightful place, and because other guys had been selected ahead of me who were less qualified in terms of the selection criteria. It should have nothing to do with me being a female. In my mind, I deserved to be in that pilot group, and I was going to get there.”
Deborah Lawrie is lovely to talk to: softly spoken yet forthright with a giddying passion for aviation. Yet ahead of our interview, I perhaps saw her as something of an underdog. In hindsight, she’s the archetype Aussie battler. Researching her story, it still seems quite remarkable to me that she was hugely responsible for Reg’s demise, as he battled to contain the bad publicity, with multiple businesses and groups boycotting the airline to support Lawrie. “He made some very bad business decisions because he was somewhat distracted by the case,” she says. “His was a crumbling empire with the vultures ready to snap it up. He was hanging onto something he created, but his thinking was so out of kilter with modern society. He was so obsessed he took his eye off the ball.”
But she was an unlikely feminist icon, too, because her goal was unashamedly never to fight for women’s rights but to secure her spot in the cockpit. I tell her that what surprised me when I first started covering the aviation beat as a journalist almost a year ago was the passion that exists at every level. The same love she felt. When a spotter looks in the sky with a camera on a wet morning squatting aside the runway, I put to her, that person sees something the average person doesn’t. “You can explain the physics of aircraft to somebody, but it still defies logic as to why it gets in the air in the first place,” she agrees. “We get access to something so mysterious. It’s like an inner sanctum, and you feel privileged to be part of it.”
She’s been using her downtime to rewrite and update her autobiography, Letting Fly, first released in 1992. She’s already written a few chapters, with her mum – “who’s always good at criticising me” – providing feedback. She hopes to have it finished by the end of the year, with a publisher already committed to the project. We’ve naturally invited her onto our podcast to talk about it when she’s done.
But with the industry starting to open up again and a vaccine rollout picking up pace, would she consider returning to fly for a major airline? After all, before the pandemic hit, she was also the oldest captain globally, owing to Australia’s unique rules allowing people to remain in the cockpit beyond the age of 65. Flying full time would be pretty stressful, she says, but she would like to combine being a pilot with safety and training on the ground. “But I would like to fly again,” she emphasises. “And I know a lot of the guys would like to fly with me, which is nice to hear. I always intended to carry on for another couple of years. That was always my plan; it just didn’t quite go that way.”
“Way back at the beginning, they thought it was a risky business to employ women,” she concludes. “It was a great thing that I had hung in there for so long and proved them all wrong.”