Kathy’s passion project

By Daniel Hughes

Finley’s Kathy Mexted, nee Whitty, is finalising her first book, Australian Women Pilots, which is due for release on November 1.

Published by NewSouth Books, it tells the amazing true stories of ten female pilots.

Kathy said each story is unique in how they faced their own challenges, including some that paved the way for all women in aviation today.

She was asked to intertwine her own experiences into the stories where possible.

‘‘As I have some flying experience, its much easier to write with authority on the experiences of these women,” she said.

‘‘However, I will point out that my aviation journey has been quite tame in comparison. It helps to understand terminology and technique and be able to translate that for a general readership.’’

While growing up in Finley, Kathy was encouraged to take up flying by her father, Patrick Whitty.

He had been a member of a group of some of the first local pilots, along with Keith Matthews, Jack Armstrong, Harry Wilson, Murray Creed and John Edwards.

The Finley Flying Group owned an aeroplane and built the first hangar at the Finley airport around 1972.

Pat was a stock and station agent with Dalgetys and then VPC.

Taking after her father, Kathy was interested in flying from a young age but she did not start the process of getting her licence until she was 27, when she returned from living overseas.

‘‘I trained with John Williams in Tocumwal and got my restricted licence in 1991 and unrestricted in 1992.

‘‘At that time, only about one or two per cent of licence holders in Australia were women. It is now around five per cent, as the airlines and RAAF encourage women into their pilot ranks.

‘‘The only other female pilot I had ever met, as far as I I remember, was our high school librarian Jan Edwards.

‘‘Dad and I had been flying to Berrigan one day and he let me have a go at the controls.

‘‘He thought I was hanging on pretty tight and, after some thought, followed up by offering to pay for formal lessons.

‘‘Jack Armstrong’s son Bill had just got his licence the same year. Bill still flies also. As I was only just learning to drive the car out at the Blighty farm, I figured I’d give the flying a bit more time.

‘‘By the time I came back to it at 27, dad graciously let me pay for it myself.’’

Various stories in the book highlight elements of the financial struggle to become a fully licensed pilot, which Kathy remembers well.

‘‘Back in the early 1990s, I was working for the aged care facility in Finley and half my wage went to lessons, a quarter to rent and the rest for car, health insurance and other expenses.

‘‘In researching and interviewing for this book, that is a theme that has never subsided.

‘‘Some of the main messages though are that if you set your mind to it, you can do it. And that learning to fly brings confidence to do other things, even if you don’t continue flying.

‘‘My sister Fran also got her pilot’s licence with John Williams and she messaged me one night excitedly saying, ‘you never told me this was so much fun’.

‘‘I graduated with one other woman and about 25 men in 1992. It was the ten year anniversary of the flying school and the Southern Riverina News published a photo of nine of us that had been through the school in that decade.

Kathy started writing Australian Women Pilots four years ago, after attending the Australian Women Pilots Association conference in 2016.

‘‘I did a professional writing and editing course 13 years ago, which led to work as a freelance feature writer and for six years I’ve been the editor of AirSport Magazine,’’ she said.

‘‘At the conference I heard Patricia Toole speak. In 1952 and 1953 she was the first female pilot in Papua New Guinea.

‘‘Her story was so riveting and moving that I knew I wanted to share it.

‘‘I approached her and had a lengthy conversation with her about it, and she was excited by the project. We planned to meet up three weeks after the conference to dig deeper into the details.

‘‘Unfortunately, she passed away one week before this. Her children were really kind and passed on her meticulous notes of her life.

‘‘When it was finished they told me they had never seen the story of their mum’s life until then.

‘‘Through conversations with people who knew her, had heard her speak and the notes, I was able to put together a great yarn. And from then I sought more.’’

One of the other significant stories that has affected the career options for women is of commercial pilot Deborah Lawrie, who is also included in the book.

‘‘When I was in Year 11 she was denied the opportunity to fly for Ansett based on her gender,’’ Kathy said.

‘‘Deb was the test case for the newly established Sex Discrimination Act in Victoria in 1979. The case went all the way to the High Court of Australia.

‘‘She paved the way for women to fly for the major airlines in Australia. She is very enthusiastic about this book and we hope to present together at schools where possible.

‘‘Other stories profile a World War II pilot, an aerial application pilot, RAAF, Royal Flying Doctors Service and one woman who ditched her aircraft in the Pacific Ocean.’’

Kathy and her husband Denis, who is a Qantas Airbus captain, have passed their love of flying on to two of their three children.

Harrison, 25, gained his Air Force wings on Monday and Amelia, 16, has been enthusiastically taking lessons from Linda Beilharz in Bendigo.

‘‘She also enjoyed some valuable time in the air with her grandfather, Gary, who took her up every day for a week over the school holidays,’’ Kathy said.

After four years of writing and researching, Kathy’s book is now in the final editing stages.

Australian Women Pilots is available for pre-purchase through Booktopia.