AVALON AIRSHOW 2019 SPECIAL: At age 16 Deborah Hicks was the youngest female pilot in Australia to fly solo. By the time she finished high school she had decided on a career in medicine when in 1987 Ros Kelly, then Minister for Defence, Science and Personnel opened up the Royal Australian Air Force to aspiring women pilots. Robyn Williams was one of the RAAF’s first female engineers, and had for years optimistically positioned herself for the moment when women could take their place on the RAAF flight deck.
Hicks (now Jeppesen) and Williams (now Clay-Williams) became the first women to get their wings in the RAAF, graduating the gruelling 14-month pilots’ course on 30 June 1988.
As part of the GE Women’s Network and International Aviation Women’s Association efforts to encourage more women to enter careers in aviation, Jeppesen and Clay-Williams reflect on the thrills and challenges of their aviation breakthrough—and where it led them.
“I grew up with a passion for flying,” says Jeppesen. She and her brothers, David and Peter, learned to fly their parents’ ultralight aircraft from a young age. Although her brothers pursued careers as military pilots, flying Harrier jets and FA-18 Hornets, Deborah didn’t consider it—the RAAF doors were closed to women. Some years later, when the rules first changed to allow women to apply for pilot training, though still not to fly in combat, Peter rang Deborah: “If they’re going to take female pilots, it might as well be you.” She didn’t waste any time and applied.
At that time, Clay-Williams had already attained an electronic engineering degree, and subsequently managed a section of 70 personnel performing avionics maintenance on the C-130 Hercules and B-707 aircraft, before becoming a Divisional Officer in the Defence Force Academy.
The right stuff: “It’s important to do stuff because you love doing it, not because you want to be the first.” Robyn Clay-Williams.
Clay-Williams had fixed on becoming a pilot when she first flew as a 10-year-old passenger on a school excursion to Canberra. She wrote to Reginald Ansett and told him of her dreams. When, on leaving school, she was refused an RAAF pilot traineeship because she was female, she had vigorously pursued electronic engineering with the Air Force in anticipation of the rules changing, so that some day she would sit at an RAAF aircraft control panel.
Four women and 30 men made the intake of No.144 Pilots Course — Jeppeson and Clay-Williams among them.
On entry to the RAAF pilots’ course, the women immediately experienced the thrill of flying the RAAF trainers. Clay-Williams had previously managed to pay the exorbitant cost of a dozen private flying lessons in light aircraft, but she says the experience was nothing compared to flying military planes. “They fly so much better, they handle really nicely. And on your very first flight in the course you do aerobatics—it may be the instructor who’s flying, but it’s really awesome!”
Surprising hurdles for these early female trainees included that uniforms, flying gloves and change-room facilities hadn’t yet been sized or conceived of for women pilots; and that the publicity and attention they received for being “first” sometimes antagonised their male colleagues.
Overriding every other consideration was the competitiveness of the course; the class heard again and again from instructors that 50% of their cohort would fail. Pressure was intense, with a heavy learning load and constant testing of pilot knowledge and skills. Making a mistake in safety-related procedures meant instant failure of the entire course.
The right stuff: “You need passion and you need drive, and a strong desire to succeed.” Deborah Jeppesen
“You do not want to fail!” recalls Clay-Williams. “It’s your dream. This isn’t a gender thing—it’s everybody. You put so much pressure on yourself,” she says of the typical trainee attitude. “If you failed a ride you were allowed one retest,” but she says that people often made mistakes on the retest because they were so anxious. “That was one of the hardest parts—you were only ever two rides away from being scrubbed.”
Says Jeppesen, “The training continuum on the pilot’s course is a lot more positive now,” for many reasons, including evolving attitudes to effective training, and because pilot training is expensive and the academy takes more time to help promising students succeed.
Jeppesen and Williams were the only two women of No. 144 Pilots Course to graduate. Robyn Williams achieved dux of the entire course, and had she been male she would have been given the opportunity to train for flying fighter jets. “I thought they couldn’t stop me—if I duxed it, I’d get my choice.” Jeppesen, meanwhile, was set on flying RAAF helicopters—also combat aircraft.
Instead, the women were offered one of two non-combat postings: with No. 34 Squadron in Canberra, which flew VIPs around the country and overseas in the Falcon 20 (Mystere) aircraft and later the Falcon 900; or flying HS-748 aircraft in the School of Air Navigation in East Sale, Victoria.
Even that wasn’t really a choice. Navigation training was a more senior posting, so Flight Lieutenant Williams went to country Victoria. Officer Cadet Hicks went to Canberra to fly for Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating; Governor General Bill Hayden, and foreign ministers and other VIPs. She later flew Hercules aircraft in No. 36 Squadron, transporting military personnel and equipment within Australia and to Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia.
“We were really looking forward to going to our squadrons,” says Jeppesen, “And we both had very positive experiences. We were well accepted by other pilots and aircrew.”