To say Deborah Lawrie’s career has been turbulent would be an understatement.
Flying well before she could drive, the Sydney-born aviator has spent the past 50 years in the air and, as the world’s oldest female commercial pilot, is not ready to hang up her wings just yet. However, as the airline industry has been one of the hardest hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic she has found herself grounded … for now.
Her employer, Tigerair Australia, ceased operations earlier this month leaving her unemployed. And while finding a job at 66 years of age is never easy for anyone, Deborah feels she still has a lot to offer the airline industry when it’s ready to again take to the skies.
“I’m not done yet, I know I can still add a lot of value to the industry when things pickup,” she said. “People often ask me how much longer I hope to fly, and I usually say three more years and nothing has changed.
“I am officially the oldest woman pilot still flying for a major commercial airline in the world. Apart from Australia and New Zealand there’s nowhere else you can fly past the age of 65 and I passed that last birthday.
“I’d very much like to play a role in the industry’s recovery. I have so much experience and I know I can add value and help it get back on its feet. “A lot of things have changed since I started out but my passion for flying certainly hasn’t.”
The pioneer of the aviation business discovered her love of flying when her dad let her sit in the back of the plane when he started taking private lessons. In what she called “a bit of a mid-life crisis” he decided to learn to fly and being the eldest of four children, “she had an interest in just about everything he did”
He promised her two flying lessons for her 16th birthday. After spending all of her spare time studying, she took her first solo flight soon after. She completed her education at Our Lady of Sion Catholic College in Melbourne’s Box Hill, before graduating with a science degree from the University of Melbourne in 1974 and in education in 1975.
She went on to teach high school mathematics and science from 1975 to 1977 but her love of flying was never far away.
“I just loved everything about it,” she said. “I worked a few different jobs at the flying school, I even mowed lawns just to make enough to pay for the lessons.
“I couldn’t drive to the airfield, so mum would take me and sit in the car and wait for me.
“Flying became my life and every weekend I was in the cockpit.”
At just 18 she obtained a private pilot licence and a commercial one two years later. She logged over 2600 flying hours and became a general aviation flying instructor and charter pilot in 1976.
But no major Australian airline had ever employed a female pilot and it required years of rejections and a landmark legal battle in the Sex Discrimination Commission before Ansett employed her as one of the first women to become a pilot with a major Australian airline.
She first applied to Ansett Airlines in 1976 and kept sending applications for two years. During that time, 10 fellow male flying instructors were accepted into the training program.
“I just kept applying and kept getting fobbed off until I think they just got sick of me and gave me an interview to get rid of me,”’ she laughed. “I passed the interview and psychology test and then got a letter saying I hadn’t got the job.
“I really couldn’t believe it and knew I had to fight it.”
She took the case to the then new Victorian Equal Opportunity Board and challenged Ansett’s rejection under recently enacted equal opportunity legislation.
Having married days before the case began, she chose to use her married name and Wardley v Ansett Transport Industries (Operations) Pty Ltd was the first sex discrimination in employment case contested before the Equal Opportunity Board.
Owner Reg Ansett denied the allegation of discrimination but admitted that it was his strong personal view that women were not suited to be airline pilots.
This led to public demonstration marches in August 1979, and a successful ‘girl cot’ where businesses were encouraged by women to transfer their travel accounts from Ansett to Qantas. In the first six months, Ansett lost more than 50 per cent of its business travel and a lot never returned.
“In those days Reg Ansett himself ran the company and made all the decisions. He was very anti women and his main reason was that he considered them not safe.
“He thought women were prone to panicking and would run off and have millions of babies. Even my earrings were a problem, apparently.”
The Victorian Equal Opportunity Board ruled that Ansett’s refusal to employ her was illegal. It awarded damages of $14,500 and ordered Ansett to include her in its next pilot training program Ansett delayed its training intake and appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria but the appeal was dismissed.
The company appealed the Supreme Court decision to the High Court of Australia in October 1979 but employed Wardley from 5 November pending the outcome of the case.
In March 1980, The High Court dismissed Ansett’s appeal, a case still used as a precedent.
“I just couldn’t believe I had won and that I could stay and fly with Ansett,” she said.
“I was quite nervous when I first started out but just about everybody was so supportive.
“I let my flying do the talking and I guess that’s how I gained their respect.
“Looking back, I don’t know how I did what I did, I guess when you are young you just don’t worry about it.”
After taking part in the 1989 pilots’ dispute, Deborah found herself out of a job along with hundreds of other Australian pilots and ended up in the Netherlands flying for KLM.
In 2008 she returned to Australia and joined Jetstar Airways as the Manager of Safety Investigations.
In July 2012 she joined Tiger Airways as a Check and Training Captain on the A320 based in Sydney before it ceased all operations due to coronavirus on 3 April.
All Tigerair pilots were retrenched and it is unknown at this time if operations will start up again. However Deborah says it will only be a matter of time before she is flying high again and proudly tells stories of her son Thomas who is also a pilot, currently flying in Edinburgh and carrying on the family name.
“Flying has always been a part of me and my son’s life, “she said. “Looking back I guess I knew at 14 when I went up with my dad and Thomas probably feels a little similar.
“If I could give my 14-year-old self some advice it would be not to worry about boys, they will always be there, concentrate and stay focused on what you want to do.
“Flying was and is my passion and staying focused has enabled me to do it for over 50 years.
“It has been a wonderful life and despite all the ups and downs I wouldn’t change a thing.”