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Australian airwoman Lores Bonney's fiercely independent spirit catapulted her into a series of flying adventures during aviation's golden age that made the Perils of Pauline seem tame. While Hollywood heroine Pauline White frequently faced death on celluloid, the diminutive Australian airwoman's whizz-bang escapades were real. She became the first woman to circumnavigate Australia's daunting wilderness in 1932 and to pioneer the eastbound, headwind-bucking Australia–England flight in 1933. Bonney's greatest endeavor, in 1937, saw her become the first pilot, man or woman, to make the epic 18,200-mile flight from Australia across Asia and down the gut of Africa to Cape Town.
Bonney's life was crammed with challenge and achievement. In America her name was placed on the wall of the Flyer's Chapel at California's St. Francis Atrio Mission alongside the names of icons such as Charles Lindbergh, Charles Kingsford Smith and Amelia Earhart. Since 1933, British aviation has regularly awarded the Bonney Trophy to a deserving woman pilot. The international women's service organization Zonta, which counts Earhart among its founding members, made Bonney a life member. And shortly before Bonney's death in 1994 at age 96, Australia's prestigious Griffiths University awarded her a doctorate for her service to aviation. Yet for the most part this remarkable woman remains a forgotten figure in aviation history.
I was fortunate to know her. She was approaching 80 when we completed a series of interviews that led to the publication of her biography. I remember one afternoon when we talked on the veranda of her cliff-top home on Queensland's Gold Coast. An octogenarian fashion plate, wearing high heels that would have dismayed a woman 50 years her junior, Lores tucked a wayward wisp of hair into her silk bandanna as she poured afternoon tea from an exquisite Victorian silver pot. Looking at her that day, it was easy to understand why 1930s journalists nicknamed her 'the airwoman of style.' More difficult to comprehend is why they were unable to grasp the significance of her flights and concentrated on her appearance rather than her performance in the cockpit. Airwomen faced the same dangers and had to have just as much courage as their male counterparts — something the press and the public often lost sight of when it came to women aviators.
Looking up to watch a Tiger Moth biplane pass overhead in the afternoon sky during one of my interviews with her, Lores was misty-eyed. 'Oh, how it takes me back,' she mused. For her, 'back' was aviation's adventuring years — when Lindbergh, Kingsford Smith, Earhart and the other golden age greats were making headlines. One of them, Australia's Lone Eagle Bert Hinkler, was Bonney's husband's cousin. Fresh from his pioneering 1928 England–Australia solo flight, Hinkler took Lores for her first flight. Recalling her sensations as they wheeled over Brisbane in his Avro Avian biplane, she told me: 'It was the answer to my dreams. I adored birds, and there I was literally feeling like one. There and then I decided then to become a pilot.'
Lores was born Maude Rubens in South Africa in 1897. She told me that she hated her given name, adding,'so I adopted the name Lores.' Her family emigrated to Australia in 1906. As a teenager, she loved the piano but had no interest in formal schooling and defied all attempts to discipline her. 'To put it bluntly,' she said, 'I was a rebel.' Hoping to curb her rebelliousness and further her classical piano training, her parents sent her to a'spit and polish' finishing school in Germany. It seemed ideal training for her perceived role as the wife of a successful businessman, who would be expected to direct servants, run a home and be a perfect hostess.
Shortly before World War I, after giving a private recital for Kaiser Wilhelm's sister, Lores played in a concert before Frankfurt's society. The glittering occasion was too much for the 16-year-old's nerves. 'I neither liked the situation nor the sea of faces,' she recalled. 'So I feigned a nosebleed and fled from the stage.' It was her first and last concert performance.
Lores Rubens returned home fluent in German and French and an accomplished pianist. But beneath the veneer of conformity there still lurked a young woman waiting to challenge the traditional female role long before liberation became a household word.
In 1917, while working for the Red Cross, Lores met and married Harry Bonney, a wealthy Brisbane, Australia, leather goods manufacturer. After that, Lores appeared to be settling into the luxurious life of Brisbane society. But the marriage produced no children, and Lores later recalled that she was bored to distraction until her 1928 flight with Bert Hinkler opened a new window.
Fearing Harry's disapproval, Lores Bonney learned to fly in secret while her husband spent his weekends on the local golf course. Unable to drive a car, she hitched early morning rides with her milkman to nearby Eagle Farm airport, where she took clandestine lessons in a de Havilland DH-60G Gipsy Moth biplane.
Harry eventually found out about the lessons, but he proved to be more supportive than she had anticipated. When she was awarded her pilot's license in 1931, he presented her with a pair of custom-made leather flying suits and her own DH-60G Gipsy Moth, which she named My Little Ship. To celebrate, she set an Australian long-distance record, flying 947 miles in one day on her first solo cross-country flight — quite a feat in an aircraft that cruised at around 80 mph.
Harry Bonney's supportive attitude was rare at a time when men — and most women — believed that a woman's place was in the home. Nowhere was male chauvinism more evident than in aviation. Lores Bonney got a taste of what most male aviators thought of women fliers in 1932, shortly after becoming the first Australian woman to gain a commercial pilot's license.
Preparing to make a flight around Australia — the first by a woman — she approached Australia's transpacific hero Charles Kingsford Smith, who had achieved prominence by making the same flight in 1927. Kingsford Smith declined to offer any advice to her. He dismissed her plan, saying, 'You might make it if you've got the guts.' Forty-five years later when I interviewed her, I could still sense Bonney's anger as she recalled that encounter. 'Can you imagine it?' she asked me. 'That's all Smithy could to say to me.'
After she set out on her 8,200-mile around-Australia flight on August 15, 1932, Lores was again confronted by chauvinism when she landed for fuel at a remote outback cattle station. She recalled: 'I was met by two bush cockies [ranchers] complete with grass stalks hanging from their mouths. They slowly looked me up and down, and one drawled 'Yer know mate, can't be much to this flying business, if a woman can do it.' I gave him a pitying smile.'
She completed the flight in 95 hours of flying time spread over six weeks. After that accomplishment Bonney was dubbed 'the never-give-up-airwoman' by the press because during the flight she had had to overcome a landing gear collapse on a makeshift outback airstrip, a wing spar that fractured in turbulence, and a forced landing caused by a piston's disintegrating. On her final leg home, a carelessly flown plane — in which a photographer was trying to record her flight — crash-landed with a mangled tail fin after colliding with Bonney's Moth. But the determined Bonney managed to carry on despite a wingtip damaged in the collision. That marathon flight won her the Qantas Trophy for 'the most meritorious performance by an Australian pilot during 1932.'
When she flew to England in 1933, the public failed to recognize the immensity of her achievement. She had no radio and only sketchy maps, and she performed her own maintenance along the way. Airfields and repair facilities were few and far apart, and there were no navigation aids. In preparation for the flight, Bonney spent months working as an unofficial apprentice in the Qantas maintenance hangar, learning how to overhaul her Moth and its engine.
Bonney took off from Brisbane's Archerfield Airport on April 10, 1933. Racing to get through the tropics before the monsoon broke, she was on schedule to attack British airwoman Amy Johnson's England–Australia record until she was delayed by food poisoning after a meal at Singapore's fabled Raffles Hotel.
By the time she left Singapore two days later, the weather had changed. She had been airborne 10 hours and was close to the day's destination of Victoria Point (today Ranong, Thailand) when she flew into a barrier of dark, threatening clouds that erupted in torrential monsoon rain. 'I was dreaming about a hot bath and a good night's sleep when the storm struck,' Bonney recalled. 'For the previous half hour, building clouds had forced me down below 1,000 feet. I had been warned to stay away from these tropical storms. But I was so close to Victoria Point I was sure I could get through. The nearest alternate airfield was six hours away, and I didn't have the fuel.
'Visibility dropped to zero. The rain seemed to fall in a solid mass. It lashed my goggles, and I couldn't even see my instruments. I was forced to raise them to see anything at all. My small glass windscreen provided no real protection, and the rain stung my eyes and face like driving sand. My Little Ship bucked and rolled, then a sudden downdraft flung us toward the water. Even with full power I couldn't check the descent. I regained control about 50 feet above the water. 'I was really terrified and knew it was time to get out of there. It was as though the gods had turned on scores of celestial taps. I was surrounded by jets of falling rain. Some were only a few hundred feet in diameter, others seemed miles wide. They looked like pillars supporting the black overcast.
'I turned back and headed for a small island I had flown over a little earlier. I had noticed it had a good strip of beach and a village nearby. In those days we always kept an eye out for likely looking landing grounds — just in case of an emergency. Bert Hinkler had talked about it years earlier when he took me on my first flight. It was good advice. That strip of beach was the only landing ground I was going to make before the storm enveloped me again.' On her way to the island Bonney saw a small steam launch. She wrote out her plan to land on the island on a page torn from her flight log, then stuffed the note into a waterproof message bag. Swooping low over the boat, she threw out the bag — only to see it drop into the sea unnoticed. 'The crew were probably too concerned with getting themselves safely back to land to see the falling bag,' Bonney later recalled.
Reaching the island ahead of the rain, Bonney found the tide was out, which meant there was an area of hard sand on which she could try to touch down. The only sign of life was a few buffalo grazing on the grassy fringe. She circled it once, checked the wind and then positioned her Moth on a long, straight, powered approach. Many years later she still clearly recalled her sensations during that landing: 'My tires kissed the sand as I made a rolling touchdown. I was often accused of landing like a kangaroo — you know, a series of bounding hops. This one was a beauty until one of those blessed buffaloes lumbered out in front of me. The tail was still up and I had no brakes. All I could do was jam on rudder and swerve. That's when my luck ran out. Before I could straighten up, the left wheel hit the water's edge and we slewed into the breakers.
'I remember a shower of spray and a sharp pain as the Moth flipped over and my head hit the cockpit coaming. Next I was underwater and hanging upside down in my harness. I recall thinking: 'What an inglorious end — drowning upside down in the cockpit.' I was struggling to undo the harness pin when the water dropped away. I was only submerged when each wave came in. It took me several waves before I released my harness and plopped head first into the sea. I dragged myself up to the beach and sat there watching the waves pound over my plane and repeating over and over, 'Oh, my poor little ship.' 'It was some time before I noticed a group of villagers watching me through the trees. My first thought was that they might help me drag my plane ashore. But as I walked toward them, they backed away. I could not believe it. I am less than 5 feet tall, and they were scared of me.
'Eventually after I smiled and nodded a lot I was able to lead one man by the arm into the surf. By performing a great pantomime I showed him what I wanted. He called out, and the rest joined us in the water. I invented a sort of 'heave-ho' chant, and by pulling in unison and using the power of the incoming waves we dragged my plane onto the beach.
'Afterward they led me to a large communal thatched hut. We climbed a ladder to get in. Once inside I was overpowered by the smoke and the smell of rotting fish. Dozens of villagers squatted on the bamboo floor staring at me. I was quite worried until a little hand crept into mine and a young village girl led me to a small alcove at the end of the hut. She noticed that my hand was bleeding and tenderly held it to her face. Her eyes expressed such sympathy that I was close to tears. From that moment she became my shadow, my self-appointed bodyguard. She would let no one else do anything for me. I nicknamed her SOS, short for Soul of Sympathy.
'SOS brought me some twine and a sarong, which I strung up to make a room divider. To prevent blood poisoning I doused my slashed hand with a bottle of whisky we had rescued from the wreck. It had been given me by the owner of the Charleville Hotel [in Australia] a few nights earlier. It was his traditional gift to every passing flier heading across the shark-infested Timor Sea. 'It'll give you a bit of Dutch courage,' he told me. I hadn't touched mine till then.'
The next morning Bonney inspected My Little Ship. The wings, tail fin, rudder and propeller were smashed. Only the fuselage and engine appeared undamaged. The villagers helped her remove the wings, and she used the contents of the petrol tank to wash the salt and sand from the engine. To prevent corrosion, she plastered the power plant with oil drained from the sump.
That night Bonney joined the families around the communal fire in the village. Hoping to get word to Victoria Point, she wrote a note and then, waving it about, pointed toward the mainland. 'The men seemed reluctant to go until I bribed one of them with my gold watch,' she recalled.
To pass the time, Bonney learned the language. After a couple of evenings she knew the Malay names of every item in the hut and, in return, had taught the villagers the English equivalents. The adults tried to entice her to join their nightly betel nut chewing ceremony. She recalled: 'They chewed betel just like we take an evening drink. I was more fascinated by the spitting than the chewing. Long streams of crimson fluid shot from their mouths through the narrow gaps in the bamboo cane floor. No one seemed to miss.'
On the sixth day a motor launch arrived, carrying a Scot and a New Zealander employed by the Siamese Tin Mine Syndicate. They were not happy when Bonney refused to leave without the wreckage of her Moth. 'I told them that I planned to get my plane repaired and carry on to England — even if it took me 10 years,' said Bonney. 'They thought I was quite mad and suggested that my husband would be 'worried sick' and that I should really ask him first. Well, after that sort of nonsense I was more determined than ever.'
She shipped her wrecked Moth to Calcutta, where repairs took a month. Taking off again on May 25, 1933, she carried on with her journey at a leisurely pace. Knowing that she had no hope of establishing any kind of record, she had decided to sightsee at the 17 refueling stops that still lay between her and England. For Bonney it would be enough to be the first woman to complete the westbound flight between Australia and England. 'Being the first is enduring,' she later recalled, smiling. 'Unlike speed records, no one can take that away from you.
Bonney landed at London's Croydon Airport on June 21, 1933, having completed the 12,300 miles in 157 hours' flight time. Although she was awarded a medal by King George V for her feat, Australians remained apathetic about her achievement. They saw her as a wealthy woman financed by her husband, unlike their male heroes Hinkler and Kingsford Smith, who were hard-up and had struggled to find sponsors for their efforts. Furthermore, Bonney had finished her flight on the other side of the world, while her male counterparts ended their record attempts on Australian soil.
Bonney faced the same reaction in 1937 on the Brisbane–Cape Town flight in a newly acquired German Klemm L32 monoplane, which she had christened My Little Ship II. The 18,200-mile epic across Asia, the Middle East and Africa was by far the most demanding of her flights. Even today, few pilots would undertake the journey in a single-engine machine. In 1937 it was a truly daring undertaking. At the start of the journey, Bonney recalled, 'The press were out in force but treated my departure more like a society event than the start of a pioneering flight.'
In a repeat of her 1933 flight to London, Lores was lashed by storms and fried by the heat. Delayed for a week by torrential rain in Bangkok, she was advised by a British airline pilot to go home. 'This is no place for a woman,' he told her. Bonney recalled her reaction: 'That did it. Next day I got through to Tavoy. It was only a short two-hour stepping-stone, but it enabled me to break through the bad weather.'
Over India, Bonney was forced down to 300 feet in order to avoid horrendous headwinds and flocks of circling hawks. The heat was so intense that she was unable to place her bare hand on the throttle. 'I wrapped some cloth around the burning metal and revived myself periodically with crushed smelling salts,' she remembered. 'When I landed at Agra I discovered that the heat of the Klemm's rudder pedals had melted the gum which attached the soles of my shoes. They flapped as I walked across the airfield.'
Crossing the Middle East, she flew through sandstorms, was badgered by officials and was advised by a friendly local known as 'One-Eyed Ali' to sleep with her pistol under her pillow. In Cairo, the halfway point of her flight, she battled with Egyptian bureaucrats who were ponderously slow in completing the formalities that would allow her to fly up the Nile over the sudd — a vast area of floating vegetation that spelled almost certain death to any flier unlucky enough to be forced down there. They tried to tell her it was 'too dangerous for a woman.'
The head of Australia's Department of Civil Aviation wrote on her behalf to the Egyptian government, and Bonney was eventually granted permission to proceed up the Nile. A week later, south of Khartoum, she became stranded when her plane was damaged during a bush landing. Undeterred, she stopped a passing Nile paddle-wheeler and steamed back to Khartoum with her aircraft towed behind on a small barge. There, she talked officials at the local Royal Air Force detachment into repairing her machine.
The repairs took three weeks, but Bonney waited an extra three days after that in the hope of meeting American airwoman Amelia Earhart, who was due to arrive in Khartoum on her fateful around-the-world flight with Fred Noonan. With no news of Earhart, Bonney finally left Khartoum on July 10, 1937. Earhart and Noonan arrived two days later.
It took the never-give-up airwoman another five weeks to reach Cape Town. Along the way she was forced to replace a blown engine gasket, patch a damaged wing and rebuild landing gear that collapsed as she commenced her takeoff run from the mining town of Broken Hill.
What was perhaps the most dangerous moment of the flight occurred approaching Nairobi, when Bonney was forced to fly blind in clouds to cross the mountains. She recalled: 'I thought I had a 2,000-foot safety margin until I suddenly broke into the clear. I was about 30 seconds away from flying into the side of a peak! I hauled back and over on the control stick….We missed the rock face by less than 100 feet. In Nairobi an engineer checked my altimeter and discovered it was over-reading by almost 2,500 feet. No wonder I almost clipped the mountain.'
In Pretoria, where she had been born, Bonney was awarded ceremonial pilot's wings by the Royal South African Air Force — a mark of respect for her remarkable flight. One week later, following a nightmare flight across the Hex River Mountains, where violent turbulence made control almost impossible, Lores landed in Cape Town. 'Bravo Mrs. Bonney — Intrepid Airwoman,' read the headlines of South Africa's newspapers.
Bonney was planning a flight around the world when the start of World War II effectively ended her flying career. She offered her services to the Australian government as a flight instructor or ferry pilot. After making just one delivery flight to an Royal Australian Air Force flying school, she was informed that the military had no use for women pilots.
By war's end, 48 years old and out of practice flying, Lores Bonney hung up her goggles. A year earlier she had finally learned to drive a car, once again taking lessons in secret. Savoring the memory, she told me with a grin: 'Hubs [her husband] felt it was dangerous for women to drive. I finally let the cat out of the bag one morning when I casually said it was a pity that I didn't have a car. Jokingly he tossed me his keys and said if I could drive his car I could have it. Imagine his surprise when I jumped in, started it up and drove off.'
By that time the marriage was not going well. Lores and Harry Bonney separated shortly after World War II ended. In 1963 she visited South America — but the normal tourist route was not for Lores Bonney. Instead, accompanied by a guide and Indian bearers, she canoed up the headwaters of the Amazon to study the primitive Yagua Indians. Later, after spending four years — much of it in Japan — learning the art of bonsai, she taught the technique to students at the University of Queensland.
In 1988, accompanied by acting U.S. Consul David Seal, a nephew of Charles Lindbergh, 90-year-old Lores Bonney was invited to launch the Hinkler Australian Bicentennial Air Race at the Queensland Museum. The media was out in force that day and made a beeline for her. She held court surrounded by reporters sitting cross-legged at her feet. 'My first flight? It was in that plane 60 years ago this month,' she told the press, pointing to the nearby Avro Avian in which she had flown with Hinkler in 1928. An hour later the reporters were still there, cameras were still rolling. The press was entranced by Bonney's charm, wicked wit and lionhearted spirit. No one wanted to go home.
I remember one of our last meetings, not long before Lores Bonney died. Nearby, we could see hang-glider pilots soaring from a headland. She seemed frail that day, but I still sensed that she was a mental powerhouse. As we watched the hang gliders together, I sensed the spirit of her nonconformist longing — her urge to just once more break out of the constrictions of societal norms and take to the sky. In her heart she was airborne with them, searching out the air currents, emulating the birds. 'Oh if I was only 10 years younger,' she sighed. 'That must be as close as one could ever come to real flying.'
This article was written by Terry Gwynn-Jones and originally published in the May 2000 issue of Aviation History. Gwynn-Jones, who writes from Australia, is a contributing editor for Aviation History. The narrative in this feature is taken from tape recordings Gwynn-Jones made with Lores Bonney for her biography, Pioneer Aviator: The Remarkable Life of Lores Bonney, published by University of Queensland Press in 1988. For more on her life, read: Along Came the Sky, a part fiction/part fact study by R.D. Lappan.
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