Nancy-Bird Walton who died this afternoon in Sydney aged 93 never lost her way in the air or on the ground.

On a clear winter’s day in June 2007, visiting the cockpit of an Airbus A380 that was making a demonstration flight out of Sydney, Nancy-Bird Walton leaned forward toward the captain’s ear and said “Young man, you are a too far to the west” and burst out laughing.

The gentle giant of a jet was nearing Gundaroo to one side of the usual air route into Canberra, and Nancy knew exactly where she was at a glance, making light of it being off course even though it was flying a set of lazy sweeps over the countryside while Qantas and Airbus executives and board members hosted cocktails for several hundred guests to preview the flagship airliner it was to introduce into service the following year.

When Qantas took delivery of it’s first A380 last September it was named Nancy-Bird Walton. Nancy was adored by the airline industry, for her illustrious life time in aviation, for her wit, and her clarity of memory of the heroic age of flight.

At the events she supported in her later years she was a living contact with vanished times. What for us were scenes in sepia in fading newspapers or newsreels were for her real people, full of fun and foibles, and in full colour, in the real world of Australia in the 20s and 30s. Nancy-Bird took her first joy flight when she was 13 and later, her first flying lessons with Charles Kingsford Smith, becoming the youngest woman to attain a private flying licence aged 17, and the youngest female to hold a commercial pilot licence at the age of 19.

Nancy not only made other lives better by flying medical missions in the bush, but knocked over prevailing notions about the roles and careers open to women.

But she didn’t dwell in the past. When a 737 simulator was opened at Brisbane Airport in 2004 Nancy asked good technical questions. And gave it a work out. And no, she didn’t ‘drop it’ either. That day on board the demonstration A380, and on her naming day for the Qantas A380, Nancy-Bird was bright eyed and fascinated by where air transport had come.

And she had made that journey looking forwards not backwards.

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