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On her 1937 Australia–South Africa solo flight, Lores crammed so much luggage into My Little Ship II that she couldn’t have fitted in a passenger even if she’d wanted to. Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

The forgotten aviatrix

  • BY Kristen Alexander and Josephine Sargent |
  • March 06, 2017

Brisbane pilot Lores Bonney broke many records during the 1930s, narrowly cheating death several times. Despite being lauded as the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England, she remains little known today.

THE PILOT SAT slumped on the beach, looking at the half-submerged, upturned wreck of her Gipsy Moth. She reached for the revolver she kept tucked into her flying boot. It was gone, probably sunk in the crash. That was perhaps lucky. If it had been there, she may have used it on herself. Lores was devastated. It was 1933, and her dream of being the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England was in tatters.

Lores Bonney (pronounced ‘Lor-ee’) is a name unfamiliar to many Australians, yet she was a pioneering aviatrix who dodged death on a number of record-breaking solo flights across the globe. Thankfully, for historians, Bonney kept meticulous notes of her trips – even recording entries at 10-minute intervals during flights. One of the authors of this article, Kristen Alexander, has been able to use these diaries and records to write a book about Bonney’s adventures, using the aviatrix’s own words to bring the tales to a wider audience.

The diaries lay bare Bonney’s fears, terrors and uncertainties while underscoring her fortitude, airmanship and her insatiable desire for long-distance touring despite the risks. Importantly, they are an insight into Australia’s era of pioneering aviation and Bonney’s well-deserved place in the roll call of history.

lores bonney

Lores poses for a picture during a brief stop at Charleville, QLD, on her solo Australia–England flight. (Image: State Library of Queensland)

LORES BONNEY WAS BORN Maude Rose Rubens on 20 November 1897 in Pretoria, South Africa, the only child of a well-to-do family. Her father was a businessman during the Boer War and later he would trade stamps throughout the world. Having accompanied him on trips, Bonney, then just a toddler, was already well travelled when the family settled in Melbourne. The precocious girl was later sent to a German finishing school. As she tells it, her father decided she “needed some spit and polish” to rein in her unruly nature.

It was while she was helping out with the World War I war effort in 1917, as a member of the Red Cross, that she fell in love with an older man, Harry Bonney – a successful leather goods manufacturer from Brisbane. “We looked at each other and that was it,” Bonney recalled. Despite the nine-year age difference, she was married at 19 and they soon moved to Queensland.

A decade ticked by, but the children they wanted never arrived. Bonney was bored and lonely, but a soirée at their Brisbane home with intrepid Australian airman Bert Hinkler was to prove life-changing. Hinkler was Harry’s first cousin once removed (his father and Bert’s grandfather were brothers), and in 1928 the Australian pilot had just made the first solo England–Australia flight, cutting the record from 28 days to a little under 15 and a half.

Bonney was impressed by Hinkler’s achievements and his celebrity. When he returned to Brisbane six months later, she was determined to see him again. The day after their next meeting, she was sitting in his Avro Avian, an aircraft that she said resembled “a great silver bird, perched awaiting flight”. It was a defining moment – that “first taste of the air was…the answer to my dreams”, Bonney wrote. Her passion ignited, from that moment she dreamt of being a solo, record-breaking pilot, as Hinkler had become.

lores bonney

Lores makes some final adjustments in Darwin in 1932. During her Australia–England record attempt she discovered a petrol leak while doing an overhaul of My Little Ship before crossing the Timor Sea. (Image: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences)

FLYING WAS AN expensive luxury during the years of the Great Depression, but, thanks to her prosperous husband, Bonney could afford it. She began to take lessons and, at 33, enjoyed the thrill of flying solo. To her, it was as though “the world couldn’t hold me”. Within months, Harry bought Bonney her own Gipsy Moth biplane, which she named My Little Ship.

She was on the hunt for records and wasted no time, and her first taste of long-distance flying came the following summer. Bonney wished to spend Christmas Day 1931 with her husband in Brisbane, and then be at the table with her father in Wangaratta, 1173km south, for Boxing Day lunch. Flying was the only way. 

But what appeared to be an aerial holiday was actually a record-breaking attempt – she was fully aware that if successful it would be the longest one-day solo flight by an Australian female pilot. It was a smooth trip and when she stepped onto the tarmac at the Wangaratta aerodrome, she also stepped into the history books – completing the longest flight by an Australian woman.

The press started paying attention. Such interest would have been intimidating for Bonney, with her deep-seated, though well-hidden timidity, but she had bold plans – she needed sponsorship. She began to court the papers.

lores bonney

Lores confessed in the 1970s that “all I wanted to do was to hear that engine tick over” and take off “in just one last flight”. (Image: National Library of Australia)

BONNEY HAD A SECRET, a secret kept even from her husband. She wanted to be the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England. To prepare, she would first try to become the first woman to circumnavigate mainland Australia.

She set off from Brisbane’s Archerfield Aerodrome on 15 August 1932, but the journey didn’t go to plan. Even before leaving Queensland, the aviatrix wrongly identified essential landmarks – easily done on the barren western route – and engine trouble forced her down. She battled fatigue; once, she fell asleep, and was jolted awake by her head lolling forward.

Eleven days after taking off from Brisbane, she approached Perth. With rain limiting visibility, it was the worst flight she’d experienced to date. It was cold in the open cockpit and “a strong, squally wind was blowing all the time”. It was a nightmare and she was “tempted to turn back”. Yet, if the airwoman wanted to fly halfway around the world, she would have to learn to cope.

As it happened, Bonney was lucky to make Perth. Mechanics discovered that the starboard wing spar had split during a rough landing and was hanging only by threads. It was a miracle the wing hadn’t collapsed under the constant buffeting of wind and rain. Repairs made, Bonney set off again, finally touching down at Brisbane on 27 September, where she was greeted by her husband and a large crowd. Her death-defying journey had taken 43 days. Airborne for 95 hours and 27 minutes, and covering 13,000km, Bonney had chalked up her second record.

SINCE HER VERY FIRST joy flight with Hinkler, Bonney made sure she mingled with pilots as much as possible. She was there when Amy Johnson arrived from her 1930 England–Australia flight, and she once asked Charles Kingsford-Smith for his advice (and was unimpressed by his condescending response). She wanted sponsorship, so she tempted the press with two cherries: not only would she be the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England, but she would also beat Johnson’s time. She reckoned it would take her 17 days – two days faster than Johnson had achieved.

At that point, the solo Australia–England route had been flown only by men, but women were vying to repeat their feats and it was only a matter of time before one did. Bonney was now 35 and a younger pilot, Jean Batten, had her eyes on the same prize. Amelia Earhart and Johnson were already collecting significant firsts and Bonney was keen to join their ranks.

One important task was to develop her blind-flying competency, relying solely on instruments, rather than external cues such as the horizon, landscape or lights. This was unsettling, but it would help her to cross large bodies of water, especially the Timor Sea, and negotiate the violent tempests near the equator.

A crowd of about 150 saw her off from Archerfield aerodrome on 10 April 1933, and a few would have thought she was at risk of never returning. Bonney was flying in the pioneering days of aviation – the planes were basic and hers was second-hand. My Little Ship had already had a service life in the UK before being flown to Australia, on the way crashing on the island of Timor, then part of the Dutch East Indies, requiring extensive repairs. The wings were made of fabric and its wooden body was not well equipped for monsoon conditions and might collapse.

WITH HER HEART SET on beating Johnson’s time, Bonney pushed herself hard. She took risks. When an ominous bank of cloud loomed three hours out of Alor Setar (today Malaysia), she flew straight into it instead of turning back or changing course. It was a near-fatal decision.

Buffeted by strong winds, she struggled to maintain control. The sky darkened. Soon the gusts were so fierce “it became almost impossible to correct the bumps” and Bonney was terrified that the “wings would be ripped off”. It was becoming increasingly dark as My Little Ship blundered through the monsoon. Clinging to the controls, Bonney used all her strength and every skerrick of flying skill to maintain stability and remain airborne.

She was only about 50km from Victoria Point, but, with a sky “black as ink” and lightning cracking around her, she decided to land on a beach. By the time she saw the buffalo on the beach it was already too late – one walked into her path, and, in trying to avoid it, she veered into the sea. Bonney was trapped under water.

It was a terrifying moment. “I tried franticly [sic] to get the pin out of my harness but for several jerks it would not release,” she later wrote. The split pin had bent and wouldn’t budge. “What an inglorious finish – to be drowned in my cockpit, upside down,” she noted.

Her fingers continued to fumble. At last it came away and she scrambled out of the wreckage. Scrutinising the damage, Bonney later wrote: “Thought my heart would break… Sat on the beach, my clothes soaked, and looked at My Little Ship. I had failed, and my aeroplane was severely damaged and in fairly deep water up-side down. I was so distressed at my failure that I felt for my revolver.”

Eventually, via a local dignitary who spoke English, she sent for help. Three days later a ferry arrived to transport her and her broken Gipsy Moth to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India, where she got the devastating news about the full extent of the damage.

My Little Ship was 60 per cent written-off and rebuilding would cost about £300 ($29,000 today). This was a substantial sum given that the price of a brand new DH60G Gipsy Moth was about £700. Bonney obtained the money to fix her plane, but her dream of beating Johnson’s time was almost certainly ruined. Dejected, she decided to push on anyway.

TWENTY-SEVEN DAYS AFTER leaving Calcutta and surviving a series of other scrapes, it was nearly over. London was in sight. She arrived at Croydon at 5.20pm on 21 June 1933, 10 minutes earlier than anticipated. In the two months and six days since she’d farewelled Darwin, Bonney had been airborne for 157 hours and 15 minutes, and had covered 20,000km.

She had suffered delays through weather, bureaucratic hold-ups, her own errors of judgement and mechanical mishaps, and had lost all record-breaking potential. Bonney wrote: “I got the big thrill of my hop, for I had actually made it.”

But when she climbed out of My Little Ship, she was quick to note the lack of cheering spectators. It was an anticlimactic end.

Her crash meant she had failed to fly the whole way, but, by the time she returned to Brisbane on 18 October 1933, this technicality was overlooked and Bonney’s flight was described in the Australian press as the first female solo flight from Australia to England. She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire by King George V (today, however, Jean Batten is regarded as the first woman to have completed the journey).

Despite getting the credit she’d long craved, Bonney wasn’t satisfied and longed to set more records. She wanted to make another significant over-water flight. But there were few aviation firsts remaining, and records continued to be broken by faster aircraft. “What’s wrong with Africa?” Harry suggested. It did appeal. Not only would she be returning to her birthplace, she would also become the first person to fly solo from Australia to South Africa.

On 9 April 1937, the now 39-year-old bid farewell to supporters, and blew a kiss to Harry, before taking off from Archerfield in a new craft – a more robust Klemm monoplane, My Little Ship II. Flying over Australia, she was faced with haze, bushfire smoke and repairs – including some to the plane’s tail after a souvenir hunter cut a chunk out of it – but it wasn’t until she got to India that she had her first serious brush with death. The extreme heat forced her to make an emergency landing at a military aerodrome at Agra.

Bonney also discovered before she left that Earhart was hot on her heels. She later told the ABC: “Amelia Earhart was coming from America to Australia then to Africa. And I thought, if she gets there before I do, I’ll cancel... I’ll be the first one or not at all.”

Because there was no pressure on this journey – the record was to be the first, not the fastest – Bonney enjoyed a leisurely sightseeing tour. She heard that Earhart had begun her flight around the world and was due to pass through Khartoum in early June. She lingered in the city, hoping to meet her, but, after hearing no progress reports, decided to take off on 10 June. Earhart arrived there the next day (and less than a month later, on 2 July 1937, would disappear over the Pacific).

Three months after leaving Australia, Bonney reached Kenya. And on 17 August, Cape Town’s Wynberg aerodrome was in sight. Reached “my goal” at 5pm, Bonney noted. The aviatrix enjoyed the thrill of writing “Journey’s End” after 29,279km and more than 187 hours and 45 minutes of flying time.

EVEN AFTER SOME frightening experiences, Lores had no intention of giving up long-distance aviation. She considered other destinations – Japan among them – but, with Earhart’s disappearance in mind, Harry opposed them all.

Any plans for another extended tour were scotched in 1939 when the Klemm and five other aircraft at Archerfield aerodrome were destroyed by fire. Age also began to take its toll on Bonney – she was losing her sight and going deaf. Nevertheless, she held her commercial licence until 1948, when she relinquished it voluntarily. Her A Class licence soon followed.

Although she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 1991, Lores Bonney largely fell into obscurity. Unlike her female flying peers, she didn’t have a mysterious death or dramatic ­disappearance and, thanks to her shyness, she didn’t remain in the public eye. Aged 96, and 57 years after setting her last record, Bonney died in a nursing home on 24 February 1994.

A great regret was that she had not been able to publish her own account of her exploits. After her aviation career ended, ­Bonney wrote a manuscript covering her life in the air, but it never made it into print. “I would like to think those flights of mine have a small corner in the history of achievement,” she once said. “I always liked to say I travelled the world with a Gipsy.”

Read the full story of Lores Bonney’s ­adventures in Taking Flight: Lores Bonney’s ­Extraordinary Flying Career by Kristen Alexander, National Library of Australia Publishing, $40.

This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2017 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#136).