Queen of the Skies

Queen of the Skies

Date published

01 Sep 2023

At the age of 97, Anne Lewis is being honoured as being the first woman to obtain her commercial pilot's licence in WA and the first woman to fly for the RFDS.

Anne Lewis in 1940

Anne Lewis holds the honour of being the first woman to obtain her commercial pilot’s licence in WA and the first woman to fly for the RFDS.

At the age of 97, Anne Lewis says she likes to keep life spicy. It’s been that way since she was pulling heart-racing aerobatic stunts in Tiger Moths in the 1940s and dipping to an altitude of just 50 feet amongst ancient castles in Scotland.

Anne was born in Adelaide and grew up in WA. In 1944, at just 18, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and spent two years as an aircraft electrician. Upon her discharge from the WAAAF, Anne trained in a Tiger Moth and built up her hours flying in aerobatic competitions with the Royal Victorian Aero Club while studying at university in Melbourne. In 1949 she returned to WA where she became the state’s first commercially licensed female pilot.

Anne worked for Goldfields Airways, a Kalgoorlie-based charter company set up by her father, pilot George Lewis. It was here that she was on call for the Australian Aerial Medical Service, the original name for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Anne distinctly remembers her first flight transferring a patient. The woman was picked up from Laverton and transferred to Kalgoorlie whilst suffering an impending breech birth.

“She scared me because she was in absolute agony and screaming the whole way,” Anne recalls. “That wasn’t a fun job.”

Of course, in those days, navigation was very primitive,” she said. “You had to be spoton with map reading and recognising the landmarks below - quite often in Western Australia, it was the shape of a salt lake.

In 1950, Anne joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the UnitednKingdom. Keen to help with the Korean War effort, Anne was unable to fly with the Royal Australian Air Force, which didn’t allow female pilots at the time.

In 1953, Pilot Officer Lewis was selected to represent RAF women pilots and be presented to Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in Hampshire, just a year after the young Queen had been crowned.

“Prince Phillip was into flying and they’d obviously been briefed - he knew I’d been with the RFDS, and asked me quite a few questions.”

After three years with the RAF, Anne joined Skyways, one of the largest charter companies in Europe. She spent 10 years flying an Avro York to more than 100 countries, one of few women in a male dominated profession. During her years with Skyways, she flew as far north as Iceland, south to Adelaide, east to Tokyo and west to Jamaica.

“The phone would ring and I didn’t know where I was going to go next. One time I was sent to Bombay to pick up a ship’s crew, but it was three weeks until the ship was due in, so we had three weeks in Bombay, watching cinema every night and we joined the local swimming club!”

“It was a dry state and the navigator nearly went mad with lack of alcohol,” she laughs.

Among Anne’s most memorable passengers were cages of Rhesus monkeys, which she would fly from Singapore to London. Their bile was used in polio vaccines.

Anne returned to WA in 1963 and when she didn’t pass her eye exam, took an office job. Anne still enjoys a view from above with a home at the top of Claremont hill. Despite her pilot licence expiring many years ago, she is still confident she could fly an aircraft.

“Flying is quite instinctive, regardless of the aircraft. It’s only the controls that are different.”