17 June 2024

Riverina Rewind: When women reached new heights through the Wagga Flying School

| Michelle Maddison
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Eric Condon discusses the finer points of flying a Tiger Moth with five of the competitors in the flying contest.

Eric Condon discusses the finer points of flying a Tiger Moth with five of the competitors in the flying contest. Photo: Wagga Bike Tyres.

Today, the Museum of the Riverina takes us back to 1947 and the flying school established by Air Force veteran Eric Condon.

A motor mechanic by trade, Condon had been pioneering aviation since the early 1930s and became a well known identity throughout the Riverina in the post-World War II period.

He had enlisted with the RAAF at Camden, NSW, in May 1941 and served with the 6 Communications Unit, reaching the rank of flight lieutenant before his discharge on 24 October 1945.

In mid-1947, Condon established the Wagga Flying School on Hammond Avenue and sought to get more women into the air through the Wagga Flying School Social Club Women’s Scholarship competition (what a mouthful!).

READ ALSO Riverina Rewind: The soaring legacy of Wagga’s ‘Flying Godfather’

About 18 women entered the competition, and each was given 15 minutes’ tuition in the air, before taking the controls of the Tiger Moth biplane for five minutes.

The winner’s prize was free tuition from qualified instructors, and she was then allowed to fly solo for one hour free in one of Eric’s planes.

A 23-year-old stenographer from Docker Street named Irene Lowe was the winner and told the media that, before her trial flight, she had never been in a plane.

“I am very pleased to have won the scholarship; I have always wanted to fly … I was a little nervous when I first started, but felt better once I was in the air,” Irene told The Daily Advertiser in October 1947.

Irene made her first solo flight on the morning of Sunday 14 December 1947 after completing 10 hours and 30 minutes’ dual instruction.

Condon said he was very pleased with her progress as she had been a very adaptable pupil throughout her period of training.

READ ALSO Riverina Rewind: When Wagga staged Australia’s only 10-mile horserace

Sadly, it appears that Irene didn’t continue flying after her one solo flight. By 1952, Irene had married Keith Fabian, and the couple had made their home in Sydney.

Another of Condon’s students, Wendy Kelsall would eventually become the first woman in Wagga to earn her wings with an A-class pilot’s licence.

In January 1949, Wendy set a Riverina record when she flew the biplane solo from Forest Hill to Broughton Brook after just eight hours of flight training.

She described the flight as “a great thrill”.

“I’ve longed for years to fly and this has been my first opportunity to learn,” she said.

Condon became known as The Flying Godfather of the Riverina but sadly succumbed to a short illness and died in Calvary Hospital in 1954 at the age of just 47.

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