Retracing the footsteps of fellow aviator Nancy Ellis-Leebold led Cathy Hobson to the tarmac at Dubbo Aero Club. But, as Weekender discovered, their stories, although decades apart, are intertwined.
Cathy Hobson has much more in common with the late Nancy Ellis-Leebold than she realises. Both have been female aviators in a male-dominated industry, trailblazers in their field and have received acclaim at international level as recipients of the 99s Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship (AEMS). The award allows licensed female pilots to advance their training and education in aviation and aerospace and is named after the pioneering American aviator and author.
In Hobson’s words, “it encourages women to keep flying”.
Amelia Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and received the US Distinguished Flying Cross for this record. Leebold achieved similar acclaim after flying a Miles Messenger from England to Australia, as Hobson found when the award they share led her to discover more about her predecessor’s life and achievements.
“When I received the scholarship in 2007, I asked the organisers if there were any other Australian recipients and it turns out there were five,” she explains.
Research on the award recipients was done as part of Hobson’s Masters of Business Administration in aviation management from which she graduated with distinction.
But Hobson remained intrigued by Leebold’s story and fairly soon, her quest for information took flight.
“When I researched Nancy Ellis-Leebold, I was astounded by my lack of knowledge about this great lady.
“Her peers described her as a friendly, quiet and well-spoken lady and I found a 1965 quote from Nancy Bird-Walton, who called her the “most highly qualified and active flying woman in Australia”.”
The pair were actually good friends and Hobson too knew Walton quite well through the Australian Women’s Pilot Association of which Leebold was a founding member.
But there was a lot that wasn’t known about this amazing woman, and some details that had been incorrectly recorded. Hobson made it her mission to fill in the blanks. She believes that a biography of Nancy Ellis-Leebold is long overdue.
“I also found some quite conflicting information, so the research had to be authenticated before I could write anything about her.”
Nancy Ellis Leebold. Photo: Supplied
Born Nancy Ellis in 1915, Leebold learned to fly at Royal Aero Club, Mascot, the main Sydney airport where Hobson has also worked. Leebold initially started her working life on the World War II production line and in a pickle factory designing machinery. She also towed targets for air gunners’ practice and taught Morse code in the evenings before gaining her private pilot’s licence in 1942 and her commercial licence in 1946.
Leebold later achieved her instructor rating and worked for Kingsford Smith Aviation. In 1950, she became the first Australian woman to fly heavy aircraft, and was the First Officer of a Lockheed Lodestar for Air Cargo Pty Ltd.
In that year, she also became one of the 35 charter members of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association.
In 1952, she scored a trip to the USA and a flight in a Lockheed Shooting Star T33A, making her the first Australian woman to fly a jet aircraft. The following year, Leebold became the first Australian woman to work as a chief flying instructor (at Dubbo Aero Club) and gained a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal the following year.
In 1954, she received her AEMS and became the inaugural overseas winner of the American-based scholarship and also the first Australian. She was also presented with the Silver Anniversary Award, as it was received in the 25th year since inception. Leebold used the funding to complete a Ground Engineering (Airframe & Engines) Mechanic certificate.
Returning to the USA and then to the UK for training, the young pilot met Arthur Leebold, whom she married in February 1955 in Kensington and then flew him from London to Yarram, Victoria on their honeymoon – a distance of 12,000 nautical miles. It was an achievement which earned her the Evelyn Follett Trophy in 1955 as “the year’s most worthy flying performance”.
Leebold went on to become a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Navigation in 1964 and their first female president in 1967/68, receiving an MBE that same year for services to civil aviation.
Trawling through aviation records led Hobson to Dubbo and Narromine this week, and she was able to meet with members of local aero clubs to discuss her findings so far and conduct further research on Leebold. Her plan now is to write a book and feels that she is about a third of the way into the expedition. She’s been working on the research for many years now, so has set herself the target of Christmas 2015 as its completion date.
“It’s a fascinating journey, as I do enjoy research, but difficult as there is very little written about Nancy. There was just so much that was never documented.
“And she died five years before I moved from the West Coast of Australia to Sydney. “I feel that I completely missed out on meeting an amazing lady and professional pilot who appears not to have written a book about her life, making it a challenge to find out more about her.”
While Hobson laments the fact that she was never able to meet this Australian legend, she is no slouch herself when it comes to aviation achievements.
Born and raised in Perth, Hobson is a quick thinker and sharp as a tack. She came from a family of aviators, with her father and two brothers all in the Royal Australian Air Force.
Her decision to be a pilot came, fittingly, during flying lessons.
“I’d grown up with aviation,” she says.
“At 15, I decided I wanted to be a pilot. It was when I was learning to fly and I was asked ‘what do you want to be?’ Before that, I’d wanted to be a schoolteacher.”
Hobson started flying in 1979 and obtained her Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) in 1983, her Instructor Rating in 1984 and her Senior CPL in 1990. She moved to Sydney in 1987, where she met her husband-to-be (a fellow pilot) at Bankstown Airport where, uncannily, one of the roads is named Nancy Ellis Leebold Drive.
Much like Leebold, Hobson was the only female pilot and only female instructor. But she says that “apart from a few dinosaurs”, her male colleagues did not treat her any differently, even though women in the industry are still in the minority, making up only 15 per cent of pilot numbers.
Hobson has been Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) and Chief Pilot on three occasions in the Sydney Basin from 1994, with Authorised Testing Officer (ATO) approvals.
For 18 months, she flew as First Officer on VH-NJI, a four-engined De Havilland Heron on tours around Australia, went first solo on a glider in 1996 as well as became a Glider Tug pilot for 18 months at Bathurst. She also completed her Bachelor of Aviation Studies while working full-time as a CFI/ATO.
She moved to Darwin as a commercial pilot in 1998 where she flew B200 Super King Airs and then progressed to Captain of B200 at Port Hedland. This led to a role as First Officer Regular Public Transport on B1900D for Impulse Airlines out of Brisbane until the sale of that company. Hobson then had a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (South East) flying command of B200 as an air ambulance pilot, and until its demise, worked for Brindabella Airlines out of Mascot Airport.
In 2006, she started her Masters at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and won two scholarships, the inaugural Aviation Safety Management Course Scholarship and her Amelia Earhart award from the 99s.
Hobson joined the 99s in 1994 at the instigation of Nancy Bird-Walton and has been a member for 16 years. And with her aviation background and dedication to keeping the flight path of past and present female aviators like herself alive, Hobson has certainly earned the right to join their ranks.