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Girl with Wings

Girl with Wings

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Girl with Wings

193 pages
2 hours
Apr 28, 2015


Jessica Mackay has one dream - to be a pilot. Jessica lives on her family farm at Narromine, New South Wales, in the 1920s - the best place for a would-be pilot. Her father developed a passion for flying in Egypt during World War I, and Narromine lies close to the heart of Australia's budding aviation industry.

Even though women were among the first people to take on the challenge of the skies, Jessica's ambitions are not supported by everyone, most notably her grandfather who has firm ideas about 'a woman's place' in the world.

As a junior member of the new Narromine Aero Club, Jessica is well-placed to meet pioneer aviators such as the legendary Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, as well as take part in the first Narromine Air Shows.

Jennifer Bradley's story of a young girl's passion for flying is based firmly on actual events in the fledgling Australian aviation industry.
Apr 28, 2015

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Girl with Wings - Jennifer Bradley



Near Beersheba in Palestine

Early November 1917

When he closed his eyes, Angus Mackay was back in the dust storm, hearing the pounding hooves, the explosions of guns and the occasional screams of horses and men. He dreamed of being pounded into the ground, certain of death.

When awake, he kept his eyes on the torn gauze tacked to the window. If he squinted, he could see a rectangle of sky, harsh clear blue like at home. Sometimes, he glimpsed wings of the biplanes that flew overhead and tried to recognise them from the sounds of their engines. That rectangle had been his salvation. When the pain hit, he concentrated on it and imagined himself flying, the pain lifting away with the airplanes, soaring off into the distance.

Sometimes it worked, but sometimes all he could think about was being stuck fast in this excuse for a bed. Bandaged. Immobile. And very bored. He sighed. He was covered in white. His shoulder, where the shrapnel had been removed. His leg was in plaster where his dying horse had rolled on him. In between were grazes and bruises. And above, his head and right eye, bandages over remaining shrapnel where it had settled.

Angus was torn between gratitude and misery. He did not know if he should feel glad for being alive or sad that his injuries would ruin his chance of becoming a pilot. Sometimes he felt one thing, sometimes the other. It could have been much worse. They said he would be able to do most things with his arm and would walk again, but probably with a limp. They said the pain would eventually go away. And they said they would send him home to Sydney, where he could get all the help he needed.

They’ll look after you, mate, said the doctor before he dashed off. And, they said, smiling as though he would be thrilled, that was the end of the war for him.

Angus had mixed feelings about going home. He missed the farm and he’d had enough of the war, the one they called the war to end all wars. It was only two years since he had joined the NSW 12th Light Horse, but it seemed forever. In the beginning it was an adventure. At eighteen and a fearless horseman, he knew every inch of the town where he grew up, of course. And he’d been to Sydney. But there was a lot of world outside Australia and he’d never seen any of it. His soul hungered for adventure and he envied friends as they headed off to war, their faces lit with excitement. They talked about duty, but in their eyes he saw that same desire for adventure. So he joined the droves of young Australian men who rushed to enlist, to train as soldiers and see the world.

Like most of them, he’d given little thought to the reality. For many, the first stop was Gallipoli and months of misery — if they survived. Or a telegram to their family if they did not. Childhood friends lay buried in the dirt of foreign countries and he doubted they’d found the adventure worthwhile.

Angus had been luckier than most, particularly those who ended in the sodden trenches of France and Belgium. He had joined too late for Gallipoli and travelled straight to the middle east, where it was even drier and hotter than at home. Some parts had been good — he made some wonderful mates, whom he would miss, and had fallen in love with the new airplanes that both the German and British used to protect their troops and drop bombs on their enemies.

Even the Australians had got into the act with a couple of squadrons. He watched the fragile machines, the monoplanes and biplanes, as they dived and swerved across the sky, their wings lit by the sun, puttering engines breaking the occasional silence. Now he wished he was up there, holding the controls, dipping and soaring, miles above the ground. He knew the British were training pilots in Egypt, for both themselves and the new Australian squadrons. And men from the Light Horse, like Angus, were wanted. Good horsemen made good pilots. When planes are flown by the seat of the pilot’s pants, as they said, good ‘hands’ and ‘seat’ are vital.

Before the cavalry charge, Angus had decided to become a pilot. He had the skills they needed. He’d talked with several young Australians already in training. One, Ross Smith, had encouraged him. But for this push on Beersheba, he would have been on his way to Egypt. It could have been him providing air cover for the troops. He was not sorry he had taken part in the charge — 500 Australian horsemen galloping across three miles of open desert to secure the wells of Beersheba.

In the end, the charge had only taken an hour, but it was the three days beforehand that he remembered best, the endless marching across sand, trying to stretch their water to give their parched horses some. Creeping towards Beersheba, the young men of the NSW 12th and the Victorian 4th regiments, hid from the German planes, excited and scared, but determined to succeed. He remembered fragments, like the smell of dust and sweat, the sound of hooves and the occasional comment from his mates. He remembered his thirst. But much of it was a blur.

By the time they were in sight of Turkish lines, the Light Horse was at full gallop, the horses’ hooves kicking up dense clouds of dust. Thinking only of their quarry. The speed of the charge carried them right through the blizzard of Turkish rifles, through machine gun and artillery fire. They were all grateful there had been no barbed wire which would have cut the horses to ribbons and left their riders sitting ducks for the Turks to pick off. The feat was close to impossible. They had lost 31 men and numerous horses. Many men — like Angus — had been wounded.

But the young Australians had secured the wells of Beersheba and were already being talked of as heroes. For those who took part, it had not felt like heroism. Just something that had to be done.

Now Angus was going home, wounded but victorious. If he had regrets, they were for the mates he left behind — and the planes and his lost chance to learn to fly. Time might heal the breaks and wounds, but he knew his eyesight would never pass the tests.

He heard the puttering of an engine and watched the silver wing tip at the top left of his window. It wasn’t a Bristol BF2b, maybe a Sopwith Camel, he thought, or one of the new RE8s. There seemed to be new models every few days. Until the war, aviation had been an exciting game. The magic of flight was man’s centuries-old dream and Angus felt privileged he had been alive to watch it happen. The war pushed it beyond a game as governments discovered aeroplanes for bombing and providing support for ground troops.

Pilots were becoming the stuff of legends in dogfights over France and in the desert. Earlier that year an Australian, Frank McNamara, with a leg wound from an enemy bullet, was flying to base from a mission in his Martinsyde when he saw a stranded fellow pilot and landed to help. He took off again in a hail of bullets, as Arab cavalry chased them. For that, he’d won the Australian Flying Corps’ first Victoria Cross and the admiration of other pilots and of would-be pilots, like Angus. At least Angus could still fly as a passenger. He was sure that aeroplanes were the transport of the future. His children would grow up in a world where people took flying and aeroplanes for granted. Even Narromine now had its own airstrip. Planes would grow bigger and fly further, carry more people and goods and one day would surely challenge land and sea transport. Angus had watched the beginnings of flight and now that his war was over, he would live to see what man made of the next stage.

Chapter One


Narromine 1929

It was the sudden silence. The background burr of the engine, as the plane climbed, had stopped without warning, leaving a kind of after sound in the air, a dark hum. Jessica climbed off her bicycle and looked across at the airstrip, then upwards until she found the plane.

She squinted, hand across her eyes to keep the glare from blinding her. She recognised it as Mr Grahame’s Gipsy Moth, with his wife’s name painted on the body and stripes across the wings. She had seen it on the ground and thought it was the most beautiful thing ever. One day, she told herself, she was going to fly in it. She would soar above the clouds and look down on the fields and rivers, on the town of Narromine and the houses, on her own home. She had admired the care with which Mr Grahame polished it and cleaned the engine, changing plugs, wiping off oil, checking the wings and the struts, keeping it as bright as new.

Jessica Mackay always set out early for school, so she would have time to watch the planes taking off or landing from the airstrip. She liked to identify them and their pilots and then guess where they were going or coming from. Sometimes she saw a new plane, or a new model, and she would quickly write down what she could remember before she got to school where everything was driven from her mind by the need to learn history or a poem.

Today, however, she simply had to stop. She was used to the way engine beats sounded during takeoff, loud and often closer together as the pilot built up the speed to rise up into the sky. Today, she had been expecting this sound, so the hush scared her, kept her staring up at the Moth, urging the engine to catch, the pilot to get it revving. If he didn’t, the plane would fall out of the sky, spin into a crash landing, or more likely, simply fall to bits. It took a good pilot to cope with engine failure.

The plane had already reached the wispy clouds and she had to crane her neck to follow it. It hovered against the blue, still, neither rising nor falling. But for the silence, Jessica would have been entranced. All she felt, however, was fear. Her hands clenched as she imagined herself in the pilot’s seat. If it were her, what would she do? She thought through the various controls, and her fingers itched to take charge. First she would check everything and not panic, then she would fiddle with … there her imagination failed her. She knew a little bit about aeroplane controls and engines, but not enough. She had no idea what many of the bits were called or what they did. Her dad knew more, but so far, he’d only taught her about the aeroplanes themselves, not their insides.

If she were to become a pilot, then she would have to learn all that. If … ! The idea tumbled into her thoughts, without her realising where it came from. But it was a thought she knew had been living in the back of her mind for a long time. It was a thought she felt comfortable with, an idea that was just right. Jessica gulped and then giggled. She’d think about that when the Moth was all right. Now it needed all her attention to get down safely. That thought made her giggle even more. She was only watching, for goodness sake — there was no way she could help — but standing there, holding her breath and hoping seemed necessary to her. She knew it was silly, but she also knew how she would feel if the plane crashed after she had turned her back. So she stood, hands tight, sometimes forgetting to breathe as she concentrated on the flimsy machine above her.

The silence continued. It seemed to last for years. The biplane’s left wing dipped and then the Moth began to glide downwards. Slowly, very slowly, it slid beneath the clouds. Still in silence. Jessica imagined the panic of the pilot as he checked everything and then began to move dials, switch switches, and fiddlewith the joystick, feet pushing at the rudder. The plane sank lower. Jessica was sure it would crash and only skill — or a miracle — would keep it from becoming a wreck. Or worse. For a moment, the picture of a fireball flashed through her mind and she shook her head firmly. That would not help. Her nails dug into her palms, leaving red crescents as they cut the skin, but she did not notice. All her attention was on the sky, watching the plane and willing its engine to catch, to make the hiccough and then the roar that meant it was healthy and climbing.

It continued to drift downwards, then sideways in a slither. Soon

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