Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

History Revisited - Flying into city's aviation history book

WOMEN IN THE FORCE: In this week's column, Jim Belshaw delves into the region's aviation history by looking at the story of Jeanne Upjohn who became involved with flying as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Airforce 
This column returns to the early days of civil aviation in New England.

When East-West Airlines started passenger flights in 1948, Jeanne Upjohn became one of its first two hostesses. The other was Carmel Paul.

Jeanne had become involved with flying during the war as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). Formed in March 1941 after considerable lobbying by women keen to serve and by the Chief of the Air Staff who wanted to release male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas, the WAAAF was the first and largest of the World War II Australian Women's Services. In all, around 27,000 women served in the WAAF.

Upon joining the WAAF, Jeanne undertook an equipment officer’s course and was sent to Laverton base as corporal in charge of a unit of six women. There she was promoted rapidly, with men as well as women reporting to her, itself something of a challenge. She also met and would subsequently marry Flight Lieutenant Bill Upjohn.

As EWA was being formed, Bill applied to become a pilot but was ruled out on health grounds. Jeanne then put her hand up to become a hostess. To her, the thought of becoming part of the aircrew was exciting after her years as ground crew.

At 5 foot 7 inches, Jeanne was quite a tall women, while the planes were small. She was told that if you can fit, mate, you’re in. She did, just!

These were very much make-do days. The male pilots wore their old air-force uniforms, while Jeanne modified her WAAF uniform to create the first hostess uniform. Later, she would design the first unique EWA hostess uniform for us as a summer uniform.

EWA began flying with small seven seater Avro Anson planes. Given their small size, the hostesses would normally seat the passengers, make sure that they were comfortable, give them a minty and then send them off! Only on special flights would seats be removed so that the hostess could travel with the plane.

One such involved, Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York. He was brought to the plane in Moree accompanied by various dignitaries and a police escort. In full church regalia, the 73 year old Archbishop was crimson faced in the high heat, as was his secretary.

The flight to Coffs Harbour was marked by thermals that threw the plane up two or three thousand feet and then down again. The poor and now ill Archbishop begged for tea, but it was just too rough for him to drink it. It was a trip he would not forget.

In the last days of 1949, the Ansons were at last replaced by Lockheed Hudson planes. East West took out  the normal 12 seats, replacing them with 24 smaller ones with a narrow aisle in the middle. Now the hostesses traveled with the plane.

To Jeanne, one enduring memory was the friendships established with the regular customers who treated the plane in much the same way as they did their own car. It was very much a family thing.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 4 November 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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