Australia’s first Commercial Airline Pilot
“I knew that I was qualified, I knew that I was capable and therefore I had confidence in my own ability”
On 22 January 1980, Deborah Lawrie (then Wardley) made history. She flew as the co-pilot of an Ansett flight from Alice Springs to Darwin, making her Australia’s first female pilot for a major airline. This event marked the culmination of a protracted battle through the courts and was the first successful sex discrimination case against an employer in Australia.
Deborah learnt to fly when she was 16 and earned her private and commercial licenses before applying for a pilot position with Ansett.
In 1978, after having been rejected for two years, she took Ansett to the newly formed Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission over its refusal to employ her as a pilot on the grounds of her gender. Ansett lost but appealed the case all the way to the High Court.
Under a successful ‘girlcott’, women urged businesses to transfer their travel accounts to TAA (Trans Australia Airlines), Ansett losing more than 50 per cent of its business travel as a result. When Ansett was forced to employ Deborah, the company attempted to sack her by claiming she had caused a near-miss at Moorabbin Airport, despite an inquiry exonerating her. Ansett relented when unions took on her cause, but it wasn’t until Rupert Murdoch and Peter Abeles took over the company that Deborah got her wings.
Deborah was one of 1,640 pilots who resigned en masse following the 1989 Australian pilots’ dispute. She went on to pilot for KLM in the Netherlands for 16 years before returning to Australia to fly for Jetstar. In 2012 Deborah joined Tigerair Australia, which until the airline was shut down during Covid employed the highest proportion of female pilots in the country.
Deborah was inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001. She has been made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Master Air Pilot. Deborah was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honors list in recognition of her “significant service to aviation as a commercial pilot, and to women in the profession”. In June 2020 she was inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 2023 Deborah celebrated 54 years of flying and continues to fly the Boeing 737 with Virgin Australia.
She is the most experienced female airline pilot in the world.
This Biography has been written in consultation with Deborah Lawrie AM
Deborah Lawrie AM (2020) Last Flight with Tiger Air – Photograph supplied by Deborah Lawrie AM
Deborah Lawrie AM – Flying Tiger Air Photograph supplied by Deborah Lawrie AM
Her Place Women’s Museum is a not-for-profit organisation that honours and celebrates the social, civic and entrepreneurial achievements of all Australian women and their role in shaping our nation.