Australian pilot Lores Bonney broke many records during the 1930s, escaping death several times. Despite being lauded as the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England, she has almost been forgotten. So check out our article on this rebellious, courageous, trailblazer who had the most interesting life ever, despite being surrounded by sexism in a once male-dominated industy.
Maude Lores Bonney: The Life Story Of Forgotten Female Pilot
Who Is Maude Lores Bonney?
Maude Lores Bonney or Maude Rose “Lores” Bonney was born as Maude Rose Rubens on 20 November 1897. She was a South African-born British aviator who was the first woman to fly solo from Australia to the UK. These days, the Powerhouse Museum holds a good deal of Lores Bonney’s flying paraphernalia.
Early Rebellious Life:
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, she adopted the name “Lores” later in preference to her other given names. The family moved first to England, then to Australia.
She was the only child of German-born Norbert Albert Rubens, a clerk and later a merchant, and his locally born wife Rosa Caroline, formerly Staal, née Haible. The family moved to London in 1901 and then to Melbourne in 1903. Maude was recalled as an independent and rebellious child who attended the Star of the Sea Ladies’ College and the Cromarty Girls’ School, both at Elsternwick.
In 1911, she took to the sea to sail with her parents to Germany, where she enrolled in the Victoria-Pensionat, Bad Homburg, to advance her music studies. She became an accomplished pianist but her prospective career as a musician ended when she suffered stage fright and fled during a recital. At this school she also developed a love of gardening and fluency in French and German.
Returning to Melbourne in 1913, the Rubens family worked for the Australian Red Cross Society in World War I. Maude lived through both World Wars. She died on 24 February 1994.
How Did Maude Lores Bonney Learn To Fly?
The aviator grew up in Melbourne and attended a German finishing school before marrying a Queensland leather-goods manufacturer in 1917 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney. Her husband, Harry Barrington Bonney was a wealthy merchant and leather-goods manufacturer from Brisbane. The couple lived in the latter city, initially at the Gresham Hotel, before settling in 1919 at Bowen Hills. She called her husband ‘Billi’ and herself ‘Dolores,’ later shortened to ‘Lores.’
In 1928, Bert Hinkler was her husband’s cousin, and she took her early flying lessons in secret, while her husband was at golf. They went from Eagle Farm aerodrome to Yeerongpilly and back. The experience thrilled her and she was hooked. Hinkler praised her ability to know her location by identifying landmarks from the air. The next year Bonney took several joy rides with a flying instructor, Charles Matheson, while her husband played golf. Bored, and losing hope of having children, she began flying lessons with Matheson on 6 August 1930. Twelve months later she gained her private pilot’s licence.
When she confessed about her new interest, he was supportive of her and had suede flying gear made for her and bought her a de Havilland Gypsy Moth, which she named My Little Ship. In this craft she made her first record-breaking flight, from Brisbane to Wangaratta on Boxing Day 1931.
Why Is Maude Lores Bonney Famous?
In 1932, in her favourtie plane called My Little Ship, she became the first woman to circumnavigate Australia by air, and in 1933, again in her Little Ship, Maude Lores Bonne became the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England making history for feminists in a gruelling 157-hour journey.
- The first of Bonney’s four major solo flights took place on Boxing Day 1931. Leaving Brisbane at 4.30 a.m., she reached Wangaratta, Victoria, at 7.20 p.m., in time for dinner with her father. She considered this her greatest achievement; it was reported to be the longest one-day flight yet undertaken by an Australian airwoman. Having studied blind flying, night flying, aircraft maintenance, and meteorology, she obtained a commercial licence in 1932, not because she sought a career in aviation but to prepare herself for long-distance flying. Between 15 August and 27 September that year she circumnavigated Australia, the first woman to do so. Spending ninety-five hours twenty-seven minutes in the air and travelling some 6,900 nautical miles (12,800 km), she survived forced landings, a collapsed undercarriage, and a mid-air collision with a plane that flew close to hers so its passenger could take a photo; both aircraft landed safely. She was awarded the Qantas trophy for 1932.
- In order to become the first woman to fly from Australia to England, Bonney learned how to overhaul engines and modified her plane for the journey. On 10 April 1933 she left Brisbane. Caught in a tropical storm on the twentieth, she attempted to land on the coast of an island off Thailand, near the border with Burma (Myanmar). When she was coming down for a beach landing, all of a sudden a herd of water buffalo walked into her path, forcing her to land too close to the sea. Her plane overturned and came to rest in the water. Remaining unperturbed, she managed to free herself from her harness and get to shore. She had the plane salvaged and shipped to Calcutta (Kolkata), India, for repairs. On 25 May she resumed her flight and on 21 June landed at Croydon, England.
- In her 1933 flight to London, the brave pilot was lashed by storms and fried by the heat. Delayed 7 days by torrential rain in Bangkok, she was told off by a British airline pilot to go home. ‘This is no place for a woman,’ he scolded her. Bonney recalled her reaction: ‘That did it. Next day I got through to Tavoy. It was only a short two-hour stepping-stone, but it enabled me to break through the bad weather.’
- Now in the Indian country, Bonney was forced down to 300 feet in order to avoid horrendous headwinds and flocks of circling hawks. The heat was so intense that she couldn’t place her bare hand on the throttle. ‘I wrapped some cloth around the burning metal and revived myself periodically with crushed smelling salts,’ she once said. ‘When I landed at Agra I discovered that the heat of the Klemm’s rudder pedals had melted the gum which attached the soles of my shoes. They flapped as I walked across the airfield.’
- The pilot then wanted to cross the Middle East and flew through sandstorms, but was badgered by officials and was advised by a friendly local known as ‘One-Eyed Ali’ to sleep with her pistol under her pillow. In Cairo, the halfway point of her flight, she faced off Egyptian bureaucrats who were ponderously slow in completing the formalities needed for her to fly up the Nile over the sudd — a vast area of floating vegetation that spelled almost certain death to any flier unlucky enough to be forced down there. They tried to tell her it was ‘too dangerous for a woman.’ Was that why they were so late?
- Luckily, the Australian Department of Civil Aviation wrote on her behalf to the Egyptian government, and Bonney was eventually granted permission to proceed up the Nile.
- Just a week later, south of Khartoum, she escaped death when she became stranded when her plane was damaged during a bush landing. Undeterred, she stopped a passing Nile paddle-wheeler and steamed back to Khartoum with her aircraft towed behind on a small barge. There, she talked officials at the local Royal Air Force detachment into repairing her machine. The repairs took three weeks, but Bonney waited an extra three days after that in the hope of meeting American airwoman Amelia Earhart, who was due to arrive in Khartoum on her fateful around-the-world flight with Fred Noonan. Sadly, no news of Earhart would arrive and Bonney finally left Khartoum on July 10, 1937 but if she just stayed two days more she would have met Earhart and Noonan who landed two days later.
- The never-give-up airwoman took another five weeks to reach Cape Town. Along the way she was forced to replace a blown engine gasket, patch a damaged wing and rebuild landing gear that collapsed as she commenced her takeoff run from the mining town of Broken Hill.
- Arguably the most dangerous moment of the flight occurred approaching Nairobi, when Bonney was forced to fly blind in clouds to cross the mountains. She recalled: ‘I thought I had a 2,000-foot safety margin until I suddenly broke into the clear. I was about 30 seconds away from flying into the side of a peak! I hauled back and over on the control stick….We missed the rock face by less than 100 feet. In Nairobi an engineer checked my altimeter and discovered it was over-reading by almost 2,500 feet. No wonder I almost clipped the mountain.’
- In Pretoria, which was her birthplace, the female airwoman was awarded ceremonial pilot’s wings by the Royal South African Air Force — a mark of respect for her remarkable flight. 7 days later following a nightmare flight across the Hex River Mountains, where violent turbulence made control almost impossible, Lores landed in Cape Town escaping death again. ‘Bravo Mrs. Bonney — Intrepid Airwoman,’ read the headlines of South Africa’s newspapers.
Maude Lores Bonney and World War II:
Maude Lores Bonney was starting to plan her flight around the world when the start of World War II effectively ended her flying career. She offered her services to the Australian government as a flight instructor or ferry pilot. After making just one delivery flight to a Royal Australian Air Force flying school, she was informed that the military had no use for women pilots.
By war’s end and out of practice flying, Lores Bonney hung up her goggles. She was the first person to fly from Australia to South Africa. The formidable journey of 15,700 nautical miles (29,000 km) was her most heroic aerial feat. In 1949 she ceased flying because her eyesight no longer met the required standard.
A year earlier she had finally learned to drive a car, once again taking lessons in secret and confiding in a friend saying: ‘Hubs [her husband] felt it was dangerous for women to drive. I finally let the cat out of the bag one morning when I casually said it was a pity that I didn’t have a car. Jokingly he tossed me his keys and said if I could drive his car I could have it. Imagine his surprise when I jumped in, started it up and drove off.’
Lores and Harry Bonney separated shortly after World War II ended. In 1963 she visited South America but the normal tourist route was not going to be for Lores Bonney. Instead, accompanied by a guide and Indian bearers, she canoed up the headwaters of the Amazon to study the primitive Yagua Indians. Later, after spending four years — much of it in Japan — learning the art of bonsai, she taught the technique to students at the University of Queensland.
Maude Lores Bonney Was Nearing Retirement and Death:
After her marriage had failed in the 1950s, Bonney moved to the Gold Coast. She travelled extensively and found serenity in bonsai. A beautiful woman, slim and five feet three inches (160 cm) tall, she dressed stylishly and loved jewellery, particularly pearls.
In 1988, accompanied by acting U.S. Consul David Seal, a nephew of Charles Lindbergh, 90-year-old Lores Bonney was invited to inaugurate the Hinkler Australian Bicentennial Air Race at the Queensland Museum. The media was out in force that day and made a beeline for her and soon she was surrounded by reporters sitting cross-legged at her feet. ‘My first flight? It was in that plane 60 years ago this month,’ she told the press, pointing to the nearby Avro Avian in which she had flown with Hinkler in 1928. An hour later the reporters were still there, cameras were still rolling. The media was entranced by Bonney’s charm, wicked wit and lionhearted spirit. No one wanted to go home.
She died on 24 February 1994 at Mermaid Beach and was cremated. In 2012 Maude Lores Bonney was inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame. A Queensland State electoral district and streets at Coolangatta and in the Brisbane suburbs of Clayfield and Archerfield bear her name.