Biographical research takes to the air

Published 20 April 2011

jvA flight in a 70-year-old biplane has added an important extra dimension to biographical research by James Vicars, a postgraduate student at the University of New England.

Mr Vicars took the flight, in a De Havilland Tiger Moth first flown in 1939, in an effort to deepen his knowledge about flying in the 1920s and to write authentically about the short career of Australia’s little-known first woman aviator, Millicent Maude Bryant.

Millicent Bryant won the “race” to become Australia’s first woman aviator in 1927, and was undertaking advanced flying instruction with the Australian Aero Club when, barely eight months later, she was killed when the ferry Greycliffe was cut in half by the liner Tahiti – Sydney’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

“After growing up in a pioneering western household, raising three boys who all became prominent businessmen, going to Sydney University, and becoming a small-scale developer and entrepreneur just a few short years after World War I, Millicent Bryant took up flying in late middle age,” Mr Vicars said. “She was impressed by its possibilities and planned to buy her own aircraft. It would have been interesting to see what else she might have achieved had she lived longer.”

He said that the few Tiger Moths still flying in NSW were almost identical to the original “Moth” in which Millicent Bryant had gained her pilot’s licence. The flight that he himself had taken was in an aircraft operated and maintained by the Royal Newcastle Aero Club near Maitland, he explained, adding that it had “transformed” his understanding of what flying in such aircraft was like.

“Your speed in the air is slower than you would imagine,” he said, “yet the aircraft feels light and – with the open cockpit – the feeling of freedom and space is exhilarating. It’s easier for me now to see the appeal it must have had, along with the kind of skills and physical courage needed to fly in all sorts of conditions and weathers.”

This experience is helping Mr Vicars bring to completion a biographical account of Millicent Bryant’s life – one of the two sections of the PhD thesis he is preparing “by Research in Creative Practice”. The academic exegesis which accompanies the biography will be the focus of the remainder of his candidature.

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows James Vicars beside the Tiger Moth operated by the Royal Newcastle Aero Club – an aircraft almost identical to that in which Millicent Bryant gained her licence as Australia’s first woman pilot in 1927.