One of Australia’s pioneering female pilots is still spreading her wings in retirement.
In April 1965, 33-year-old Elva Rush was running a successful kennel and vet hospital, while raising four children. One day a small aircraft flew overhead, on its way to nearby Moorabbin airport in outer Melbourne.
“I thought, I’ll learn to fly aeroplanes,” Elva says. “Quick as that.”
That snap decision made Elva one of Australia’s early female pilots. She went on to become one of the country’s first female formation pilots and the first recreational pilot to gain a night-flying licence. She also broke a Brisbane-to-Moorabbin speed record, which she still holds and spent five years writing Up Above – Down Under about the history of Australian women in aviation. The book was released in 2000.
Now enjoying herself at Australian Unity’s Geelong Grove Retirement Community in Victoria, Elva remains involved in the Australian Women Pilots Association (AWPA).
“I never faced any obstacles, really. I learned to fly at Schutt Flying Academy and the owner, Arthur Schutt, absolutely championed women pilots,” Elva says. “My family and friends thought it was fantastic. My kids loved it because I would take them out for picnics. We thought nothing of flying down to Lake Pedder in Tasmania for a picnic lunch.”
Other picnic destinations included Flinders Island, King Island, Shepparton and Wangaratta. When Elva became the first non-professional pilot to gain her night-flying licence, they would fly home after dark.
“Looking back now, I wonder what would have happened if I’d had engine failure, with my four kids and myself? But I never thought about it then. I was so confident in the machine and in what I was doing. When I think of it now, I shudder.”
Only once did Elva have to make an emergency landing. The engine stopped dead, without a warning sputter, while it was 800 feet (244 metres) off the ground. Elva’s flight training immediately kicked in. “I made it over the fence. I didn’t quite make it to the start of the asphalt,” she says.
Far from instilling a fear of flying, the incident gave Elva a huge confidence boost.
“You always wonder if you’ll perform but you can’t know before the situation comes up. But I made it back. I thought if I did all that safely, I can handle anything.”
The same forthright confidence brought her to formation flying, along with fellow female pilots Ruth Hodges and Moira Robinson.
“Ruth, Moira and I were watching the Royal Victorian Aero Club do their formation circuits. I said, ‘we could do that’. So we toddled up the road to ask Arthur Schutt if we could have a formation flying team in our little Cessna 150s.” Schutt agreed immediately.
“Walking to the aeroplane I thought, what have I done this time?” Elva says.
She says her instructor urged her to fly closer and closer to the wing of the number one craft, flown by Ruth, until Elva could actually see Ruth chewing gum. “I thought, how much closer does he want me to go?
“I got cranky. I said: ‘This is my first go at all this.’ And he said: ‘Yes, well, it’s mine too, you know.’ In retrospect it’s very funny. At the time it was quite scary.”
Elva’s favourite thing about flying was the autonomy it gave her. “You’re the pilot and everything depends on you. You’re master of your own destiny,” she says.
Elva also loved the beauty she saw from the sky.
“It’s so different and so beautiful. I once flew low across the Great Australian Bight. I looked up at those cliffs: the pinks, browns and creams looked just like a marble cake.”
Elva speaks warmly of her mentors Arthur Schutt and Nancy Bird Walton, who founded the AWPA. Pioneer aviator Freda Thompson, the first Australian woman to fly solo from the United Kingdom to Australia, is another of Elva’s heroes.
Elva is also full of praise for Debbie Wardley, the first woman to become a commercial pilot with a major Australian airline. “She fought tooth and nail to get women accepted into airlines. We owe so much to her.
“AWPA’s national president, Carol Dehn, is a captain with Virgin Airlines. One of our members was the first-ever female air-traffic controller. These are the pioneers that really need the plaudits.”
Elva has many happy memories of her years in the air. “I flew for 40 years to the day. I won trophies in air racing and club events. I still hold that world record. I loved formation flying. I went on four safaris through the Australian Outback as pilot in command. I made enduring friendships.”
What advice does Elva have for women who want to learn to fly today? “Go and do it. That’s my only advice. It’s very few words but it’s the most wonderful thing to do.”