I first met Mrs Bonney in 1973. At that time I had had several articles on early Australian aviation published and I was on the lookout for a new and, if possible, forgotten subject.
A few weeks earlier I had been researching the flights of Sir Francis Chichester in his de Havilland Moth. For background information I had turned to a technical book on his aircraft. In the section listing the history of these famous aircraft, I came across an entry recording that a DH 60 Gipsy Moth had been sold in 1932 to a Brisbane woman named Mrs Harry Bonney. Next to the listing was the simple statement that she had flown the aircraft solo to England in 1933.
My curiosity was aroused. At that time I was not aware of any Australian woman pilot having made a flight of real historical significance. A solo flight from Australia to England in 1933, whether by a man or a woman, was to my mind, significant indeed.
During the next week or two I asked friends in the aviation business whether they knew of Mrs Bonney. They could all recall the English aviatrix Amy Johnson and her flight to Australia in a DH Moth. They knew that there was a famous New Zealand airwoman, Jean Batten. And, of course, they had all read about the strange disappearance of America's Amelia Earhart. But Mrs Bonney? One or two could remember that there was a woman who 'flew around the area a bit' in the early 1930s. But they were sure she didn't do anything as memorable as flying solo to England. Most simply looked blank and scratched their heads.
Later, I spoke with Col Kelly, an airworthiness surveyor with the Department of Transport. I knew Col had been an apprentice aircraft engineer in Brisbane in the early 1930s. He remembered her.
'She was well known around Archerfield in the old days,' he said. 'She made a number of long flights including one to England and a later one to South Africa, but never obtained the recognition she deserved. Last I heard of her she had retired to the Gold Coast somewhere after her husband died. That was years ago. But I think she is still alive.'
I found a listing for a 'Bonney' in the Gold Coast telephone directory and called the number. An alert female voice answered Yes, she was the Mrs Harry Bonney who flew to England No, she wasn't sure she really wanted to talk about it .. it was all so long ago Well if it was so important and I wanted to meet her then I should call down for afternoon tea next Sunday.
Before I drove down to her house in Miami, Queensland, I spent several evenings poring over every book on early Australian aviation I could find. Nowhere was she mentioned. Amy Johnson's exploits came up time and again, but all the authors were either ignorant of, or chose to ignore, Mrs Bonney's flights.
When my wife and I arrived at her home we were greeted by a very gracious, but somewhat reserved silver-haired lady, who was obviously puzzled as to why we were there. When she learned that I, too, was a pilot, the curtain of reserve lifted; she fell immediately into a relaxed yet enthusiastic discussion of aeroplanes. Though total strangers, within minutes we were talking like old friends. This ability for instant rapport is, I believe, common among pilots the world over.
I told her I would like to write an article on her flights for the Brisbane Sunday Mail. At first she did not seem to want to talk about her own flying experiences. It was so long ago, she said, and she had cut herself off from aviation when she stopped flying. To recall her flights only intensified how much she missed flying.
Afternoon tea was over and we were on to late-afternoon drinks. I must have a second one, she insisted. A bird couldn't fly on only one wing. It was then that she opened a large trunk full of old photographs and clippings, albumn after albumn of them, as well as scrapbooks galore and old log books — it was a treasure trove of the early days of flying in Queensland. I soon learnt that she had made not one, but four record-setting flights. How then, in the short space of forty years, had she apparently been forgotten? ………………….