International Women’s Day: Royal Aero Club of WA member Merlene Smith always knew she could fly

The 81-year-old grandmother, who took up flying at 42, said she had been fascinated with the world of aviation since she could remember but never imagined she would one day become a pilot.

“As a young child growing up in Broken Hill, I would often hear the stories of the wonderful Royal Flying Doctor Service (RDFS), and my eyes would go skywards when I saw their planes fly overhead,” she said.

“I was nicknamed ‘the baby who lived in the clouds’, I guess that is where my fascination of flying began.

“When I moved to Port Hedland, I flew with a lady named Robin Miller on an RFDS flight to Perth and return, and I watched her, absolutely fascinated and thought if she could do it so could I.”

A mother of four, Ms Smith said the journey to becoming a pilot was a difficult one and while motherhood came first, her dream to fly was always in her mind.

“I remember asking someone – what I had to do to fly a plane and they told me I needed plenty of money and plenty of brains so I put it on the backburner,” she said.

“Then one day I received a knock on the door and this lady said ‘I hear you want to learn how to fly – so here are the books I want you at Tafe on Monday night’.

“I was in my 40s with four children, lessons were $34 an hour to fly and I couldn’t afford it but I went and I passed all my exams but I couldn’t afford to fly.

“So my teacher took me up one day and I sat in the back seat and we experienced some turbulence and when we came down I thought I’d never be able to do that.

“But she told me the plane rights itself and from there my goal and determination was to learn to fly.”

Doing everything she could to pay for her lessons Ms Smith worked four jobs while also raising her children.

“I worked for a mining company, taught music, sold Avon and sold fish and chips at the local drive-in and from there I was able to fly my first plane a Cesna 172,” she said.

“My biggest achievement however was taking part in the Mobil Outback Air Race (14 days flying around Australia), raising funds for the RFDS with two other women, we were The Lady Birds.”

Having last flown a plane at the age 77, Ms Smith said young women looking to get into the aviation industry should also follow their dreams.

“When I decide to do something I give it my heart and soul,” she said.

“Have faith in yourself in your convictions, aim high and achieve it.

“And while it might have taken me a while to get there just as Frank Sinatra once said ‘I did it my way’.”