Meet the kick-ass woman who changed our country’s aviation industry forever.

Video via SBS Insight

Deborah Lawrie was just 16 years old when she knew she wanted to fly planes for a living.

It would take another 10 years and a groundbreaking lawsuit before Lawrie would become the first Australian woman to fly for a major airline.

Lawrie’s pioneering step into aviation lead the way for more women to enter the male-dominated industry.

“My father took up flying as a hobby when I was about 14 years old. I used to go to airport and watch him take off and fly,” Lawrie told Mamamia.

“He told me he would give me two lessons for my 16th birthday, but after that I would have to pay for my own lessons.”

deborah lawrie
"Your first solo flight is the biggest milestone for any pilot, I really wanted to fly solo so I could prove to my father that I could do it." Image supplied.

And that's exactly what Lawrie did. She kept studying and took her first solo flight when she was just 16 years old.

"Your first solo flight is the biggest milestone for any pilot, I really wanted to fly solo so I could prove to my father that I could do it."

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It was during that solo flight Lawrie realised just how much she loved flying.

She kept studying and logging her hours in the sky and by the time she was twenty one she was a qualified commercial pilot and instructor.

But it was when Lawrie started applying for jobs at Australia's biggest commercial airlines, that she realised her dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot might not come true.

Lawrie first applied to Ansett Airlines in 1976 and kept sending applications for two years. She was finally interviewed in 1978 but she did not get the job.

So she took her case to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board and challenged Ansett's decision under the recently enacted equal opportunity legislation.

Ansett fought back arguing that women's menstrual cycles made them unsuitable for the job. The airline also claimed that pregnancy and childbirth would disrupt a woman's career to the point where it would jeopardise safety and incur extra costs for the company.

That was Ansett's main argument. It was 1979.

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In a letter to the secretary of the Women's Electoral Lobby, the general manager of Ansett wrote:

"Ansett has adopted a policy of only employing men as pilots. This does not mean that women cannot be good pilots, but we are concerned with the provision of the safest and most efficient air service possible. In this regard, we feel that an all-male pilot crew is safer than one in which the sexes are mixed."

However, the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board ruled that Ansett's refusal to employ Lawrie was illegal.

She was employed by the airline but she still wasn't allowed to fly until early January 1980, when Peter Abeles and Rupert Murdoch took over the company.

Lawrie had taught Murdoch's brother-in-law John Calvert-Jones how to fly, and Calvert-Jones alerted Murdoch to Lawrie's situation.

Two days later Rupert Murdoch issued a memo directing that Lawrie should treated the same as the male pilot candidates.

She commenced flight training immediately and made her first commercial flight co-piloting a Fokker F27 from Alice Springs to Darwin on 22 January 1980.

Lawrie believes that the culture in the aviation industry started to shift on that day.

"I flew airplanes that had younger captains and they were much more advanced in their attitudes towards women," Lawrie explained "Some of them had actually been taught by women instructors."

Lawrie career's with Ansett ended in during the 1989 Australian pilots' dispute and she moved to Europe, where she lived and worked as a commercial airline pilot for the next 16 years.

"Looking back, it was probably the best thing that happened to me," Lawrie said.

She returned to Australia in 2008 and started working for Tiger Airways in 2012.

Tiger has the highest percentage of women pilots in Australia. But men still far outweigh women in the aviation industry.

Lawrie believes more women aren't becoming pilots because they don't have the opportunity to learn about the industry from a young age and they're not exposed to the possibility of a career in aviation.

"They need more role models," she said, "There are no TV shows featuring women pilots or toys of women pilots."

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But things are slowly changing.

Last year when Lawrie was flying from Sydney to Coffs Harbour with her female co-pilot, a six-year-old girl boarded the plane dressed in a homemade pilot's outfit.

When Lawrie spoke to the girl and her mother at the end of the flight, her mother explained that she was "just determined to be a pilot".

Deborah is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight "Game changers – what does it take to break new ground?"

Host Jenny Brockie will talk to the people who went against the grain, challenged the status quo, and changed the game.

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