Aviation pioneer, Gertrude ‘Mac’ McKenzie emerging from a DH-60 Gipsy Moth, possibly her first aeroplane, the DH.60 VH-UGS. (Neil Follett)

Gertrude 'Mac' McKenzie: Forgotten aviation pioneer honoured

In early 2010 Aviation Historical Society of Australia secretary Neil Follett discovered the unmarked gravesite of Gertrude 'Mac' McKenzie. He has since successfully campaigned for funding to place a memorial plaque on her grave.

Since late 1960, in the grounds of the Cheltenham Memorial Park, an insignificant small wooden stake bearing just the number ‘45’ has been the only marker of the final resting place of an Australian aviation pioneer.

Gertrude McKenzie learned to fly at Essendon in 1937, when she was in her mid-30s, her instructor being Eric Chaseling. She was born Gertrude Josephine Curtin on 22 March 1904 in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Her parents were Timothy and Elizabeth Curtin, but very little else is known of her childhood and schooling. She married Roderick George McKenzie in 1931, who became Mayor of South Melbourne in 1932, and they had a son, Graeme.

Throughout her life, Gertrude attracted (or perhaps sought) newspaper headlines, being a feisty and forthright woman, always tackling new challenges. She was mentioned often in the local press during her term as Mayoress of South Melbourne, but she made front page news in the Melbourne Argus in mid-1939 for more tragic reasons. The headline screamed:
"PLANES BURNT, NINE PEOPLE INJURED. WOMEN PILOTS IN DROME COLLISION!"

The accident happened on Sunday 11 June, when Gertrude was on a take-off run in the Australian National Airways-owned de Havilland DH-60, VH-UNP. Her aircraft collided with the Royal Victorian Aero Club DH-60, VH-UHS, which was also taxiing to take-off. The two aircraft locked together and burst into flames. The pilot of VH-UHS, Miss Florence Wurts, was trapped in the wreckage for several minutes, suffering extensive burns before being freed. Tragically, she died in hospital the next day.

Mrs. McKenzie and Miss Wurts were taking boys from the St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage for joy flights. The two boys in the aircraft received relatively minor injuries. The other five victims received burns ranging from slight to severe in their attempts to rescue Miss Wurts from the burning wreckage. Gertrude received a cut on the head and shock. Both DH.60s were destroyed.

At the time of the accident, Gertrude had accumulated approximately 70 hours flying experience. The accident was perhaps an unfair reflection of her flying ability, as she had passed her pilot’s tests, achieving a higher standard than her male colleagues on the course. When ‘Mac’ applied to sit for the examinations required to gain a pilot’s licence her application was treated with some scorn by those in authority. As she explained, “They thought a woman’s place was in the home over the wash tub.”

On 1 January 1941, Gertrude became the registered owner of her first aeroplane, DH.60 VH-UGS.  This DH.60 has an interesting history, and an interesting first owner. It was purchased new from de Havilland Aircraft Pty. Ltd in Melbourne by Captain The Honourable Hugh Grosvenor on 9 August 1928. He flew the aircraft home to Adelaide, accompanied by Horrie Miller. Captain Grosvenor gave his address as Government House, Adelaide, where he resided as the aide-de-camp to the South Australian Governor, Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven.

During the World War II, ‘Mac’ contributed to the war effort in several ways, including participating in flying exercises for the Anti-Aircraft Corporation, tasks that were not relished by her male colleagues. Gertrude ‘Mac’ sold VH-UGS on 23 October 1944, and afterwards it passed through several owners.

Regrettably, while nearing the end of a 16-year restoration (registered as VH-JGS) a grass fire at Barwon Heads Airfield destroyed both the aircraft and its hangar in April 2006. But back in 1944, on 26 October, and just days after selling the DH.60, ‘Mac’ purchased DH.94 Moth Minor VH-AAM from D.L. Hilder of Newcastle.

When the Australian Women Pilot‘s Association was formed in Sydney in 1950, a Victorian Division was soon established. ‘Mac’ served the Victorian Division as Secretary and Treasurer for a number of years. In 1953 she established “The Gulls” private flying club at Moorabbin Airport, and on the 8 May 1955, officially began operating as the McKenzie Flying School.  It was a hard struggle to compete against the nearby Royal Victorian Aero Club, who received preferential treatment on the availability of ex-RAAF Tiger Moths and government subsidies for the training of pilots.

Jock Garden was CFI at the McKenzie Flying School for a short period in the late 1950s.  Early arguments developed, but even 50 years later he still has a clear respect and admiration for what Mrs McKenzie was able to achieve. He remembers she had:  “A very strong will, pushed for what she believed was correct and had incredible leadership qualities. Her battles to stay in the aviation industry were inspirational.”

‘Mac’ also ran branches at Benalla and Shepparton under the routine control of junior instructors. Eventually local senior instructors were able to take on the role as CFIs, and her son, Graeme, was appointed manager of the Shepparton branch.

Her husband had died in 1946, but ‘Mac’ decided to follow him into local politics. In 1955 Gertrude was elected to the Mordialloc City Council, and in 1958 (despite vigorous opposition from some of her fellow councillors) became the first female Mayor of the City. 

She was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, “The idea that women can’t occupy public office went out with button-up boots.”  But tragically, it was during her mayoral year that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she put off seeking medical advice in order to fulfill her duties.

‘Mac’ organised her first Graduation Ball on 26 July 1956 to present pilots’ brevets to the 21 pilots who had gained their private licences, three commercial, and two instructors ratings. The Right Honourable R.G. Casey, DSO MC, MP, (later Governor General, Lord Casey) made the presentations to the men and Mrs. Casey to the women.

Among the names that appeared on her letterhead as patrons of the McKenzie Flying School and The Gulls Flying Club were  the Rt. Hon R. G. Casey, Mrs. R. G. Casey, Air Marshall (Sir) George Jones, Captain John Farrell, Sir Gordon Taylor, Francis Chichester, Sir Albert Coates, Group Captain Douglas Bader, Mrs. Douglas Bader, Madame Jacqueline Auriol, Miss Florence Barwood and John Clarke.

Mac’s relatively short – but very active – life came to an end three months after resigning from council in 1960, when she succumbed to breast cancer and died at the Mercy Hospital in East Melbourne on 1 December 1960. She was only 56.

At the time of her death, Mac’s school operated a fleet of eight aircraft. Five DH-82 Tiger Moths, a DHC-1 Chipmunk an Auster and a Piper Tri Pacer. They were all named, apart from Tri Pacer VH-GMH. The Tigers were VH-GMA “Faith”, VH-GMB “Hope”, VH-GMC “Charity”, VH-GME “Aires” and VH-GMF “Patience”. The Chipmunk VH-GMD “Mischief” and the Auster J/1N Alpha, VH-GMG “The Ugly Duckling”. 

The names, painted on the engine cowlings, were accompanied by the letters M.O.B.A. When asked what they stood for Gurtie would proudly state “My Own Bloody Aeroplane” Seven of these aircraft still survive today. In 1961 racing driver and car dealer, G.W. (Bill) Patterson purchased the McKenzie Flying School.

The memorial plaque to ‘Mac’ arranged by our author was erected on 5 December 2010, and was sponsored by the City of Kingston (which incorporates the former City of Mordialloc), the Australian Women Pilot’s Association, and the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, as well as past students of the McKenzie Flying School. The plaque was unveiled by Mac’s grandson Cameron, and Mrs. Graeme McKenzie. Mac’s granddaughter Sharon and other members of the McKenzie family were also present, along with cadets from the McKenzie wing of the Australian Air League, and representatives of the organisations involved in the plaque’s dedication.

On the corner of Hicks Street and Alma Road, Parkdale, a wooden sign denotes the “Gertrude McKenzie Reserve”,. A small plaque attached reads, “This reserve was named after Gertrude McKenzie, a Mordialloc Ward Councillor between 1955 and 1960; Mayor 1958. Gertrude was a pioneer in aviation in Australia.”

Gertrude ‘Mac’ McKenzie was a true pioneer in Australian aviation history, and richly deserves the recognition finally given her.


With thanks to author Neil Follett’s drive to commemorate Gertrude ‘Mac’ McKenzie’s life, and the City of Kingston’s historical website page on her, as well as recollections recently published in the Moorabbin Leader.

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