Proof women could be trusted
MAVIS WHEELER, 97
Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force
After Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Australian Air Force needed more men in action in the Pacific. But it worried about handing over their important work on domestic air bases to women.
So it embarked on an experiment to see whether women could be trusted with air traffic control.
Six women were chosen to be tested and Sydney woman Mavis Wheeler, then 21, was among them.
“I have always thought it was silly,” she said of the experiment. “What’s wrong with women?”
Ms Wheeler had come to the job well-qualified; the young secretary spent 1941 at evening classes studying the international telegraph language Morse code in the hope of contributing to the war effort.
She would walk up to the lessons at Sydney’s Fort Street High School after a day’s work at the Queen Victoria Building.
“I can still do it, all through the alphabet, although I am a bit slower — we got up to 25 words per minute,” she said. “It stays with you forever.”
The women enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force experiment were taught medium frequency direction finding, navigation and communication techniques.
They were taken on flights to test whether they had the temperament to deal with fear.
“It requires little imagination to know the duties are exacting and important,” a newspaper article said at the time. “A wrong direction could result in the loss of the machine and its crew.”
Although she never used her skills after the war, Ms Wheeler remains proud of her work. “They didn’t know if we could do it, and we showed them how we could,” Ms Wheeler told The Sunday Telegraph.
“Even though I never went overseas, I sort of enjoyed the war. I felt it was helping people who needed it.”