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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thompson, Freda Mary (1906–1980)

by Val Dennis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Freda Mary Thompson (1906-1980), aviatrix, was born on 5 April 1906 at South Yarra, Melbourne, elder daughter of Victorian-born parents Frederick Henry Thompson, gentleman, and his wife Martha, née Hollins. Educated (1911-23) at Toorak College, Freda travelled to Europe with the family in 1926. After flying in a passenger-aircraft from Paris to London, she wrote in her diary, 'Jolly fine fly. Would go again if I could'. She took her first flying lesson in May 1930 at Essendon, Melbourne. Replacing music classes with regular flying training, she received an 'A' (private) pilot's licence (number 596) on 16 September that year. In 1932 she gained a 'B' (commercial) pilot's licence (number 390) and became the fifth woman in Australia to attain it.

In 1933 Thompson qualified as a flying instructor, but she was never to be employed as one. Contemporary newspaper reports acclaimed her as the first woman in the British Empire to hold an instructor's certificate. She sailed for England in April 1934 to take delivery of a new de Havilland Moth Major with long-range fuel tanks. By this time she had over 250 hours flying experience. On 28 September she left Lympne, Kent, for Australia, flying solo. At Mégara, Greece, her aircraft, G-ACUC (VH-UUC), was damaged in a precautionary landing. Despite being delayed in Athens for twenty days while the plane was repaired, she arrived in Darwin on 6 November.

At the beginning of World War II, Thompson sold her beloved Moth Major which she had named Christopher Robin. In 1940-42 she was commandant for Victoria of the Women's Air Training Corps. When she received no reply to her application to join the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force, she enlisted in the Australian Women's Army Service on 5 March 1942. Her enlistment papers described her as being 5 ft 4¾ ins (164 cm) tall, with blue eyes and auburn hair, and gave her religious affiliation as Anglican. She served as an ambulance driver and was promoted acting sergeant before being discharged from the A.W.A.S. on 25 August 1944.

After the war Thompson bought a de Havilland Hornet Moth, VH-UYO, from Nancy Lyle and named it Christopher Robin II. She flew the aircraft extensively within Australia, and in 1952 co-piloted it to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and back. Competing in air races and formation-flying events, she won forty-seven trophies, and was president (1948) and thrice open champion of the Royal Victorian Aero Club. She did not seek a career in aviation, but supported women who did, arguing that, for any pilot, solid nerve was more important than brute strength. By 1980 she had logged 3330 hours.

Although Miss Thompson was a perfectionist in her flying, she was modest about her achievements and 'could charm with a smile'. Forthright in manner, she had a mind of her own and a sound business sense. She was awarded King George VI's (1937) and Queen Elizabeth II's (1953) coronation medals. In 1972 she was appointed O.B.E. The Australian Women Pilots' Association, of which she was a foundation member (1950), honoured her in 1973 by inaugurating the Freda Thompson Aerial Derby, a race around Port Phillip Bay for women pilots. She died on 11 December 1980 at Malvern and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Palmer, Goggles and God Help You (Maryborough, Vic, 1986)
  • N. M. Parnell and T. Boughton, Flypast (Canb, 1988)
  • Australian Women Pilots' Association records (National Library of Australia)
  • Thompson papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Val Dennis, 'Thompson, Freda Mary (1906–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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