She’s nicknamed Australia’s very own Captain Marvel and it’s not because she could almost pass as the superhero’s twin. 

In the thick of the Disco Era, Deborah Lawrie (aka our real life Captain Marvel) set her sights to the sky and was determined to become Australia’s first female airline pilot. 

She had the passion, the training, the strength and the smarts, but not everyone shared her enthusiasm. In fact, many did what they could to stop her from taking off. 

Despite the ever-growing number of women in the workplace, extreme inequality still ruled over the 70s, particularly in the aviation industry where women had yet to fly commercial aircraft. 

So, Deborah did what Captain Marvel would – she took on upper management of the boys club in what was a lengthy and stressful legal case.

During a recent stop in Sydney to check out the Captain Marvel wax figure at Madame Tussauds, Deborah shared her story with Geeks Down Under and it’s one hell of an origin:

 

Greeting Australia’s real life Captain Marvel :), how does it feel to receive such a heroic (and well deserved) nickname? 
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Deborah Lawrie winning an air race.

I think being referred to as Australia’s real life version of Captain Marvell is rather a nice compliment. I have not really thought of myself in that way although it would seem that I do have many things I common with her.

Both of us had to prove that we were as good as if not better than some of the boys. I have often been described as resilient and having an independent spirit which I can relate to Captain Marvel.

 

Did you watch the movie? Aliens & supernatural powers aside, what did you think of Brie Larson’s representation of a female pilot in the 80s? 

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I have watched the movie and I think Brie Larsen did a very good job depicting an Air Force pilot in the 80’s.

I would have liked to have seen more of her earlier flying years.

 

After hearing about your challenges, I think the writers made it look a little too easy, can you tell me a bit about what it was actually like training or even wanting to become a female pilot in the 70s? 
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Flying a light aircraft in her early 20s.

When I was training as a female pilot in the 70’s I was very lucky to have had an amazing flying instructor who was held in high regard by the many pilots he taught to fly.

My instructor recognised that I had an aptitude for flying and he was very keen to see me do as well as possible.

There were very few females learning to fly at the time and my voice was recognisable.

Quite often Air Traffic Controllers or other pilots would say hello to me over the radio.

I am tall and I used to play a lot of sport, so I looked like I was capable of flying an aircraft. I think my strong and tall stature helped me to appear more credible.

I competed in many air races and I was quite often successful.

The cost of learning to fly was quite a big barrier and I had to do lots of jobs to save enough money for flying lessons.

 

Of course, after facing several challenges, you were then forced to go to court and take on those attempting to block you from the cockpit – did you ever feel like just giving in and what kept you fighting? 
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There were times she felt like giving up but stubbornness helped her push through.

There were lots of times I felt like giving up as it seemed the battle with Ansett would never end.

Ansett had a lot more money to fight the court battles and I think they were expecting me to give up.

There were three things that kept me going. I had support from my family and friends, I had nothing to lose, and as I am very stubborn I was determined to prove I could be an airline pilot.

 

Did anyone surprise you with the level of support they offered during such a tough period? Can you tell us about a standout moment when someone unexpected really stood by you during your journey? 
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In the cockpit of a Boeing 727 in the mid-80s.

My barrister had a friend who was an airline pilot with TAA and he was one of a small group of airline pilots who owned a twin engine turbo prop aircraft.

Ansett argued that women would not be strong enough to fly airline aircraft.

The small group of pilots some of whom were Training Captains thought I would be more than capable and they wanted to prove it. They knew that their aircraft required similar strength to fly as the jets they flew at work.

A couple of them took me for a fly and they put me through several rigorous exercises including engine failures in order to test my strength and ability.

They were pleased with my performance.

My barrister’s friend testified in court that I was capable of coping with an airline jet in an emergency.

I did not expect this level of support and what’s more from people who were in such a position of influence.

 

I can’t imagine the challenges and discrimination stopped after you became the first female airline pilot for a major airline, Ansett Airlines, in what way did people try to bring you down when you were finally in the sky?
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Deborah on her first day at Ansett.

Several pilots were very supportive but there were also several who were not and who tried to make things very difficult for me.

Ansett wanted to get rid of me and the management pilots tried to stop my training.

When I was a flying instructor at Moorabbin airport and training one of my student pilots another pilot tried to cut in front of us for landing.

He was angry with me even though he had done the wrong thing. He did not believe that women should be pilots.

Later, when my battle with Ansett became high profile in the news, he offered to tell Ansett about the event and Ansett paid him for what they thought was valuable evidence to prove that I was an unsafe pilot. That would be reason enough to fire me.

The claim was false, Ansett wasted their money and the Pilot’s Union were enraged and stepped in to support me.

 

The skies are definitely friendlier for females in the 21st century – on occasion I’ve heard of special women-only operated flights – how much has the industry changed for women and do you still see room for improvement? 

The industry has changed dramatically. Female pilots are made to feel welcome and typically, these days they can support one another as well.

There is still room for improvement for example to have more female pilots in management positions.

 

40 years later and you’re still up in the air, which airline are you now working with and what do you love so much about the industry? 
Forty years later, Deborah works with Tigerair as a Check and Training Captain.

At the moment I am flying with Tigerair as a Check and Training Captain. The Airline Industry is exciting and I love being part of it.

I am fascinated with flying and I am especially interested in aircraft safety and accident investigation.

 

For any young lady who might’ve seen Captain Marvel and is now aspiring to pilot an aircraft, what advice would you offer? 

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Becoming an airline pilot requires dedication, passion and hard work but the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices that are made along the way. My advice is to stay focussed and believe in yourself. The magic of flying is worth all the effort.

Click here to learn more about Deborah’s story OR click here to learn more about Madame Tussauds Sydney’s new Captain Marvel figure.