Portrait

Flying high with a multi-talented aviatrix. By Fiona McGregor.

Up in the air

Teresa likes to dress smart for a day in the air. Black shirt and trousers, dotted black braces, patent leather shoes. Never mind the 33 degrees predicted in Goulburn today. Out she comes, fully made-up at 7am on a Sunday morning. 

Teresa’s been flying for about five years. Loves taking passengers. Examines the entire plane before takeoff, talking me proudly through the procedure. Her little Jabiru is the funkiest in the hangar, with its swirling red flamenco lady painted on the tail. I’m forewarned the cockpit is small as a kitchen table, the wingspan barely 10 metres, but still shocked by how easy it is to wheel the plane out. An anxious person in my head pipes up. Jeez, it’s like a go-cart! The noise of the airfield is deafening. A larger plane at the end of the runway is checking its engines. Headsets on, we climb in. “Bit of turbulence up there,” Teresa tells me, a twinkle in her eye. Then we are up.

Teresa knows about my fear of heights. She reaches across to my door handle. “Not sure that’s working properly.” “Yes it is!” I white-knuckle the window grip, waiting for blood to thump through my arteries, my lungs to tighten, the ground no doubt dropping away though I can’t look down, but in fact takeoff was smoother than a passenger jet and it’s beautiful up here and I have to admit I feel fine.  

Learning to fly was a natural progression from learning to drive. So Teresa went: motorbike, car, plane. She’s going to train up to bigger aircraft, keep the Jabiru but aim for a commercial pilot’s licence. Not that she needs a job. At night, she’s in a collective that owns one of Sydney’s premier alternative venues. By day she’s a mechanical engineer, her 20 years’ experience in heavy industry unusual even for a man. She specialises in project delivery, has hundreds of people working beneath her. Driving here, she pointed out a huge structure on the horizon: the Berrima cement plant she upgraded to 100 tonnes an hour. She talks quietly, evenly, both confident and awkward, uses the word lady more than any woman I know, and it is pure coincidence that her name is eponymous with the 16th-century mystic said to levitate during prayer.

“My first job was working for BHP steelworks. Then I worked in a colliery. Twelve hours a day, six days a week, as an undergraduate. I was the first lady to operate a coal shear. It was incredible at the coalface, slicing the coal like butter from the rock.”

We are flying to Braidwood. Fluffy clouds bank the horizon. Off to the right is the wind farm by Lake George, toy tiny. The land is green, dams are full. Livestock cluster here and there, the glistening black of Angus, a handful of sheep scattered like rice. The knotty scar of a used car dump wreathes through the bush. On the eastern horizon, Teresa indicates a dip in the ranges through which we’d see the ocean on a clear day. “That’s a pretty cool trip, the airstrip’s right next to the beach. Fly to Moruya, tie the plane down, bit of topless bathing, straight back home.” 

Teresa knew what she wanted to do from an early age. Her Spanish father, a doctor who wanted to be an engineer, loved taking engines apart. “He used his children as slave labour,” she smiles. “So I knew what oxyacetylene was when I was a little kid.” Awareness of the barriers to women in the industry was all the more reason to enter. “Misogyny is real. I have a couple of lady graduates beneath me and I don’t think things are any different for them than they were for me, except they have a lady manager. But the figures are static, have been for years.” She likes site work, currently overseeing power stations. “Mechanical, electrical, operate and maintain, plus construction, and lots of multidisciplinary work.”

“Has it changed with more solar going into the grid?”

“Oh, yeah. Solar will be the way to go.”

The clouds are upon us, great clots of steam, forcing us to fly back. We turn wide, skimming beneath. Teresa hands the steering to me, a horseshoe apparatus centrally fixed so the pilot can fly from either seat. There isn’t much to do, just up, down, right, left, but I find it awkward. “I flew a Tiger Moth once. I couldn’t believe it, just a compass, airspeed indicator and control stick,” Teresa tells me The Jabiru dash has barely changed, except for more digital controls. It is simpler than a car’s. 

The list of aviatrices is long. From Amelia Earhart to Bathurst’s Nancy Bird-Walton, a pilot at 17 instructed by Kingsford Smith. “I get airsickness, actually,” Teresa tells me as we head for the runway. “I didn’t want to say that before, but it happens.” 

We land with barely a bump.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Up in the air". Subscribe here.

Fiona McGregor
is the author of five books.

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