Barbara Alice Hitchens
was strong, independent, inquisitive and outspoken, sometimes to her own detriment. She had a strength of will that shook the foundations of the acceptable society of her day. She was fearless, and embraced her passions.
How a young lady of just 20 or so years found a love for flying aeroplanes is something that we will now never know. The people that new her then have all now passed, leaving behind a number of significant questions about her life, this being only but one.
Barbara was flying solo in her gypsy moth plane by late 1937, which would mean that she must have begun her flying career earlier in that year, or possibly late in 1936.
Barbara’s story starts with Barbara and a friend taking to the air, flying at regional fairs and shows in New South Wales. They were doing aerial acrobatics commonly known as barnstorming, and taking the locals for joy flights.
The extended tour of the country must have drawn to a close around Christmas of 1937, as by January 21, 1938 The Goulburn Evening Penny Post was reporting that Barbara had left Sydney that day at 7.45 am in her Gypsy Moth plane on an historic flight to Papua New Guinea. Barbara stated in the article that “curiosity was taking her there”, and it details her exit from Sydney graphically. As far as anyone was aware, no woman had flown within New Guinea before, and it was believed that Barbara would be the first woman to do so.
Barbara flew from Sydney to Brisbane on the first leg of her journey; she then stopped in Townsville and from there flew on to Somerset, Cape York landing at 5 pm on January 24. She was around 2 hours late as she had been forced to land on a beach 112 miles away owing to a heavy tropical storm.
The first reports of difficulty in New Guinea come via Tasmanian newspaper reports on February 4th, when the Examiner and the Advocate provide information on a forced landing in the Vailala River country. In this incident the undercarriage of the plane is badly damaged although Barbara is not hurt. The repairs to the plane were expected to take about 2 weeks.
Barbara took to the air again leaving Kerema at 1.20 pm on February 16th for Wau, however she did not arrive at the expected time and there was no news of her plane. She was flying over treacherous country side and although she had extra tankage, she only had a flying time of 8 hours. The Recorder (Port Pirie, South Australia) and the Kalgoorlie Miner (Western Australia), reported on February 17th that grave fears were held for Barbara’s safety.
Barbara had crash landed her plane, which was then surrounded by natives. Dispite the obvious language barrier, the natives fed and housed Barbara for the two days she was reported missing.
Barbara was reported as being found on Friday February 18th. She was unhurt and her plane was not badly damaged, however she was found 100 miles off course north-west of Wau, in the Markham Valley.
Barbara became the first Australian female pilot to fly solo to every major airport Papua New Guinea.