Hazel Mayes served as an unproclaimed trailblazer for women across the world in the fields of mechanics, motorcycling, and aviation.
During her lifetime, she rode motorcycles delivering photos for Kodak, served as a voluntary dispatch rider during the war, worked as a flight mechanic in the Women’s Australian Auxillary Air Force (WAAAF), and later in life even learned how to fly. She held positions such as the founder of the Australian chapter of Women’s International Motorcycle Association, president of the Sydney Women's Motorcycle Club, and the president of the Women’s Pilot Association. Born in 1922 and having grown up in Sydney, Australia during the height of the Great Depression and World War II, like many others of the time, she did what she had to do to keep afloat. But, she never failed to tempt her curiosity.
Without enough money to buy school uniforms, fares, and books, the opportunity to go to high school was certainly out of the question for Hazel. She recounts in an interview with The University of New South Wales, “when they found out that I hadn’t applied for Sydney Girls High […] the headmistress said, “Do you realise your daughter was top of the whole state in this exam, and she’s not going on to high school?”. Hazel had not asked to have been born and raised in times of conflict around the world, but she was dealt this hand. What she did with this hand has been monumental in furthering the options available to womankind in work and in aspirations.
The War Effort
The early 1900’s were flagged as having some of the most trying times in modern history globally. The First World War depleted the world of essential resources for thriving industry. The Great Depression was adequately coined as such, leading to widespread unemployment and devastating conditions for civilization. Closely following the Great Depression, World War II commenced causing more than thirty countries to halt and turn their all attention towards the war effort.
One cannot deny that the attention devoted to the wars had sparked upon a revolution in the technology sector that has changed every single one of our lives to this date. The first radio navigation system for airplanes was invented by Robert Dippy, alongside the first radar landing system, named Rebecca, whose inventions aided in saving thousands of soldiers lives. Pressure equalizing cabins allowed for crews to move about relatively comfortably. Research was made to produce incredible jet engines. Long gone were the days of planes with propellers.
On the ground, motorcycles pioneered a new way of transportation for soldiers. Further advancements were being made throughout the world of motorcycles in order to provide soldiers with well-fitted and reliable machines. They provided a range of uses that horseback could no longer serve, including options for hospital stretchers, passenger sidecars, shields, and fully automatic machine guns. Motorcycles also allowed for messages to be relayed via dispatchers to the front-line in case of technology failure, which indeed served to be a problem.
Two Wheels and Wind in her Hair
Since the first time Hazel saw a motorcycle as a child, she was hooked. She vowed that when she got older she would buy her own. When she was about 18 years old, she came across an ad in the newsletter by the women of the Central Motorcycle Club seeking other women who were interested in learning how to ride in order to volunteer as dispatch riders. Dispatch riders served as communication between the different National Emergency Services (NES) air raid stations in case technology failed. This was her chance. Behind her parents' backs, she would attend the meetings learning all that she could about how to ride and fix motorcycles.
At the meetings, a mechanic would bring an old non-serviceable motorcycle for the ladies to dig their hands in and become self-sufficient in case anything were to happen while on a dispatch ride. They would learn the location of the electricity stations and the gasometers, as well as anywhere that would be a target for bombs, “although our ideas were very flawed when you look at it later on because there was no chance of anyone picking out these individual things”, Hazel admits. But, alas, her fever for motorcycles was being treated even if that meant heading to the battlefield.
When she wasn’t volunteering, she set out to find a new job that suited her new set of skills. The man in charge of processing and printing photos for the local Kodak claimed that after he saw her riding to the Central Motorcycle Club meeting, he had the idea to bring women onto his fleet of delivery riders. Hazel joined Kodak with a fleet of four other women, ecstatic to be paid more than her previous jobs while keeping the wind flowing through her hair.
Back in the days of black and white film photography, people would drop their film off at Chemist shops and Kodak employed riders to quickly deliver the processed films to the customers. The fleets rode Harley Davidsons and Indians with red side boxes made out of timber wood attached. Riders would quickly navigate the city streets, leave the motorcycle running with the brake locked on (although illegal at the time), run back to their motorcycles, and be off again for the next delivery. “I often reckon that, I’ve just had a knee replacement, but if they’d had electric starts of motorbikes in those days, I mightn’t have had to have a knee replaced now”, Hazel added humorously.
A Crack at the Glass Ceiling
A few years after World War II had begun, the government of Australia and many countries abroad became desperate for people to fill technical jobs. The patriarchal identity of the times demanded that men take responsibility as bread winners, and women stay at home with the house chores and kids. Taking upon a job outside of the home or any other womanly duty was somehow seen as “taking it from a man”, who “needed it to put food on the table”. However, with so many men at war, the government decided to do something that looking back now, is deemed as monumental for history and women’s rights. The Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF) was formed on February 4, 1941. The doors were finally open for women to begin tackling jobs that allowed them to serve as flight mechanics, electricians, and welders, to name a few.
Hazel grew wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at the possibilities that had opened up for her. Before she knew it she was packed and headed to training to become a women of the WAAAF. The women would gather in cattle and horse pavilions to take courses on intensive math and electrical. They were allocated benches and tools to mold steel into specified dimensions and practice precision measuring. At the end of the training, the women had a list of five occupations they could apply for in order from most desired to least. Hazel tempted fate and filled out “flight mechanic, flight mechanic, flight mechanic, flight mechanic, flight mechanic”.
Her skills backed up her desire, though. Before she knew it, she was well on her way to flight mechanic school. Upon arrival at her new class, the women crowded around the classroom window peering in at the cutaways of engine cylinders and the other machines laid out on the tables. The ladies heard that Hazel knew a thing or two about motorcycles and convinced her to familiarize them with the machines before the corporal arrived. A very disgruntled corporal finally entered the classroom, stating that he was late because he was refusing to teach a women’s course. He stated that he would treat them exactly how he treated men, and began to point at the components of the engine. The women sharply named off the cylinders and pistons, to his astonishment and asked who was playing this joke on him. Hazel raised her hand humorously, and the corporal glared over declaring, “I suppose your boyfriend’s got a motorbike, has he?”. “I haven’t got a boyfriend”, Hazel responded. “Well, how do you know all this?”. “Woman’s intuition, Corporal”, she retorted.
Certainly quick-witted, she continued to stand up for herself when the situations demanded it. Being one of the first in the fleet of women who were allowed into the military in Australia, she couldn’t afford not to. She remained at the top of her class throughout the training, amongst the female and male counterparts, and was even offered an instructor’s position upon graduation. An unusual request, however, merited rightly so. Hazel declined the offer, stating that she would much rather be working on engines and aircraft.
There is no room for error when you work as a flight mechanic. Hazel reminisced on the shattered conglomerate in a sealed case, showcasing the parts of an aircraft where a mechanic had fitted a wrong collet pin. This seemingly small error lead to devastating consequences and death to an entire fleet. “And it was there to make us realize that even if it was only a nut of a bolt you were dealing with, every component was vital [...] someone was going to fly the aircraft that you were working on and so you’d better do it properly”, she stated gravely.
Hazel was nicknamed “Conshie” because she had an extremely conscientious attitude towards her studies and work as a flight mechanic. The Hercules radial engines she worked on came to her partially assembled, waiting for her touch to assemble the front sections and time the sleeves valves. Afterwards, they’d be tested on the aircraft for a required number of hours and return to be rechecked.
An Unfortunate Reality
When the war ended, Hazel returned home and settled back into her delivery job at Kodak. One day while on duty, a man leaned out of a tram and yelled out to Hazel, “Why don’t you give a man back his job?”. This was a very harsh reality for women returning from the Auxiliary forces. People would criticize women who did “men’s jobs” because they were supposedly taking away from a family. Unfortunately, the guilt and criticism caught up to Hazel and she resigned from her position. Later, she found out that it took more than a month for the company to find a replacement because when men found out they would have to ride in the rain, they refused. Some workers even went on strike because of the conditions, but the women always made it through the routes because they knew they had to prove that they could perform their jobs well.
Hazel married a fellow ex-airforce man named Bill, and together they had three children. Her husband was a well-known speedway racer, participating in dirt track and club sporting trials. While hanging around fellow motorcyclists, she gained the momentum to start the Australian chapter of the Women’s International Motorcycle Association and also served as president of the Sydney Women's Motorcycle Club.
Bill’s untimely death in a car trial accident put a halt to all things that Hazel loved. She decided to retire from motorcycling that year (1956) because she couldn’t bare to face the things and people she had shared with her husband. Still raising her three kids, she claimed that she started to feel like she was in such a long rut, and that if she allowed it to, the rut would consume her.
Taking Back the Reigns
Hazel took a temporary job as a secretary at Victa, which was a lawnmower company at the time of her arrival. The company then focused their sights on the aviation market and created their first aircraft, the Victa Air-Tourer. Since Hazel had previous knowledge and interests in aircraft, the company moved her to the aviation department where she remained a secretary. She would type out theory and courses on how to fly the aircraft, and in due time she realized she had all the knowledge she needed to fly, she added, “I just needed to know where to point it”. She was about 40 years old when she took on the role of a pilot for the Royal Aero Club, where she performed in shows around Australia and even dabbled in aerobatics.
She found that flying brought her back to life, and challenged her in ways that she hadn’t felt in years. Hazel went on to serve as president of the Women’s Pilot Association, until she retired in 1984.
This is but a glimpse into a life that shatters gender stereotypes and uplifts an attitude of courage and capabilities that come with determination. While Hazel still had to face the societal values of a day that didn’t share equal rights for women, she did the best she could with a curiosity and ethic that we can all appreciate as women of today.
It’s been less than 100 years since women like Hazel got a chance to take a crack at the glass ceiling, and we still march on as women united to allow us to serve as equals in this world. With over five million women and men marching on January 22, 2017 for the guiding visions and principles of women’s rights globally. Today, women make up over 50% of the “breadwinners” in America. It is with great gratitude that we pay respects to the trail blazers who proved that women have just enough right and capacity to get the job done. After all, it’s just “woman’s intuition”.
Kristen is an old soul. Generous and kind, she is forever pushing her own boundaries and encouraging greatness in others. When she isn’t riding bikes, she’s under them (she’s a trained motorcycle mechanic, and could teach you more than a thing or two). Kristen is IVV’s Content Editor and US correspondent, bringing tales of her adventures across the interwebs to inspire and invigorate.