Jean Burns

Jean Burns

Jean Burns was Australia's youngest female pilot in 1937 and the first Australian woman to parachute from an aeroplane on Australian soil.


Born Jean Ethel Burns in December 1919 at Rathdown Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of East Brunswick, her father was a merchant seaman. At the age of 14 Jean joined the Junior Royal Victorian Aero Club and started flying lessons at the age of 17. In 1937 she obtained her A class pilots licence and became Australia's youngest female pilot.


She made her first descent at Essendon Aerodrome on 21 November 1937 from a Airco DH.4 aeroplane "Spirit of Melbourne" at a height of 3,200 feet. She was 17 years old. The aircraft belonged to Aerat Passenger Flying (Essendon) Pty Ltd and was piloted by Howard Morris.

After making the prescribed three freefall jumps she received the approval of the Civil Aviation Board as a parachutist, "provided the parachute is folded by a person who holds a licence for that purpose". [Sydney Morning Herald 22 and 29 November 1937; Argus, 22 November 1937 and 19 January 1938] "Miss Burns had to wait eighteen months before she could gain permission from the Civil Aviation authorities to make a jump. ‘They thought I was much too young, and I also found it difficult to get a parachute. They cost about 80 pounds.’" [Argus, 23 February 1938, p.8]

“Miss Burns said that she found the first few seconds after she left the aeroplane were the most exciting. ‘There is a wild rush of air on your body as you hurl downwards until the rip-cord is released, and then after a bounce you just float steadily downwards. There is always a bounce when the ‘chute opens, owing to the elasticity of the silken cords.’

“During her five previous jumps, Miss Burns has left the plane from heights varying from 3,200 feet to 1,500 feet. After making her last leap she did not pull the rip cord until she had dropped nearly 500 feet, which rather worried some of her spectators. “‘Until I am down to about 200 feet there is a beautiful floating sensation, and then suddenly the ground seems to rush up and meet me. Some parachutists can land on their feet, but usually I take a fall. The landing speed is about twelve miles an hour, and the jar is about the same as you would get if you jumped off a fifteen-foot wall,’ said Miss Burns.

‘In the air you can lose height more rapidly by pulling a handful of cords which causes the ‘chute to sideslip. There are four red cords which you can pull on the ground to spill the air out so you are not dragged too far.’” “Mr. Felix Mueller, a licensed parachutist, instructed Miss Burns, and supervises the folding of her parachute, which is a very important item - a twisted cord or a wrong fold of silk would probably mean tragedy.” [Argus, 23 February 1938, p.8] Jean Burns also had a pilot’s licence and took up jumping to raise the funds to buy an aeroplane.

Later life

Jean finally got to meet her childhood hero Nancy Bird Walton for the first time on the 21st July 2006 in Sydney. The two pilots had known about each other most of their lives but had never met. In October 2008 Jean is having a street named after her at Essendon Airport.


Further reading

* Australian Parachute Federation: [ History of Australian Parachuting from 1958]
* [ Jean Burne] - website by Greg Weir

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