All But Forgotten: the Story of Australia's Only Aboriginal Fighter Pilot - Hope 103.2

All But Forgotten: the Story of Australia’s Only Aboriginal Fighter Pilot

Len Waters was Australia's first and perhaps only aboriginal fighter pilot, but after WW2 he became the missing man. We speak with biographer Peter Rees.

By Stephen O'DohertyThursday 26 Jul 2018Open House InterviewsCultureReading Time: 2 minutes

Listen: Author Peter Rees in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty

Len Waters was a Kamilaroi man. Born in 1924 on an aboriginal mission in New South Wales and many of his contemporaries were taken from their families, becoming the Stolen Generation.

But with an offer of work in Queensland Len’s father obtained permission to move his family from the mission. 

With a hard-working father and a mother with strong Christian convictions Len grew up with a work ethic, talent and determination that saw him break through the black ceiling towards his dream of becoming a pilot.

Despite leaving school at thirteen, by the age of twenty he had remarkably earned his wings.

Fighter pilot

As WW2 came to Australia’s shores Len became a Kittyhawk pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force, flying danerous missions against the Japanese in the Pacific.

Len Waters was Australia’s first Aboriginal fighter pilot, flying a Kittyhawk in WW2. As far as author Peter Rees can determine, there has been no other.

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As a boy Len would fashion model aircraft and pretend-fly them along the river bank near his home. Yet his dream of continuing to fly after the war was thwarted.

The author Peter Rees told Open House that application processes came to a sudden stop when Len had to reveal his birthplace as an Aboriginal mission.

In The Missing Man Peter Rees tells the story of this remarkable Australian, describing the two worlds in which he lived.

Dreams thwarted

While he retained the drive and self-belief that had served him so well in his earlier life, the inability to gain a commercial pilot’s license, or to raise funds to start his own airline in regional Queensland, set the course of his future life.

There was a series of itinerant jobs. Heavy drinking took its toll on his health and nearly robbed his wife of a war widow’s pension – until the local MP intervened.

Too close to the end of his life Len was re-discovered by the RAAF and afforded some of the recognition that this missing man was due.

To hear our podcast interview with author Peter Rees, click the play arrow above. You can subscribe to Open House podcasts on iTunes.


  • The Missing Man by Peter Rees is published by Allen and Unwin.
  • The Australian War Memorial’s website features a study guide on Len Waters.