Wings to the world
The need for an overseas service stirred the competition
In 1931, the Depression in Australia was biting hard. It was a difficult time for Australia's main airlines: Q.A.N.T.A.S., West Australian Airlines (WAA) and Australian National Airlines (ANA). ANA was owned and operated by folk heroes, Charles Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm.
An S-23 Empire flying boat taking off (Photo: QANTAS Historical Collection)
The Government was under pressure to cut, or drop, subsidies paid to airlines like Q.A.N.T.A.S. but Q.A.N.T.A.S. needed this support to be able to carry on.
A corporate struggle was beginning which took a huge emotional toll on Hudson Fysh and Fergus McMaster, a three-year battle for survival between Australia's rival airlines of the day.
The British Government had proposed an airmail service between London and Singapore which would continue to Australia.
Q.A.N.T.A.S could carry the mail between Darwin and Brisbane.
ANA could carry it between Sydney and Melbourne.
But who would run the Darwin-Singapore leg?
ANA declared that it had the planes and experience to do it, as well as the whole Australian end of the service, including Darwin-Brisbane. WAA expressed interest too.
Fysh was worried. Efforts by Q.A.N.T.A.S. to develop new Queensland routes had just failed. The company badly needed to expand, it lacked ANA's ocean-going planes and experience but it had to win Darwin-Singapore and hold Darwin-Brisbane too, or close their doors.
McMaster boldly suggested a pre-emptive strike in the war of nerves. Q.A.N.T.A.S. should establish links with Britain's Imperial Airways Limited (IAL). Ainslie Templeton, still a Q.A.N.T.A.S. director, supported this idea but not any merger with ANA or WAA.
All through 1932 the tension rose with no resolution.
Revealing it was financially desperate, ANA appealed for Government funding, pointing out unlike its rivals, it had never needed such help before.
Meanwhile, Q.A.N.T.A.S. met with IAL to explore ways to cooperate. They invited ANA and WAA to participate, but with Q.A.N.T.A.S. and IAL staying in control. The others declined. Stalemate.
Suddenly the Government announced it was indeed considering discontinuing airline subsidies. This would be a mortal blow to Q.A.N.T.A.S.
With excellent timing, Dutch and American airlines all lodged claims with the Government to operate the Singapore service without requiring any Government subsidy.
Amidst the relentless tension, Fysh worried about McMaster's declining health.
Final negotiations allow Q.A.N.T.A.S. to become Qantas Empire Airways
WAA and ANA defiantly rejected cooperation with Q.A.N.T.A.S. but IAL expressed interest. A glimmer of hope.
The next Q.A.N.T.A.S. Board meeting, in February 1933, resolved Fysh explore IAL's offer.
In a blow to the overseas airlines, the Government declared that to promote home-grown ownership, the Singapore service must be an Australian operation. It warned any IAL-Q.A.N.T.A.S. union obviously could not be wholly Australian and hence would be ineligible for funding.
Q.A.N.T.A.S. disagreed, arguing it would never surrender control.
The air was thick with claims from various contenders about the virtues of their competing aircraft.
Fysh flew to England to try to construct agreement with IAL, but with Australian control, a tough challenge.
On 22 September 1933, the Australian Government finally issued its conditions of tender for the service. They immediately came under fire, especially for their low minimum air-speed.
It provoked memories of the Cloncurry tender twelve years before, when the government demand for new and experimental planes led to the flying pig.
Kingsford-Smith, to great public acclaim, mocked the speed limits by setting new records for the distance. He also declared ANA would fight all comers to win the job.
Fysh meanwhile was in London alone, under great pressure and missing his family dreadfully, trying to establish an Australian alliance with IAL.
Finally he succeeded, an extraordinary coup for a mere colonial in the great boardrooms of London.
McMaster was at home for the shearing on his property "Moscow", in the Winton district, and he wrote immediately to Fysh congratulating him.
The new company was to be called Qantas Empire Airways Ltd (QEA). It was registered in Brisbane on 18th January 1934.
A new Board was established, including Fysh and McMaster.
The plane they chose was the four-engined DH86, the fastest British airliner in existence, and fastest four-engine airliner in the world.
This plane offered huge promise but it was to cause more than its share of serious concern. The first DH86 was flown from England without mishap. However, the second crashed at Barsdale, near Longreach, killing all on board. Some crew, including the pilot Captain Prendergast, are buried in Longreach cemetery. A definitive explanation for the crash was never established.
The DH86 is the largest of the planes flying overhead right here in the Museum.
Two days after the first QEA meeting, Hudson Fysh and Mr Dismore from IAL travelled by train to Melbourne with a tin box containing the application documents. It was lodged at 4:15pm, 31st January 1934, with just 51 minutes in hand.
On 19th April 1934, Prime Minister Lyons himself announced the winner, Qantas Empire Airways.
Q.A.N.T.A.S. was fulfilling McMaster's 1922 prophecy. It would now become one of the great airlines of the world.
How must the Founders have felt?
The old Q.A.N.T.A.S. had to adjust and quickly, but not without hiccups. On one occasion, Fysh himself was flying a DH50J to Bourke, when he found the lever which turned on the secondary fuel tanks was stuck. He had to land in a paddock to get it working again. To quote Fysh in "Qantas Rising".
"That paddock turned out to have quite a steep slope, and resulted in a really hair-raising take-off down a steepish incline over telegraph lines at the bottom. I made it, but by inches".
The company goes from strength to strength
Some of the company's greatest adventures still lay ahead.
Soon to come was the move of Company headquarters to Sydney.
There was the era of the flying boats, the Catalinas and Empires. They were originally designed for long-range reconnaissance. Just how long that range could be was demonstrated in July 1943, when QEA started a bold new passenger route non-stop from Perth to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the longest non-stop air route in the world at the time. It allowed the movement of passengers and mail to England to continue despite the Second World War. This was a secret service and fraught with danger since the Japanese air force controlled large areas of the Indian Ocean.
There was the crucially important role played by QEA in the Second World War, operating in New Guinea and from Darwin and Broome, ferrying soldiers and equipment in and out of battle zones.
After 1945, QEA continued to grow, progressing via the Constellation into the jet age, and into our own time with aviation on the brink of travel through space. Still, throughout all of the changes, the standards of the original Outback company were maintained testimony to the values of quality and integrity instilled by the Founders.
On 1st August 1967, the word Empire was dropped from the name, Qantas Empire Airways Limited, and the company became known as Qantas Airways Ltd.
For ordinary Australians of course, it was simply Qantas, and Qantas belonged to them all. For the Founders, it is probably the most valuable legacy of all.[ top ]