WHO WAS ARTHUR BAIRD?
by Museum Curator Tom Harwood
That’s a question he may have asked himself because he was born in Benalla, Victoria in 1889 as Wilfred Arthur Beard (WAB, as he’s often known in Qantas circles). Based on contemporary newspaper reports, he seems to have decided the move to Longreach with QANTAS in 1921 was a good time to change his name to the one he believed he should have had.
The surname story can be a bit confusing. Family trees tell us WAB’s great-grandfather, Robert Beard was born in Ireland in 1780. A family historian says his son, William, born in 1808, is believed to have eloped with a maid named Ann Mason in the early 1830s. So parents couldn’t follow them and stop the marriage, William changed his surname to Baird. They and their family of six, as Baird, migrated to Melbourne in July 1852 and settled in Benalla.
Their third son, WAB’s father William Alexander appears to have reverted to Beard by the time of his marriage in 1864 and all but the eleventh of his twelve children continued to be Beard. For reasons he kept to himself, Wilfred Arthur chose to go back to Grandad’s Baird.
An old Qantas legend says WAB graduated from Melbourne’s Working Man’s College in 1909 with the highest marks ever achieved by a student in Mechanical Engineering. Researchers more recently have been unable to find evidence to support that legend.
WAB completed a 5-year apprenticeship with W Anderson & Son and, outside work hours, during 1915 started training aircraft mechanics at the new Australian Flying Corps (AFC) base at Laverton, near Melbourne. At the time of his enlistment in February 1916, he’d had nine months as an instructor of aircraft mechanics (ack-emma in AFC slang from the abbreviation, A/M) and was appointed to No. 1 Squadron AFC a month after it formed and a month before it was sent to Palestine as a Second Corporal Aircraft Mechanic.
WAB’s mechanical aptitude meant that he was sometimes assigned to other squadrons to assist their mechanics with issues they couldn’t resolve but his primary focus was on No. 1 Sqn aircraft. While ack-emmas could work on any of the squadron’s machines, teams usually worked on the three aircraft which comprised a particular flight.
During 1918, one machine in WAB’s flight was Bristol Fighter C-4623 which Paul McGinness flew more often than any other pilot.
WAB was one of five squadron mechanics whose work was recognised by the award of the Meritorious Service Medal on 1st January 1918. By the end of that year, he’d been promoted to Sergeant, Flight Sergeant then Chief Mechanic (F) Sergeant.
After his discharge in June 1919, WAB established a motor garage in Carlton, Melbourne but sold when he was engaged as the first engineer and employee of QANTAS in late 1920. He travelled to Longreach from Sydney with Hudson Fysh in Charles Knight’s BE.2e. During the trip, newspaper reports started referring to him as Baird although Fysh continued to refer to him as Beard in reports and correspondence until mid-1924.
WAB set the engineering and mechanical standards for the new air company and his influence is still evident today. Current engineers see Baird as epitomizing the standard they strive to achieve for Qantas. Nobody wearing Qantas overalls today ever met WAB but their own personal check on the quality of their work is whether it would meet what they understand to have been Baird’s standards.
Not that WAB focussed exclusively on the engineering side of the airline business. From 1924 to 1926, he and tailor Paddy Ryan learned to fly on the QANTAS BE.2e and Avro 504K at Longreach. Company pilots Hudson Fysh, Fred Haig and ‘Skipper’ Moody were their instructors. They also built a basic Primary glider in the Longreach hangar and managed to fly it above the slope on the aerodrome. WAB’s Commercial licence was issued on Christmas Eve 1928 and he became a line pilot on the DH-50 and DH-61 through the northwest Queensland part of the QANTAS network.
After the move to Archerfield, Brisbane in 1931, WAB continued as Chief Engineer but was regularly mentioned in newspaper stories as the pilot for air taxi flights and, particularly, for medical evacuation flights around a large part of the South East of the state for the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade. His entries in the 1936 and 1937 electoral rolls had his occupation as ‘Air Pilot’. Rolls either side of those years have him as ‘Engineer’.
Investigations into the crash of the DH-86 near Ilfracombe in November 1934 and the remedial work that emerged as being necessary brought him back to the workshop. Then, as Chief Engineer/Works Manager, WAB regularly travelled along the network which extended from Brisbane to Singapore to ensure that his standards were being maintained in all places.
He supervised the move to Rose Bay, Sydney when flying boat services started in 1938 and was directly involved in modifying the Catalina flying boats which were used in the Perth-Ceylon (Sri Lanka) ‘Double Sunrise’ flights from 1943 to 1945.
Training apprentices was seen as one of the airline’s key activities from the indenture of Jack Avery, the first, in July 1927. By the time WAB retired in 1949, 400 apprentices had passed through the airline’s training school. That year, he provided a shield, the ‘Apprentices Training Award’, also known as the ‘W A Baird Shield’, to be presented to the top apprentice each year from then on.
While he was in Longreach, WAB started playing golf. When he retired, he donated a trophy, based on the tip of the propeller from DH-50 ‘Atalanta’ which he’d damaged when he taxied it into a ditch at Winton in May 1930 for an annual competition. Each year from 1949, a new trophy was made and staff golfers took part in a Stapleford Handicap at WAB’s former club, the Castle Hill Country Club at Baulkham Hills in Sydney.
After six months in retirement, WAB was bored and persuaded Fysh to put him on a contract to supervise the transfer of facilities from Rose Bay to Mascot with land-based aircraft replacing flying boats on the major airline routes.
Wilfred Arthur Baird, born Beard, the man who created the engineering standards for Qantas and whose reputation continues to pervade, in the most positive way, every Qantas mechanical work space nearly 100 years later, died of a coronary occlusion at his unit in Vaucluse, Sydney on 7th May 1954.