WHO WAS HUDSON FYSH? by Museum Curator Tom Harwood
If there’s one name which tends to be seen as synonymous with the early days of QANTAS, it’s Hudson Fysh, but how much more do you know than that? Let’s find out.
Wilmot Hudson Fysh was born, the eldest of four children of Frederick Wilmot Fysh and Mary Reed, in Launceston, Tasmania on 7th January 1895. At some time after youngest brother Graham Stuart Fysh was born in 1903, the parents split and Hudson chose to live with his mother.
He attended Launceston and Geelong Grammar Schools. After school, Fysh trained as a wool-classer before enlisting in the 3rd Australian Light Horse (ALH) on 26th August 1914, 22 days after World War One started. The 3rd ALH landed in Egypt in December but saw no action until it was sent to Gallipoli from May to December 1915.
They were involved in the first ALH actions in Palestine at Romani in May 1916. In July, Fysh transferred to the 1st ALH Machine Gun Squadron where the officer in charge was Lt Ross Smith. Fysh was promoted to Corporal a fortnight later. October saw Smith transfer to No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC) as an observer and later, the squadron’s most-decorated pilot, while Fysh was being trained to be a machine gun instructor.
In January 1917, Fysh was promoted to Second Lieutenant and commanded what had been Smith’s section during the second Battle of Gaza in March. During June, Fysh visited a friend, Eustace Headlam who was an observer with No. 1 Sqn and his pilot, Captain Stanhope Irving Winter-Irving took him for a flight in a BE.2e. Fysh was convinced that he also belonged in the air and transferred to the AFC as an observer on 6th July.
Headlam trained as a pilot from September 1917 to February 1918 and he and Fysh flew together five times in March and April that year. Winter-Irving was granted home leave in November 1917 because his mother was ill. In Melbourne, he was diagnosed with severe shellshock attributed to ‘continuous war flying’ and discharged as permanently unfit. His replacement, transferred from England, was a former Tasmanian journalist, Captain Syd Addison.
Addison became Fysh’s most regular pilot until he was promoted to command No.1 Sqn on 28th June 1918 and Fysh often found himself as observer for Paul McGinness. On 31st August they shot down two German aircraft and Fysh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. McGinness had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross a week earlier.
With the end of the war in sight, Fysh was among a group of observers who were sent to pilot school in October. He qualified for his wings on 4th February 1919, a month before the squadron sailed home to Australia.
Fysh worked with McGinness on the survey of northern landing grounds for the 1919 England-Australia air race and the pair used the time around campfires at night to discuss how they might make McGinness’ idea of a western Queensland air service a reality. Because the Burketown to Darwin route was impractical, McGinness returned to Cloncurry across the Barkly Tableland. Fysh stayed in Darwin to work on the Darwin and Katherine landing grounds and to be the official ‘government greeter’ when former commander and colleague Ross Smith and his team won the race by arriving in Darwin on 10th December.
Fysh was part of the meeting where he and McGinness met with Fergus McMaster at Brisbane’s Gresham Hotel in the last week of July 1920 where the plans for what became QANTAS were laid out. When McGinness flew the company’s new Avro 504K to Longreach in February 1921, Fysh piloted the BE.2e which agent Charles Knight had bought from the Perdriau Rubber Company after its crash in Longreach and had rebuilt in Sydney. In mid-February, Knight decided against learning to fly and sold the machine to QANTAS.
While McGinness flew across the northern half of the state in the Avro selling joy flights and shares in QANTAS, Fysh and engineer Herb Avery covered the southern half doing the same sort of thing in the BE.2e.
McGinness flew the first scheduled service from Charleville to Longreach with 108 letters onboard on 2nd November 1922. Next day, Fysh flew the second leg from Longreach to Cloncurry with some mail and the first airline passenger, retired grazier Alexander Kennedy – although there’s ongoing discussion about Kennedy’s status as the first passenger since he and McMaster had agreed that Kennedy would have that first ticket if he contributed an extra £50 to McMaster’s campaign to raise seed capital for the airline in 1920.
Two days later, Fysh also carried the ‘real’ first passenger, 23 year-old Ivy McLain, a nurse whose father paid for her to fly from Cloncurry to Charleville because it would save days of train travel when she moved to a new job at St Martin’s Hospital in Brisbane. She told reporters Kennedy had encouraged her and assured her she’d enjoy the flight. She did.
In February 1923, the company’s first manager, Marcus Griffin returned to Sydney and Fysh was appointed to replace him, making him managing director at the office in the rear of the Duck Street-facing section of the Graziers building where QANTAS had its office from April 1922 to June 1930 when the administration moved to Brisbane. Until the move, Fysh continued to be a Reserve line pilot but the additional administrative load that came with the move allowed him little time to fly other than as a passenger.
Fysh played a major part in the negotiations with England’s Imperial Airways which created the 1934 partnership called Qantas Empire Airways (QEA). When the service to the United Kingdom was stopped with the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942, Fysh was determined to restore a service. In spite of opposition from the Australian government, he travelled to England via New Zealand and America and persuaded the British government to lend QEA five obsolete Catalina flying boats which were modified to have a 36-hour endurance. In July 1943, what was called the ‘Double Sunrise’ service between Perth and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) filled the gap for two years, although it was a secret operation for the first twelve months because the aircraft were flying through areas which were being patrolled by the Japanese.
In 1947, Fysh and Prime Minister Ben Chifley arranged for the federal government to buy all shares in QEA and it became a government-owned airline for the next 50 years. Part of the deal was that Fysh was allowed to continue as managing director and, with retirement of Sir Fergus McMaster, also became Chairman of the government-appointed board.
The government takeover also meant the original Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd which had held 49% of QEA was wound up and ceased to exist on 2nd October 1947. Fysh was knighted in 1953, becoming Sir Hudson and in 1955, he asked Civil Aviation minister Athol Townley if he could be relieved of the Chief Executive role but remain as Chairman.
Fysh’s 19-year term as Chairman of QEA ended on 30th June 1966 when he retired at the age of 71.
His last visit to Longreach was in November 1972, the year a lifetime of smoking caught up with him and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The last survivor of the QANTAS founders, Sir Hudson Fysh died on 6th April 1974. He would see Qantas grow from its shaky beginnings with a 2-seat Avro 504K to one of the most-respected airlines in the world which was then flying the latest 350-seat Boeing 747-238B.