Meet the Originals: Arthur Baird (1889-1954)

An engineer's engineer

There was a friendly joke about Arthur, he could stand next to a car engine missing on two cylinders and not notice, but put him near a plane engine with the smallest fault and he would detect, diagnose and fix it in one fell swoop. It says a lot about his focus and fascination.

Working on a Beardmore engine at Longreach, 1923.

Working on a Beardmore engine at Longreach, 1923. Left to right: Frank McNally, Arthur Baird, Jack Hazlett
(Photo: QANTAS Historical Collection)

Arthur made Q.A.N.T.A.S. possible. His contribution was as crucial in his area of repairing, redesigning and building as Fysh, McGinness and McMaster in theirs.

In 1909, he graduated as a mechanical engineer with the highest marks ever recorded from the Working Mans College, later Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

In World War One, he served with the Australian Flying Corps and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal at Palestine. It was here he realised his extraordinary affinity with aircraft.

It was also where he met McGinness and Fysh.

Upon joining Q.A.N.T.A.S., he found his mechanical genius was needed immediately. In 1920, few aircraft engine manufacturers had even heard of Australia's Outback, much less allowed for its extreme conditions in their designs. Crushing heat caused huge air turbulence which tested pilot skill, passenger endurance and everyone's stomach, leading Q.A.N.T.A.S. pilots to avoid flying in the middle of the day.

It tested the wooden frames of aircraft which warped and shrank and tested engines which strained and often failed to climb through the thin air. Throttles had to stay on full, which caused even more heating and made radiators boil. Installing larger radiators became a standard activity. Baird's ingenuity went beyond engines. He devised a tripod for lowering injured and sick passengers into cramped planes. His adaptations eventually found their way into early Royal Flying Doctor Service planes.

He turned the Talbot truck into a mobile workshop for going out in the field to repair crashed planes and even replace engines.

He was an accomplished pilot who stepped in to fly for Q.A.N.T.A.S. if necessary.

A reserved man who always lived alone, he attracted extraordinary respect, loyalty and affection from the widest circles, but especially from the over 400 apprentices he was responsible for training during his epic 28 years with Q.A.N.T.A.S.

A man of dry wit, he was also a stickler for discipline and doing a job properly. He believed a sense of responsibility had to be instilled in his apprentices. When one declared he had finished servicing a plane, Baird would say, "Get in". They would then take a test flight with Arthur at the controls to see just how well the young bloke had done. The consequences for incompetence could have been severe, though of course they never were.

In 1919, when McGinness and Fysh invited him to join them in the London-to-Sydney Great Air Race, he came without a backward glance. When they told him of their new idea to establish their own airline, he closed his business and joined them again. Behind the quiet reserve lurked a bold and passionate risk-taker.

He set standards of integrity which still distinguish Qantas today. Those who knew him still speak of him with awe. Fysh called him a straight-shooting dedicated kind of man if ever there was one.

Arthur Baird died on 7 May 1954.

Fysh wrote:

"I cannot think of anyone who has done more in laying the foundations of Australian air transport engineering, both in regard to the work he did himself and what he initiated, but also in regard to his choice of staff, the character he put into everything he did, and the principles which he imparted to others".

A fitting tribute from a hard taskmaster.

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