Establishing Q.A.N.T.A.S.

Company incorporated, board approved, base established

McMaster never forgot his first meeting with McGinness. "That chance accident and meeting, that true Australian help and friendship given me, perhaps was the greatest factor in the shaping of the Q.A.N.T.A.S. to be, and brought together men, and has kept us loyal, many of us with nothing in common with each other but just that venture, Q.A.N.T.A.S."

The office, next door to the Longreach Club

The office, next door to the Longreach Club (Photo: QANTAS Historical Collection)

As a result, on 20 June 1920, McGinness and Fysh sat with McMaster at a glass-topped table in Brisbane's elegant Gresham Hotel to register the new company, their airline. Alan Campbell of Queensland Primary Producers, sat in as adviser. They tried a number of different names for the company and it would take some months before a final one was chosen - Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited - Q.A.N.T.A.S.

Reaction across the West was mostly positive and deeply felt. Fysh saw one early shareholder write "Donation" across his cheque butt as he paid for his shares.

Fysh wrote, "Like others, he subscribed out of post-war, patriotic sentiment for two young returned men and out of the hope that in the road less and bridgeless western plains, where all road transport ceased following heavy rain, perhaps the aeroplane might serve a useful purpose".

Q.A.N.T.A.S. stirred a loyalty beyond mere commercial values.

Who owned Q.A.N.T.A.S.? This was obvious, the people of the Central-West owned Q.A.N.T.A.S.

A Board was duly approved, with strong local representation.

On 7 February 1921, McGinness and Fysh returned to Winton with new planes, to an enthusiastic welcome.

Three days later, the first Board meeting was held at Winton, in the Winton Club which is still standing today. It was the only meeting held in Winton, as a decision was promptly taken to shift company headquarters to Longreach. This felt more prudent to be closer to the railhead, with easier access for passengers and spare parts.

On 21 May 1921, the first Annual General Meeting of shareholders was held at Longreach. The principal backers in hard cash were Ainslie Templeton, McGinness, McMaster, Fysh, and Longreach Doctor, Hope Michod. The original paid-up capital was six thousand, eight hundred and fifty pounds ( £6,850 = $13,700 ).

McGinness and Fysh duly applied for their commercial pilots licences, which happily they were granted.

Fysh set rates around two shillings (40¢) per mile flown for a taxi trip, and up to three guineas ( £3 pounds, 3 shillings = $6.60 ) per passenger for a 10-minute joyride.

McMaster tapped his wide network of commercial, grazing and political contacts for investors. Templeton and Dr. Michod did the same.

One day, McGinness discovered a case left in the Longreach Club by a businessman just departed by train for Sydney. McGinness raced to his plane outside and took off in hot pursuit. He stopped the train and returned the case to its grateful owner who wrote a cheque to become a Q.A.N.T.A.S. shareholder on the spot.

On another occasion, he flew to Urandangie for the picnic races looking for passengers. He won helpful attention for Q.A.N.T.A.S. by riding a winner in one of the main races.

Q.A.N.T.A.S. was developing a style all its own.

Q.A.N.T.A.S. First Fleet

In August 1920, McGinness and Fysh arrived in Sydney to buy their first fleet. They wanted two Avro 504Ks with Sunbeam Dyak engines, despite fears the Dyak would overheat in the Outback. Only one was available, which they immediately bought.

For their second plane, they boldly ordered an untested Avro Tri-plane. It would not be ready for months but it was worth waiting for. It could carry four passengers in an enclosed cabin, a revolution in 1920.

Charles Knight, a Longreach stock agent also in Sydney, had just bought a BE2E, another World War One fighter, but could not fly it himself. Would they fly it home for him?

On 21 August 1920, McGinness flew the Avro out of Mascot.

Fysh followed in the BE2E. Although he had limited experience flying the BE2E, he was learning fast. His brave passenger was Arthur Baird.

Near Singleton, they encountered a storm. Fysh became disoriented in the cloud but landed safely on a hillside near a mine called "Red Head" where he and Baird enjoyed tea with a miner's wife. It had nearly been the end of their whole project.

They flew to Moree, St. George and Charleville, then to Longreach where they overnighted.
Next day, on to Winton.

Total distance - 1920 kilometres in 17 hours 35 minutes, flying time.

The Winton Herald reported, "Both machines landed as gracefully as birds to a burst of cheering from the crowd". The aerial party was accorded a hearty welcome and later entertained at a concert at the North Gregory Hotel.

Next day, Fysh took off in the BE2E with Charles Knight for Longreach. It was a rough trip, and Fysh lost his way before arriving. It was too much for Knight who swore off flying forever and sold his BE2E to Q.A.N.T.A.S. on the spot.

(Its call sign G-AUBF later enlarged by some early wit to "Go away you bloody fool".)

Q.A.N.T.A.S. had its first fleet. And, they hoped, the Avro Tri-plane would soon be there.

In February 1921, McGinness tested the new Tri-plane. Disaster! Its undercarriage collapsed. The cost was almost half the whole capital of Q.A.N.T.A.S. (Its luxurious cabin later became a suburban henhouse.)

Meanwhile, the Federal Government acted on Q.A.N.T.A.S. advice and called tenders for a Charleville-Cloncurry airmail service, a contract Q.A.N.T.A.S. badly needed.

However, to encourage innovation, the Government decided this service had to use new planes. The Avro 504K would not do. Against their better judgement, Q.A.N.T.A.S. ordered a new Vickers Vulcan, known as the "flying pig". Fysh insisted the plane proved itself and could climb to a set height within a set time in the hot, thin air of the West.

It would take months to be ready. As backup, Fysh bought a DH4 in Sydney and put it on a train for Longreach.

On 2 February 1922, Q.A.N.T.A.S. won the airmail contract, to begin on 2 November.

Worried about its fleet, Q.A.N.T.A.S. also bought two Armstrong Whitworth FK8s.

The anxiously awaited DH4 arrived, but damaged and with the engine was faulty. The Government refused their pleas to use the old Avro.

At last, the Vulcan was finally ready, but a sceptical Fysh rejected it, still unconvinced it could cope with the Outback.

Undeterred, Vickers flew it to Longreach to prove it could pass Fysh's test. Sadly, it was grossly underpowered and could not gain height. The FK8s would carry the mail.

On 2 November 1922, the first Q.A.N.T.A.S. airmail service left Charleville. McGinness was pilot, Baird was engineer. They reached Longreach safely, greeted by a large crowd.

Next day, in the cool of dawn, the second FK8 warmed up for the final leg. Then its engine failed to develop enough power for take-off.

Even as McMaster with great vision declared Q.A.N.T.A.S. would become one of the greatest air services in the world, the first FK8 quietly replaced the second.

Fysh was pilot, Baird was again engineer, and Alexander Kennedy, 86, was the first paying passenger. As it roared off, the intrepid Kennedy yelled to the world, "Be damned to the doubters".

The rest of the trip, via Winton and McKinley, went without a hitch.

Barnstorming Scouting for passengers and investors in Central Western Queensland

Barnstorming in 1920 described the exciting stunt of flying a plane right through an open barn but it soon came to mean any bold flying. Persuading anyone to fly then was a challenge. In the United States, 31 of the first 40 airmail pilots had already died in crashes.

Undaunted but without funds, Fysh and McGinness needed to stir interest as cheaply as possible. They decided to do some barnstorming. They wanted to attract passengers, so their flying was always moderate. However, for five pounds, McGinness would do a loop.

Early in 1921, McGinness and Baird took the Avro west and north. Fysh and Herb Avery, a Longreach mechanic, headed south in the BE2E. They printed tickets and advertising leaflets.

Before each visit they appointed a keen local representative to prepare a landing strip. This meant clear an open, flat area of obstacles, light a bonfire at one end and spread a bedsheet in the centre. One local put the sheet at the end and built the fire in the middle.

Optimistic bachelors hired Fysh to drop boxes of chocolates on to homesteads to woo eligible women. After one jaunt, he found tree branches in his undercarriage, perhaps a sign of excessive enthusiasm from Hudson.

They encountered IOUs, or shinplasters, scraps of paper scrawled with promises to pay. This practice did encounter problems when some enterprising types discovered leaving the paper in a low oven for a time made it brittle, so it turned to dust in the pocket of the unwary, eliminating all evidence of debt.

In two months they flew over 22,000 kilometres, were in the air 209 hours and carried 581 passengers, all without mishap. It's hard to think of anywhere in Western Queensland they didn't go.

Building Airliners in Longreach

By late 1924, the Q.A.N.T.A.S. planes were more reliable than ever, and were causing a lull in activity in the hangar. Baird's highly-skilled engineering staff were running short of work.

Meanwhile, everyone admired the new DH50 (G-AUER). Its enclosed cabin for four at last marked the end of the cap-and-goggles era for passengers.

The arrival was politically timely too. When a sudden storm had cut the road to Winton where Prime Minister Bruce was visiting, Fysh collected him in the new plane.

With the DH50 performing so well Q.A.N.T.A.S. decided to build its own in the Longreach hangar under licence, paying a royalty to de Havilland.

This was a unique undertaking in Australia at the time. Q.A.N.T.A.S. would do no new large-scale designing but there were small modifications to better adapt the planes to Outback heat, such as fitting larger radiators and installing header tanks to reduce water loss through steam. Double wheels would be fitted on extended axles as an attempt to remain operable in mud.

Marking a new maturity in Q.A.N.T.A.S. mastered the complex organisation needed to perform these tasks so well.

Engines, tanks radiators and instruments and all metal parts came from England. Linen for wing coverings came in rolls from Ireland. Dope, or glue to tauten them came from England. Spruce and Oregon for wing spars and longerons came from Canada. Maple for propellers came from Queensland. The all-important three-ply came from Queensland. These were selected by Baird.

Blueprints were spread out on long trestles. Jigs were set up for forming the fuselage and wing framework.
Fysh recalled it warmly, "Saws buzzed, shavings flew and floated through the doors of the breezy hangar and the pungent smell of dope from the canvas-screened doping area pervaded the whole place on days when temperature and humidity allowed its application".

Arthur Baird's wind-up gramophone provided accompanying music as did Bill Stone, an excellent pattern-maker who used two tack-hammers to perform a xylophone solo on the rib work of an uncovered wing. By now metal parts were beginning to replace wood and this period was close to the last hurrah for woodworkers in the industry.

The first DH50 (G-AUFA) took six months to build and the test pilot was Baird himself. It's Certificate of Airworthiness came from Bob "Jock" Buchanan, Civil Aviation's first aircraft inspector, and on 18 August 1926, it was christened "Iris" by Lady Stonehaven, wife of the Governor-General.

After the ceremony, which included smashing a bottle of champagne against the plane's metal propeller boss, the Governor-General and his wife flew in it to Newcastle Waters.

They arrived safely, most impressed with the plane and Q.A.N.T.A.S.

The next plane built was a DH9 modified by Baird, and named "Ion". (A DH9 wing is on display in the DH50 exhibit here in the Museum.) Construction then returned to DH50s.

In June 1927, the second DH50A (G-UAFW) was christened "Perseus". It flew in the inaugural Cloncurry-Normanton extension. Fysh recalled fresh barramundi coming back on the return flight, some still kicking. This flight opened the Gulf fish trade.

On 1 August, the third DH50A appeared, christened "Pegasus" (G-AUGD) by Mrs Bruce, wife of the Prime Minister. The Q.A.N.T.A.S. ability to reach notable people was intact.

Four more aircraft were produced:

Meanwhile, the Puma engine was replaced by Baird's preferred choice, the Jupiter, which nearly doubled the horsepower. Then de Havilland released the DH61, it was clearly the next generation of passenger plane but it was too big for Q.A.N.T.A.S. to build.

So Q.A.N.T.A.S. ended its short run as an aircraft manufacturer. The episode was an enormous credit to Baird and his staff.

Creating a regular air service

During 1921, Q.A.N.T.A.S. struggled financially. Barnstorming and charter flights alone were not enough.

On 13 August 1921, the Board decided to promote the idea of a regular airmail and passenger service from Charleville to Cloncurry. It would be subsidised by the Federal Government, and give Q.A.N.T.A.S. a reliable income.

It would link the western railheads, but without upsetting the Federal Government which remained concerned to protect rail from what it saw as unfair competition.

On 20 August 1921, Fysh flew to Charleville, Cunnamulla, then Cloncurry, holding meetings and press interviews, creating interest, gathering new shareholders.

People saw immediately this battle was also theirs. They responded with public meetings, letters and telegrams to politicians. However, many Q.A.N.T.A.S. supporters were sympathetic to the newly-formed Country Party which was a thorn in the side of irascible Prime Minister Hughes.

McGinness went to Melbourne to seek out willing political allies. In 1921, Federal Parliament sat in Melbourne, and to quote Fysh, Canberra was still a sheep station.

Finding support, McGinness sent an urgent telegram to Fysh to get McMaster to Melbourne with all speed "Absolutely vital our subsidy McMaster come to Melbourne immediately, do not fail".

McMaster came and put the case to Colonel Brinsmead, first Controller of Civil Aviation and had a positive hearing. Unfortunately, Brinsmead believed the Vickers Vulcan, an untested plane was ideal for the job, which was not the Q.A.N.T.A.S. view. However, recognising Brinsmead's influence, Fysh ordered two of the planes anyway.

On 10 November 1921, McMaster with a large delegation of every Queensland member of the House and Senate met an ill-tempered Hughes in his basement office. Fysh's version of events captures the McMaster style.

Hughes greeted them by attacking the Country Party, which would have raised hackles. He turned to McMaster and said, "Well, well, out with it. What do you want?" Everyone comes here with an axe to grind. What is yours, out with it?

McMaster was unaccustomed to being addressed in this way, and it got worse as Hughes continued.

"Aviation aha, Yes, yes I've heard of it and used it too, we can't throw our money away. We've got one service in the West and its going to cost us 30,000 pounds a year in subsidy".

Affronted to be accused of having a selfish axe to grind, McMaster had not come all this way to be insulted or silenced. Never doubting the justice of his cause, he responded forcefully. As Fysh says,

When Fergus got going, you could hear him a block away against the traffic. Hughes fiddled with his hearing aid until he could bear it no longer, "McMaster, I may be deaf but I'm not so deaf that I can't hear you".
It was a stand-off. Other airmail runs had priority, Queensland must wait.

It was a grim prospect. Q.A.N.T.A.S. was unlikely to last another year without subsidy. Back in Longreach, Dr Michod said to Hudson, "Well Fysh, hard luck it looks as if we'll have to close down".

But McGinness and McMaster went back to the towns along the mail route for support and again the locals responded. Shire and municipal councils, chambers of commerce, ordinary people of Western Queensland. Typical of local support was ten pounds, approximately three weeks wages, from the barman of the Longreach Club.

In "Flying's the Thing", Fysh wrote,

"Success in any undertaking comes not to the man who idly waits for his great opportunity, but to him who seizes whatever opportunity comes, and makes it great".

On 17 December 1921, the Federal Government announced tenders would be called. The tender requirements disappointed Q.A.N.T.A.S., especially a stipulation about using only new and experimental planes. The Avro Tri-plane had failed to meet Q.A.N.T.A.S. technical requirements. The Vickers Vulcan would do no better.

Rivals applied intense pressure to Q.A.N.T.A.S. to withdraw and accept being a minor player. Q.A.N.T.A.S. refused. The tender was written and submitted.

On 2 February 1922, Q.A.N.T.A.S. was declared the winner. At last they had some security. Opting for the Vickers Vulcan was influential in their win. However, shortly after, as Fysh predicted, it failed to cope with Outback conditions and was rejected.

The deadline for starting the service was 2 November. Now, to deliver the mail.

[ top ]