The Big Trip

Mapping and building airstrips for the Great Air Race of 1919

In August 1919, planes competing in the Great Air Race were preparing to leave London for Sydney. Paul McGinness had wanted to enter this race. With typical verve but no funds or plane, he approached Sir Samuel McCaughey, a grazier who had donated a plane which McGinness had flown in the Great War. Would McCaughey sponsor him? Won by the McGinness charm and passion, McCaughey agreed. The McGinness-Fysh team would fly again. Arthur Baird closed his garage in Tasmania to come and support them.

Another crossing accomplished. McGinness on horseback, Gorham at the wheel

Another crossing accomplished. McGinness on horseback, Gorham at the wheel
(Photo: QANTAS Historical Collection)

Then Sir Samuel died. His executors refused to honour his agreement with McGinness. The plan was dashed an Baird returned to Tasmania.

Major-General Legge, Chief of Australian General Staff, needed an air route and landing strips to receive Race contestants across sparsely-populated northern Australia. Finding McGinness and Fysh at a loose end, he hired them to use their wartime aviation experience to set up landing strips for the Darwin-Longreach leg of the Race.

Legge had written instructions and mapped the route for them.

A landing ground required a reasonably level surface without obstructions, of not less than 1200 yards by 800 yards (1097 metres by 732 metres). Its greatest length should be in the direction of prevailing winds. Its immediate vicinity must be clear of trees, telegraph wires and other obstructions. The ground surface must be hard and even. Aerodromes should be not more than 350 to 450 miles apart and it is desirable they should be near a telegraph or telephone.

Legge's knowledge of Australia's north was clearly meagre.

Fysh and McGinness took the long train ride to Longreach where their Australian Flying Corps uniforms drew enormous attention. Pilots then were as exotic as astronauts would be today, out strolling in full space-walk gear.

They collected their special Model T Ford and mechanic, George Gorham. Packing a .303 rifle to kill fresh food along the way, a winding-out winch, blankets, a waterproof covering, cinematograph camera, camping gear and spare parts. Petrol was dispatched by lugger for tiny Borroloola to bolster their provisions there.

It was roughly 2200 kilometres to the Katherine railhead, rough in more ways than one. There were few roads, many of the rivers had no bridges.

On 18th August 1919, they left Longreach, travelling over Mitchell grass and blacksoil plains to Winton, Kynuna and McKinlay. Fysh began what would become an excellent record of maps, diaries and photographs.

Reaching Cloncurry on 20th August, they marked out a landing area. The very one on which Fysh would land three years later in the inaugural Q.A.N.T.A.S. Charleville-Cloncurry airmail flight.

On to Burketown, on the Albert River where mail arrived weekly from Cloncurry, and a small supply steamer appeared every three months.

At Westmoreland Station, horses were sent to pull them from a creek, in response to a note delivered by an Aboriginal boy.

They enjoyed fresh vegetables grown by Jimmy, a Chinese gardener at Wollorgorang Station by Settlement Creek. This was the home of Tom Macintosh, later a member of the first Q.A.N.T.A.S. Board.

Fysh and McGinness soon found that Legge's route lacked the open spaces which flying machines needed, not to mention telephones. Legge ordered them to find a more practical path.

On to Hobble Chain Creek, Big Running Creek, Calvert River and Warbys Lagoon. At Robinsons River, steep bank meant the petrol in their car could not flow uphill from the tank to the engine, they had to use a bicycle pump to force the petrol along.

Across Snake Lagoon, Fulch River, Werrin River, Fletcher River, Feathertop Creek, none of which had bridges. At McArthur River, local Aborigines stopped fishing with spears from pine-tree dugouts to help them make the crossing.

Borroloola was reached following a route taken in 1845 by Leichhardt and in the 1880's by gold prospectors heading for the Kimberleys. The Ford had a damaged radiator, no fan, bent axles and radius rods but it kept going.

They were realising how air travel could transform this country.

On 25th September, they left for Hodsons Downs and the Roper River where a Reverend Warren showed them his Model T which he had driven from Melbourne.

On 8th October they reached the Katherine River after 51 days and boarded the train, Leaping Lena, for Darwin. They had done it.

McGinness and Gorham headed for home, while Fysh selected and built Darwin's first landing ground.

On 10th December 1919, he greeted Ross and Keith Smith in their Vickers Vimy, his old friends from the war in Palestine and eventual winners of the Great Air Race.

Fysh then joined other overlanders to return to Longreach in another car which needed as much bush ingenuity as before.

Its radius rods were replaced by bullock yokes which had to be blacksmithed for the job.

After repeated punctures, tubes were discarded and tyres stuffed with spinifex.

At Bushy Park, Fysh met Alexander Kennedy who talked about an idea he had heard from a Paul McGinness regarding an air service for the region. Rather than running between coastal cities, it would serve the Outback's open landscape and huge distances, ideal for air travel. Kennedy was fiercely enthusiastic. (In 1922, aged 86, he became the first paying passenger on a Q.A.N.T.A.S. regular service.)
McGinness had met many people, but in Cloncurry on a hot Sunday afternoon, he had his most fateful meeting of all. Driving to a picnic, he met Fergus McMaster.

McMaster's car had broken an axle in the dusty bed of the Cloncurry River and he had walked to town for a replacement.

McGinness saw potential in McMaster's steady gaze and offered to help. The garage was closed, perhaps the owner was at the picnic which the canny McGinness was now missing. Undeterred, McGinness cheerfully removed corrugated iron from the garage wall and found an axle.

He drove McMaster back to his car and helped the older man fix it.

An influential grazier, McMaster was a shrewd judge of character. This McGinness was resourceful, McMaster was impressed.

The seeds of a future partnership were planted. In a few months, McMaster would become Q.A.N.T.A.S. most formidable powerbroker.

Finally reunited at Cloncurry's Post Office Hotel, McGinness and Fysh thrashed out a plan to found their airline. In the western blacksoil plains, rain turned earth into treacherous mud which stopped road transport completely. Why not just fly right over the problem? The world's biggest sky should carry planes serving all of Western Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services was being born.

Still young and still feeling displaced by their war experience and too restless for ordinary occupations, McGinness and Fysh were determined to seize their chance.

Now, if only they had some money?

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