Beyond Queensland and the Northern Territory

This year Qantas marks its centenary in a struggle to survive a global pandemic, with massive staff cuts in response to border closures, international lockdowns and economic adversities. Not the celebration originally planned for the milestone, but also not the only struggle the company has faced over its 100 years. Launched on 16 November 1920 as the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service, Qantas moved beyond its founding state and territory to become Australia’s longest-surviving and most recognisable international airline.

Handover of mail sacks in front of DH61 ‘Apollo’ and Qantas hangar at Archerfield aerodrome, Brisbane, for the inaugural mail flight to Cloncurry. Thomas Macleod Queensland Aviation Collection, Queensland Museum Network.

Small beginnings

After the First World War, aviation became a new point of interest for governments, private citizens and commercial enterprise. The Australian government sought to regulate these small beginnings through the 1920 Air Navigation Act, allowing tenders for the carriage of airmail under government subsidy over four initial routes that would complement existing rail services: Geraldton to Derby in Western Australia, Adelaide to Sydney, Sydney to Brisbane, and Charleville to Cloncurry in western Queensland.

Waiting for their opportunity were returned servicemen Paul McGinness and Hudson Fysh, with the mechanical assistance of their former flight sergeant Arthur Baird, and strong business guidance from wealthy grazier Fergus McMaster. The four men were credited with founding Qantas, establishing a company prospectus with proposed aerial service centres in Longreach, Winton and Cloncurry to link a route ‘from Port Darwin to Longreach in connection with the London to Australia flight.’

In 1921, Qantas started its approaches to government for the identified subsidised aerial service in Western Queensland. With many of its shareholders at the time being pastoralists on the company’s proposed flight path, Qantas increased its petitions to the government, with the people of Cloncurry making a statement in support: ‘In a country where the cry is for better communications, the aeroplane must be looked to, to play a big part in the future settlement and prosperity of this country.’ Qantas won the tender and started Queensland’s first regular airmail service on 2 November 1922.

Alexander Kennedy, standing on left, the first passenger on the first scheduled Qantas flight from Longreach to Cloncurry on 2 November 1922. Thomas Macleod Queensland Aviation Collection, Queensland Museum Network.

Spreading wings

Qantas gradually expanded its fleet and services, seeking aircraft and engines to suit the conditions and with greater mileage, with mixed success. During the 1920s they imported components for de Havilland DH50s to build their own aircraft in the Longreach hangar – offering passengers an enclosed cabin flying experience and sufficient space for lease to the Australian Aerial Medical Service (later the RFDS) after its formation in 1928. Another de Havilland, the DH61, carried the first in cabin toilet for passengers, but proved unreliable.

In 1930, Qantas moved its central operations to Brisbane, and in 1931, the company participated in a trail of an England-Australia airmail service, flying the Brisbane-Darwin leg of the route. Captitalising on the opportunity, in 1934 Qantas formed a partnership with Imperial Airways, and Qantas Empire Airways Ltd secured carriage of the Singapore-Australia leg of the England-Australia airmail service. The DH86 was used to make Qantas’ first overseas flight in 1935.

Airmail bag used to transport during the trial flights for the first airmail service between Australia and England, April 1931. Queensland Museum Network.

An increased number of England-Australia services led Qantas to introduce Short C Class Empire flying boats. With a new mooring buoy, terminal building and fuelling facilities built at Rose Bay in Sydney, and around the Australian coastline, Qantas headquarters moved from Brisbane to Sydney. During the Second World War, Qantas operated where possible, with some aircraft transferred to the RAAF, and other aircraft and crew assisting in war service. In 1943, Qantas began operating a service between Sri Lanka and Perth, Western Australia, using Catalina flying boats to cross 5,600 kilometres non-stop.

Australia’s overseas airline

After the Second World War, Qantas continued to establish new passenger services, partnering with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Flying with new aircraft, Constellations, through new partnerships and to new destinations, Qantas became Australia’s overseas airline with Trans-Australian Airlines and Ansett Airlines operating domestically. The arrival of the Boeing 707 and then 747 jets, allowed Qantas further expanded its range and services, greatly reducing travel times across the world.

Model of the first Boeing 707 jet purchased for Qantas services across the Pacific Ocean. Queensland Museum Network.

Qantas continued to reinvent and rebrand itself, through privatisation and globalisation. In competition with other airlines, Qantas outlasted and merged with their rivals, surviving economic challenges and controversies. As Qantas looked to launch a new era in its history with a new aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner, and new routes, covid-19 has brought a halt to international and many domestic services.

While this is an extremely potted history of Qantas’ long and complex centenary, it serves a moment of reflection to consider what the future might be for Qantas and aviation more broadly. Many people doubted the success of an aviation industry in 1920, but one hundred years it was difficult to imagine a world without aircraft until international fleets were grounded by a global pandemic. We will watch with interest as Qantas looks to get off the ground and spread its wings once again.

The story of Qantas is just one of many Queensland aviation stories to emerge from the First World War. For others, read Jennifer High’s article in the “Queensland Remembers” volume of the Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture Volume 11 available to purchase from our online shop.