13 June 2017

Australia's Flying Kangaroo: a history of Qantas

Three men believed that aviation could benefit the outback commun­ities of rural Queensland. They were Hudson Fysh (1895-1974), Paul McGinness (1896-1952) and Fergus McMaster (1879-1950). Based on their air force experience in WW1, McGinness and Fysh surveyed an air route across northern Australia in 1919 using a Model T Ford. A fourth man, Arthur Baird (1889-1954) later established the company’s reputation for engineering excellence.

Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services/Qantas was formed in Nov 1920, centred in Winton, Queensland. The very next year they moved the company’s headquarters to Longreach in Queen­sland. And in 1922 the first scheduled Qantas mail and passeng­er flight flew from Charleville to Cloncurry, Queensland.

Qantas didn’t build its own aircraft until 1926, once again based in Longreach.

In 1928, a Qantas DH50 aircraft was leased to John Flynn and the Australian Inland Mission; it was the first flying ambulance for the Australian Aerial Medical Service. And right in the depths of the Depression (1930), Qantas established its headquarters in Brisbane. From there, Qantas carried airmail to Darwin, as part of an exper­imental mail service to the UK.

The flying kangaroo helped revolutionise long-haul travel

Jim Eames' book The Flying Kangaroo: Great Untold Stories of Qantas (Allen and Unwin, 2015) reminded us why Qantas remained such an im­portant part of Australiana. But I wanted far less on the tech­nical issues and near accidents, and far more on nationalism, ad­vertising, colours and symbols. For example the Australian car­rier adopted the flying kang­aroo only in 1944. The symbol was itself adapted from the Australian one penny coin, back in those pre-decimal days.

Qantas supported the war effort from 1939 on, evacuating personnel who risked being captured by advancing Japanese forces and dropping supplies to troops in New Guinea. The airline pioneered history-making flights of 30+ hours in Catalina aircraft between Perth and Ceylon, maintaining a crucial link with the Allied Forces. Endless pilots and engineers led a very large workforce, maintaining and flying DC3s, Catalinas and single-engine bush aeroplanes.

Post-war aircraft appraisals in the airline’s most formative years saw Qantas leading in fleet decision-making. Eames recounted the way Qantas steered itself through or around political pressures to maintain loyalty to the UK. The book shared new insights into the ever-shifting ground surrounding Qantas’ ownership, mergers, management inter­actions and its ultimate privatisation.

What were the crises? In Aug 1960 a Constellation crashed and burned when an engine failed on takeoff at Mauritius (with no fatalities). The handling of this accident was later hailed as a model of safety management and a credit to Qantas’ crew training. Nonetheless Jim Eames gave a painful and honest version of how all on board escaped alive. 

In 1966 a Boeing 707, en route from Sydney to Brisbane then Honolulu, violently started to porpoise up and down. So concerned were the pilots that they ordered an oceanic return path lest the problem return and cause them to crash over inhabited land. The cause was a fault in the horizontal stabilisers in its tail.

In Feb 1969, there was a temporary loss of control in a Boeing 707 high over the Persian Gulf (with no fatalities). It suddenly dis­played incon­sistent flight information in the cockpit and was put into a 5 km spiral dive so stressful that the airframe nearly ruptured. The post incident analysis offered major lessons that improved the safety of the newly booming industry across the world. In 2010 near Singapore the most fam­ous of all of Qantas’ heroic saves was QF32, when an Airbus A380 was very damaged by an uncontained engine failure.

Jim Eames' book, 2015

The air traffic controllers were also learning quickly, including a near-collision over Thailand in Sep 1990. A giant US Air Force C5A Galaxy air transport JUST missed a Qantas B747, in civilian air­space. The US military seemed to have suppressed the evidence.

Eames highlighted the leadership role that Qantas developed through its history, partially because its route distances were among the world’s longest and most demanding. The distance fact­or went right back to the 1920s when Qantas had to build its own biplanes in Long­reach to keep its fleet well-maintained with distant spare parts.

The book also documented the tyranny of seniority in the flying ranks; the entire hierarchy of humiliation that applied to law, pub­lic administration, the ABC and the strong manufacturers and ship­ping lines of post-war Australia.

The Flying Kangaroo also revealed much of the score settling that characterised the merging of Australian Airlines/TAA and Qantas in mid-1995. The book discussed the polit­ically complex factors of Bob Hawkes personal friendship with Sir Peter Abeles at Ansett and the abandonment of the late 80s infat­uation in Canberra with a three way merger of Qantas, Australian and Air New Zealand. One wonders what might have otherwise happened? 


The publishers noted the brilliant risk takers who made Qantas the safest airline in the world, the special demands of flying VIPs, the hazards of overseas postings, and the ever present dangers of the skies. But above all, these were the stories of how a uniquely Australian style shaped the best airline in the English-speaking world.  November 2020 should be a time of great celebration at Qantas!


Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Fascinating stuff. I know zero about the history of Quantas. The origins of brands and household names is often incredibly interesting. Great post.

Andrew said...

Most of this I know, but not so much the failures in the air. The politics of Qantas and Australian Airlines....was that the old TWA...... I can remember detail if I think about it, to insolvency of Ansett. We lefties of the old school were very against the current the current head of Qantas, but maybe he has not been so bad. I still do regret and maintain my rage that our national airline carrier is not owned by us, the people, but by shareholders. I think the book would be worth my while to read.

Train Man said...

Here we are all Australians, so I don't mind who I fly with. But overseas I like the friendly familiarity of Qantas staff.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Aircraft problems are dramatic and serious enough to rivet a great deal of attention, leading to improvements and increased safety. Since automobiles are more common and contain fewer passengers, an single automotive failure is less likely to attract scrutiny so that we can learn from each incident.

Hels said...


Agreed. Social history is much more fascinating to me than military, church or royal history, but we did no social history in high school or uni. Because Qantas was founded in Nov 1920, its story is one of post-WW1 Australian society, engineering, flying, advertising, employment and international connections.

Hels said...


I too still do maintain my rage that our national airline carrier is not owned by the tax paying citizens of this wide, brown country. Ditto the trams, Medicare, gas companies, electricity companies and every other thing we value.

Hels said...


That is so true. Because Qantas was nationally owned, the Federal government was 100% obliged to maintain safety, security and training standards at a far higher level than private owners were obliged to do.

And I suspect another factor. A good proportion of car fatalities are caused by young males (aged 18-25). So it is possible that the community thinks that the boys are just being boys. As long as the young car drivers don't kill families, children, pedestrians or proper middle aged tax paying citizens.

Hels said...

Train Man

That is so true. Qantas staff in the airports and on board the planes are "us". They speak the same proper Australian English, look after the children when they are crying and bring coffee in emergencies. Bless their hearts :)

iODyne said...

One of the world's earliest 'vertically integrated' businesses, when their early flights from LON needed to refuel short of our major cities, they built a motel for the overnight accomm of all.
remember the fuss when KANTAS announced they wanted to outsource their maintenance to a Chinese business?
John Travolta has just donated his plane to them/us/a museum here. It has a particular history I now forget.
John Travolta donates vintage Qantas plane to NSW …
JOHN Travolta has donated his personal vintage Boeing 707 plane to a restoration group in Australia. The actor said in a statement that the plane will require ..

That's So Pants blogger is connected to KANTAS via father grandfather and mother all worked for them/it/us. She will land here any minute to set me straight. Her immaculately groomed mother was a Hostie before they became Cabin Crew.
Thanks Hels for another greatly informative post.

KANTAS? there's no U in it for the 'kwa' sound so I always call it 'K'ANTAS

Hels said...


Thanks for the great story! John Travolta is donating his Boeing 707 to the Aviation Museum in Illawarra NSW because he is a] a qualified pilot in his own right AND b] Qantas' official spokesman. Even more amazing, he wants to be part of the crew to fly the plane to Australia because, after all, Travolta's plane was originally a commercial Qantas plane.

iODyne said...

my ugly twin sister Ann ODyne is very well-disposed to Mr Travolta.
Totally off topic, his wife went to school in Adelaide, the same one as Kamahl and Natasha Scott-Despoja. Annie also thinks that 1959 was the year of the first LON-AUS commercial flight. So sweet that passengers, right up to the 1970's, actually used to dress properly for a big journey.

Hels said...


your ugly twin sister is very clever. Qantas Empire Airways was formed by Qantas and Britain's Imperial Airways way back in the mid 1930s but it took a few years to get to Singapore and many more years to get to Britain. 1958-9 sounds about right.

Re dressing up... and not only by plane!! It is said that post-WW2, the well-dressed Australian woman wore gloves and a hat outside the home for all but the most casual occasions. In the mid 1950s, I certainly remember wearing gloves to go to the City.

bazza said...

I think national airlines tend to resemble the perceived characteristics of their respective populations. Swissair is cold and precise, Alitalia is luxury with great food, BA is sedate, stiff and formal while Qantas has always seemed to be friendly and reliable!
I really like the cover picture of Jim Eames book. Those pink and yellow jackets worn by the stewards are just dandy!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s Dilatory Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

columnist said...

Regarding ownership, so many British companies are owned by non British entities, including British Airways, (owned by International Airlines Group IAG, based in Madrid). Such has been the dismal performance for customers, (most recently the computer glitch, and in the last couple of days a baggage issue), that it is in danger of losing its 3* - yes, only 3* - rating, and customers have called for the "British" to be removed from its name.

But many of the great British-founded brands, such as Rolls Royce, (a subsidiary of BMW), are no longer British. Harrods (Qatari), HP Sauce (American), Jaguar (Indian), Boots (American) etc etc.

I used to travel on Qantas from Hong Kong to London every school holiday, as they were a competitively priced airline back in the day. Recently saw my Flying Kangaroo log book, when we cleared my parents' house after their demise.

Hels said...


*nod* I too think that nations project their most popular characteristics in every public endeavour. For the opening parade of the Olympic Games, for example, many European athletes looked as if they were going to church while the Australians looked as if they were going to the beach.

But airline companies' success with precision, safety, reliability and security is proven (or not) by their decades of real, documented experience in the industry. This was what Jim Eames was focusing on, in Qantas' long history.

Hels said...


What do we make our decisions on - the airlines' competitive prices? safety records? identifying with the nationality of the airline company? destination? available frequent flier points? Or something else.

I too used to fly to London every second winter (June-July) from Melbourne. In those days Al Italia was always my cheapest option.

Joseph said...

As twee as advertising usually is, I love seeing the red kangaroo in distant countries.

Hels said...


very strange.... nod. I don't like flag waving and patriotic nonsense at home, but I too become a little homesick abroad. Australians probably travel more than anyone else on the planet, so Qantas selected their symbols well.