On this day: The birth of Qantas

By Amelia Caddy 16 November 2015
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In 1920, two Gallipoli veterans decided remote Australian communities needed an air service, and Qantas was born.

THE SAYING GOES that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was for Australia’s largest airline, Qantas.

Wilmot Hudson Fysh and Paul Joseph McGinness, two Australian Flying Corps officers, first realised the need for an air service in outback Australia in 1919, when they drove 2179km from Longreach, QLD to Darwin, NT.

The roads were appalling and the distances vast, and the two friends saw an opportunity. Paul and Hudson (as he was known) started building support for their idea and secured funding with the help of a wealthy grazier named Fergus McMaster.

On 16 November 1920, the official papers were lodged establishing Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited, or QANTAS.

Qantas founded in the outback

An oft-forgotten character in the early history of Qantas is founding engineer Arthur Baird, who served alongside Hudson and Paul in the Australian Flying Corps.

Geoffrey Thomas, an aviation writer and editor-in-chief at airlineratings.com, credits Arthur as being the single biggest contributor to the airline’s early success.

“He was an outstanding engineer who set the tone for engineering excellence at Qantas, and that’s something that’s stayed with the airline all the way through,” says Geoffrey.

Arthur kept the company’s first two planes in the air, not an easy task in itself, and went on to oversee the construction of Qantas’s own aircraft, from 1926. 

“Isolation bred innovation,” says Geoffrey, of the airline’s early days based in Longreach. “It bred a philosophy that we cannot rely on the manufacturers, we have to work things out for ourselves.”


Qantas is the oldest continually operating airline in the world. (Image: Aero Icarus/Zurich Switzerland)

Qantas during World War II

Qantas moved from joy rides to air-mail services and passenger flights. By 1929, it was servicing almost all of Queensland, and the board decided it was time to move headquarters to Brisbane. Qantas’ first international passenger flight left six years later, in April 1935.

Qantas continued operating throughout World War II, though flights were generally restricted to communications and war aid.

After losing three planes to enemy fire, the airline started a service over the Indian Ocean to Ceylon. This service mostly carried airmail and operated in radio silence, relying on the stars for navigation so as not to give away the planes’ positions.

Qantas: the first jets

Before the 1950s, flying was an upper class activity, but that changed with the production of larger, more efficient aircraft in the Jet Age.

When Qantas took delivery of its first Boeing 707-138 jets in 1959, flying times and prices both plummeted.

“The 707 was twice as fast as the Super Constellation and it carried twice as many passengers, so it was four times as efficient, and air fares dropped off quite dramatically,” says Tom Harwood, curator of the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach.

Between 1945 and 1970, the time it took someone on average pay to save for a Qantas flight from Sydney to London dropped from 130 to 15 weeks.

Today, the demand for air travel at low prices continues to grow, and, according to Geoffrey, Qantas has grown with it.

“The fact that the airline has not had a fatality in the Jet Era – that stands absolutely by itself. You can’t manufacture that, it has to be built on engineering and pilot excellence,” he says.

Top 10 Qantas facts 

1. Qantas has had no passenger fatalities in the Jet Era.

2. In 2008, British authorities confirmed Qantas to be the world’s most experienced airline.

3. Qantas is the oldest continually operating airline in the world.

4. Qantas was the first international airline to offer an around-the-world service, in 1958.

5. Qantas operated the world’s longest regular non-stop service between Perth and Ceylon during World War II – a distance of 5632km, which took over 26 hours.

6. In 1974, Qantas established a then-world record for most people on a 747 aircraft when it evacuated 673 people from Darwin in one flight, after Cyclone Tracy devastated the city.

7. Qantas launched the world’s first business class service, in 1979.

8. Qantas was the first non-US airline to introduce 707 jets, which halved trans-Pacific travel time.

9. In 1989, Qantas completed the longest flight in history at the time, from London to Sydney in 20h 9m.

10. Qantas has been named the world’s safest airline by aviation safety analysts AirlineRatings.com for three years in a row – 2013, 2014 and 2015.