Elizabeth Fysh has the right background and surname to write a biography of one of Qantas’s founders. Fysh grew up on her parents’ property near Kynuna, 150km from Winton, where Qantas began and through her husband Frith Fysh (now dead) she married into the family of two of Qantas’s founders Hudson Fysh (Frith’s uncle) and Fergus McMaster (Frith’s grandfather). Elizabeth and Frith moved to Longreach, home of Qantas’s first headquarters, where they were involved in the establishment of the Qantas Founders’ Museum.
Elizabeth’s new book When Chairman Were Patriots is about Fergus McMaster and his crowning glory, the birth of an international airline in remote western Queensland. She calls McMaster a man of extraordinary vision, one of three people to found the airline (with Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness) and its chairman for most of its first three decades.
McMaster was the youngest of eight children in a 19th century Queensland family of Scottish stock who were property selectors and miners. As a young boy Fergus helped muster 4000 wether sheep from Clermont to Longreach exciting a life-long interest in the west. He also helped work their Morinish gold mine near Rockhampton until it was spent and the family moved west to Ilfracombe. They gradually acquired more properties which the elder McMaster brothers worked.
After the difficulty of the Federation Drought, conditions gradually improved and the brothers became significant landholders with a quarter of a million acres. In 1910 they acquired the 800 square mile Devoncourt and two adjacent properties near Cloncurry run by brother Hugh, and the 1200 square mile Oban south of what would become Mount Isa run by brother George. Fergus ran Moscow station (renamed Stranraer in the Cold War climate of 1950) north of Longreach. He married Winton girl Edith Scougall in 1911. Edith gave birth to a daughter in 1911 but tragically died of typhoid fever in 1913.
In 1917 after two failed attempts Fergus signed up for the AIF aged 37 along with brother George aged 43. They both served at Villers-Bretonneux and George was killed in action. Fergus was also involved in the victory at Le Hamel under Monash and survived the war though he didn’t get home until January 1920.
Two other Aussie war veterans, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness got home seven months earlier. As horsemen before the war they graduated to aeroplanes in the war and served in the Australian Flying Corps No 1 Squadron, McGinness as a decorated ace. On the ship home they heard about prime minister Billy Hughes’ announcement of a £10,000 prize for the first British-built plane to fly from England to Australia in under 30 days. Though they failed to get sponsorship to enter the race, the Defence Department offered them jobs to survey a possible air route from Longreach to Darwin. They found not a single mile of road between Burketown and Katherine and often got bogged down convincing them of the need for the air route. The pair were in Darwin to watch captain Ross Smith arrive in December 1919 to win the race.
McGuinness and Fysh then made the long journey back to the east coast separately. McGinness made it as far as Cloncurry when fate intervened. McMaster had finally returned from Europe and was managing Devoncourt while brother Hugh was ill. Fergus had broken the axle on his car and being a Sunday could not find a mechanic. McGinness came to the rescue repairing the car, sparking a friendship.
Fysh later caught up with McGinness and they canvassed the idea of an air taxi service in Cloncurry. They figured McMaster, then leader of the local cattleman’s association, would be the ideal local contact to get involved. The trio met in Brisbane in June 1920 and while McMaster didn’t see it as a money-making scheme he did know it would be a vital communication service. Immediately McMaster used his contacts to get backers for the proposal and raised £3000 in capital.
For that £3000 McGinness and Fysh bought two Avro 504K aeroplanes with the capacity for a pilot and two passengers, and registered the company as the Western Queensland Auto Aero Service Ltd. After they were advised this was a mouthful they changed it to Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service with its pleasing acronym of QANTAS, which McMaster said had “a ring of ANZAC about it”.
McMaster also fleshed out proposed services with air centres at Longreach, Winton and Cloncurry, an air ambulance service (which eventuated in 1928 as the Flying Doctor using Qantas planes) and a mail service from Longreach to Darwin. The first Avro was ready in 1921 (the second purchase was cancelled) with McGinness as pilot and a new BE2E plane with it piloted by Fysh. They flew from Sydney to Winton with seven stops surviving getting badly lost on the last day. McMaster was confirmed chairman at the first meeting of directors at the Winton Aero Club though the headquarters was then moved to Longreach.
McMaster convinced councils in the region to start building facilities to support the business and they began offering joyrides to thrilled western Queenslanders. He raised £30,000 in shares and hoped to win a government subsidy to run the airmail contract from Charleville to Cloncurry. The contract came out for tender in January 1922 and Qantas were announced as the winners a month later. The contract demanded larger planes and they ordered two Vickers Vulcan at £37,000 each.
While they waited for the Vulcans they started the service with an overhauled DH4. But as they first day arrived, there was a split. McMaster made a crucial decision. He insisted the company put safety first and make “adventure and risk subside into routine”. That was anathema to the individualistic McGinness and he resigned without reason, a decision he would later regret bitterly. Before he left he was still given the honour of piloting the first flight.
At 5.30am on November 22, 1922 McGinness set off from Charleville carrying 108 letters to Longreach with scheduled stops at Tambo and Blackall. McMaster met him at Longreach at 10.15am with enthusiastic crowds at both ends. The following day Fysh was at the controls setting off for Winton (McMaster drove the 180km to meet him there again) then McKinlay and finally Cloncurry. Qantas was up and running. In front of huge crowd at Longreach, McMaster said from these beginnings Qantas would become one of the world’s great air services.
For most of the next 25 years McMaster set about making his prophecy a reality, Qantas reaching profit in three years and winning the Brisbane to Darwin mail route. He oversaw its growth to beat Britain’s BOC (later British Airways) to the growing international route via the connections it made in Darwin, moving the headquarters to Brisbane before shrinking again in the war, finally watching on as the Labor government nationalised the airline in 1947. By then ill health forced him to move to Brisbane where he died in 1950. He did not die wealthy as author Elizabeth Fysh wrote. But she said, he had created a brand which is most synonymous with its country as any in the world. Even if today’s Qantas occasionally have to be reminded of its humble upbringings.