Fergus McMaster and the birth of Qantas

The first Qantas Longreach to Winton flight 1922. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

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.






















The birth of the Royal Flying Doctor Service

captureThe Royal Flying Doctor Service is an integral part of outback Australian life and there are many reminders of it here in North West Queensland. Mount Isa Airport is one of its major bases and in town the RFDS office sits just off the Barkly Hwy. Around the corner from the office in Mount Isa is the 1950s RFDS Wild Drover plane perched high on its platform and visible from the bridge on the highway. Just 120km down the road Cloncurry hosts John Flynn Place, a museum dedicated to clergyman Flynn’s creation of the Flying Doctor service, which began in that town in 1928.

Flynn was a Victorian Presbyterian pastor and the inspiration behind two great health organisations in the bush. The first was the Australian Inland Mission a series of basic bush hospitals he established in the early 20th century in very remote communities like Oodnadatta, Fitzroy Crossing and Birdsville. These hospitals filled an urgent need, but highlighted another: How to get patients from very remote areas to remote care.

The need for a flying doctor was traced to an event over a decade before its founding. In 1917 Australia was transfixed by the tragedy of Kimberley stockman Jimmy Darcy. On July 29, Darcy suffered massive internal injuries when his horse fell in a cattle stampede. He was taken 80km on a dray over a rough track to the nearest settlement of Halls Creek in the far north of Western Australia. He needed immediate lifesaving surgery and with the nearest doctor thousands of kilometres away, Halls Creek postmaster Fred Tuckett had to perform emergency surgery on Darcy’s ruptured bladder. Perth doctor Dr Joe Holland instructed Tuckett via morse code how to carry out the surgery and using his pocketknife and some morphine, Tuckett made an incision above the pubic bone. Tuckett worked for hours, cutting and stitching, stopping every few minutes to check the doctor’s telegrams.

Though the operation was a success Darcy came down with malaria. Dr Holland made a mercy dash on a cattle ship that took a week to reach Derby and then bumpy six days in a Model T Ford before it died 40km from Halls Creek. Dr Holland walked for two hours to a cattle station and then rode through the night to reach the town at daybreak. Agonisingly Jimmy Darcy had died a few hours earlier.

Newspapers were gripped by the story of the young stockman’s desperate struggle for life and John Flynn commented on it a year later in his Presbyterian Church Inland Mission magazine The Inlander. “It’s still the pioneer who pays the price for the nation’s development,” Flynn wrote. But his eye was caught by another article in the same issue. Victorian man Clifford Peel was a fellow Presbyterian and a support of Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission. Importantly he was also an early aviator.

Enrolled into a medical degree in Melbourne in 1917, Peel had signed up with the Australian Flying Corps and sent to the western front. His letter to the Inlander was written “at sea 20 November 1917”. Peel could see how after the war planes could overcome the tyranny of distance in the Australian bush. He addressed two questions in the letter, safety and the lack of landing grounds.

Peel said even in war the number of miles flown “per misadventure” was “very large” while “the number of accidents per aerodrome was very small”. He then calculated the cost of inland flying in “time, men, material and efficiency” and said in the bush it would be ten times cheaper than running a car while landing grounds “would be found where needed”. Peel said aviation would transform mail delivery, government services and business and would be “an undreamt of boon” for those who lived in remote parts. Peel concluded his letter by saying he could foresee “a missionary doctor administering to the needs of men and women scattered between Wyndham and Cloncurry”.

Perhaps Peel saw himself in that role after the war. Sadly he was shot down in combat and killed just a few days before the 1918 Armistice and never lived to see the dream come to fruition. But Flynn could not get the idea out of his mind. From 1919 onwards he devoted his magazine to promote the cause of a flying doctor. Flynn foresaw another problem. It was one thing to have a plane ready in an emergency but the people who lived on properties needed some way of calling it out in emergencies.

Morse code was available as the Darcy incident showed but only at telegraph stations. Wireless had also started but its equipment was cumbersome and was mostly just receiver-only with stations unable to transmit out.

In 1922 the Australian Inland Mission board launched an Aerial Medical Fund to raise money for a flying doctor. Around the same time Flynn met Qantas co-founder and pilot Hudson Fysh. The then two-year-old airline had flown 40,000km and carried a thousand passengers without accidents. Fysh advised Flynn to buy new planes that weren’t damaged in the war and also to buy small planes as they would need to land on primitive airstrips. They also need to be covered from the elements to protect patients.

But with Flynn busy with the Australian Inland Mission, his Presbyterian church board appointed another minister Andrew Barber to supervise the hospitals to take the pressure off Flynn. Barber and a doctor George Simpson went on a tour of northern Australian hospitals in 1927 taking three months covering almost 13,000 kms. They arrived at Cloncurry when Qantas received an urgent message from Mount Isa to take a badly injured worker to Cloncurry hospital. Simpson accompanied the pilot to provide aid to the worker who had a fractured pelvis and spine. The quick aerial response saved the miner’s life and the publicity led to interest and donations from public and private sources.

But how could people in an emergency contact help when needed? By 1926 Flynn was also talking to an electrical engineer named Alf Traeger known for his improvisation work in radio technology.  Traeger had an idea from a returned war veteran who told him they captured a German radio transmitter in the trenches which used bicycle wheels to generate power at 20 watts. By using feet it freed up the operator’s hands for sending messages. Traeger travelled around the outback trying communication experiments with Flynn. By 1929 Traeger had replicated the German model. His simple phone cost just £33 to produce. The earliest radios sent messages in Morse code and eventually Traeger adopted a typewriter to allow people to type in their messages in English.

The next need was a base radio station and Cloncurry, the spot where Qantas was providing planes for the fledgling aerial medical service, was ideal. Traeger went to Augustus Downs station, 300km north to successfully test the pedal radio. Flynn recruited eight radio experts and sent them to pastoral stations around Cloncurry to install the sets and explain how to use them. It also put them in isolated hospitals such as the one in Birdsville. The Australian Inland Aerial Medical Service was up and running with Kenyon St Vincent Welch the first doctor based in Cloncurry. Welch had been selected from 22 applicants responding to an advertisement in the Australian Medical Journal. In May 1928 he made the first emergency flight from Cloncurry to Julia Creek, on board a De Havilland model DH50 aircraft hired from Qantas.

It quickly expanded from being just an emergency service. When Welsh was flown to Dajarra, an hour from Cloncurry, to treat a child, people hearing of his presence queued up to see him. It was the flying doctors’ first medical clinic, something that would become standard practice in the years that followed. When Flynn died in 1951 he was buried at the foot of Mt Gillen in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia. During the burial a single RFDS plane flew overhead “as if winging him to heaven” as Max Griffiths wrote in his biography of the Inland Mission. The Mission survived until 1977 but the RFDS still flies high today, a vital part of the health care services of the Australian Outback.




A visit to Mornington Island

Barely a few weeks ago in those dimly remembered pre-virus times I made my first visit to Mornington Island. The remote indigenous community in the Gulf of Carpentaria is not easy to get to with only a handful of scheduled flights and there is not much to detain tourists. The island is in my territory of the Mount Isa paper but we are reliant on the goodwill of local politicians to hitch a lift when they visit on chartered flights. In early March Bob Katter was heading there and offered me a ride, which I gladly accepted. It was an 80 minute journey by six-seater Beechworth, with five aboard. Katter sat with his two assistants at the back. I sat next to the pilot, enjoying the view as we left the Isa just after dawn at 6.30am.


Mornington Island is 450km from Mount Isa, and 28km into the Gulf of Carpentaria. After an hour heading north we reach the Gulf coastline near Burketown. The saltpans are full of water after recent cyclones and heavy rain.


Off east is Sweers Island home of the tourist lodge run by Tex and Lyn Battle. The Sweers Island Lodge is a favourite for fishers hoping to catch the famous Gulf barramundi though sadly empty like everywhere else at the moment.


Straight ahead lies our destination Mornington Island, largest of the Wellesley Islands. A narrow strait separates Mornington from the smaller uninhabited Denham Island to the south.island4

Mornington Island is around a thousand square kilometres wide. It is mostly uninhabited except for the town of Gununa at the bottom end.


The township of Gununa and its airstrip comes into view as we descend. Around 1200 people call Gununa home, the vast majority Indigenous Australians. Contact with the British began when Matthew Flinders anchored HMS Investigator off Sweers Island in 1802. Flinders named the islands for colonial administrator Richard Colley Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley and later second earl of Mornington.


Enough of earls, the airport sign reminds us we are in Lardil country. The Lardil and Kaiadilt Peoples knew Macassan traders who visited the Gulf to collect beche-de-mer during the 1600s. Few European people visited Mornington Island until the early 1900s, when commercial operators became interested in the beche-de-mer and pearling trade. In 1914 the Presbyterian Church established a mission on the island with around 400 people.island7

During the 1970s, the church introduced policies to support self-management and recognition of Aboriginal land tenure through the new Gununamanda Aboriginal Corporation. Among the lasting creations was the Mirndiyan Gununa art centre with its Indigenous majority staff focused on locally relevant programs to produce internationally significant artwork. Mornington Island artists are heavily influenced by, and connected to, their land and culture in their art.


Bob Katter poses for a photo with art centre manager John Armstrong and artist Bereline Loogatha. Bob is wearing a traditional head garment and also purchased two boomerangs, one for himself and one for me. Thanks, Bob.


Afterwards we went next door to the Junkuri Laka Community Legal Centre Aboriginal Corporation. In this centre local elders (seated) dispense wisdom and traditional justice. There is a domestic violence program, men’s support group program and a mediation service on the island. Standing in the middle is Kyle Yanner a capable local man who picked us up from the airport and was running for local mayor in the council elections (which he subsequently won).


As well as listening to local concerns, Bob told the Junkuri Laka mob why he was on the island, a message he repeated at the local store. Bob wanted support for a local market garden so people could grow their own fresh produce and not have to rely on the overpriced and often stale goods of the store (the only one on the island).


Then it was on to the Bynoe Centre. Bynoe is a Normanton-based agency which provides affordable housing to local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In July 2019, they won the contract for the Community Development Program (work for the dole) on Mornington Island and the workshop is home to skilled craftspeople.


Here Bob chats with one of the grand elders of the community, Roberta Felton, a former Mornington Shire councillor. Roberta laments the loss of the old ways which she says contributes to the many problems on the island. She recalls the Second World War years when locals were encouraged to go bush ahead of a possible Japanese invasion. While she supported native bush tucker, she was aghast at plans that didn’t respect the difference between women’s and men’s work. Gardening was women’s work, she said.


Outside, Bynoe workers showed Bob some of the work they were doing to make their own small market garden.


Inside, Bob held another meeting where he said Aboriginal people were dying 20 years younger than white people and malnutrition was part of the problem. Again he sought support for a large market garden, but said the local council (not represented at the meeting) were against the proposal.


At lunchtime Bynoe staff and local health workers held a free barbecue for the community.


Kyle then took us around the community where Bob used a loudspeaker to invite people to a public meeting at the festival grounds. We stopped off to view the water’s edge. It looks inviting though local crocodiles, like infamous mythical albino Whitey, might have other ideas.


Among the issues people brought to Bob’s attention was the many semi-wild horses roaming around town. While they are apparently owned, they seem to roam freely. One local told Bob that a pack of horses galloping down the main street almost killed a small child who was dragged from their path.


We were joined on the bus to the festival grounds by Kyle’s lovely wife and two children.


When we arrived at the festival grounds I checked out the public toilets to work out if I was a Dungamudun or a Gulmawun. My instincts said the former but sadly it was derelict and destroyed inside and and impossible to tell, so I’m still none the wiser.


Again Bob gave his spiel why Mornington Island needed a market garden. I wrote it up for the North West Star. He showed the meeting a copy of a letter from Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November last year which said the government would work with communities like Mornington Island and Yarrabah to set up market gardens for “economic and health opportunities”. The prime minister promised $5 million for the proposal. However when Katter spoke to the PM’s office the previous week about the money, he was told they had received letters saying the community was against the idea. He was here to find out if that was true.


Many locals had their say on this and other issues though some had difficulty using the loudspeaker to get their point across. Bob had a show of hands and there was 100% support for his proposal though again the Council’s Mayor and CEO were noticeably absent. That may change now that Kyle is mayor.


Afterwards Kyle gave us another jaunt around the local sights including the jetty. The jetty was rebuilt in 2016 after cyclone damage though some like Bob Katter are dismissive of its flimsiness in extreme weather saying the island should have a sea wall instead.


It’s a nice day for boating, but then I suspect most days are nice for boating on Mornington Island.


Kyle took us out to see the weir, well stocked after summer rains.


Then it was back in the plane for the trip back to Mount Isa heading directly over Gununa as we leave.


Our Savannah Aviation pilot refuelled the Beechworth at Burketown Airport, making the return journey a little longer.


We took off over Burketown which, like Mornington Island, was declared closed to visitors a few days later as concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic grew. These were sensible precautions in areas with large Indigenous populations and few health facilities.


Eventually around 5.30pm (11 hours after leaving) we see the familiar stacks of Mount Isa Mines as we head for home.  It was an enlightening and thoughtful day. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Mornington Island but its beauty and its determined people left a deep impression.