Formation of Qantas Airlines

Qantas was instrumental in the development of the Australian aviation industry. The fledgling airline helped increase confidence in commercial flying and helped make settlement of the Australian Outback possible. The airline also helped deliver critical medical services to the Outback by partnering with the organization that would become the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia.

Summary of Event

On November 16, 1920, World War I veterans Wilmot Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness registered Qantas, or Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited, as a company in Brisbane, Queensland. Fysh and McGinness had served together as gunner and pilot in the Royal Australian Flying Corps, where they each earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. Upon their return to Australia, the pair decided to enter a government-sponsored competition in 1919 to be the first Australians to fly from Great Britain to Australia in twenty days or fewer. Their patron died before the competition took place, however, and they lacked the funding needed to compete. Instead, they agreed to conduct a government survey of the race’s route, an area that covered the territory from Darwin to Longreach in western Queensland. The arduous overland journey convinced the pair that flying was the only realistic means of traversing the vast Australian Outback. Qantas airlines
[kw]Formation of Qantas Airlines (Nov. 20, 1920)
[kw]Qantas Airlines, Formation of (Nov. 20, 1920)
[kw]Airlines, Formation of Qantas (Nov. 20, 1920)
Qantas airlines
[g]Australia;Nov. 20, 1920: Formation of Qantas Airlines[05190]
[c]Space and aviation;Nov. 20, 1920: Formation of Qantas Airlines[05190]
[c]Transportation;Nov. 20, 1920: Formation of Qantas Airlines[05190]
[c]Trade and commerce;Nov. 20, 1920: Formation of Qantas Airlines[05190]
Fysh, Wilmot Hudson
McGinness, Paul
McMaster, Fergus
Baird, Arthur
Kennedy, Alexander

Launching an airline required money, so Fysh and McGinness began to search for financial backers. On separate occasions, they each met with Alexander Kennedy, the owner of a cattle station who promised funds to the venture if he could be its first ticketed passenger, and Fergus McMaster, a grazier who was equally enthusiastic about the veteran pilots’ bold plan. McMaster lured a few other investors to the project, and on November 20, 1920, Qantas was officially registered.

McMaster was its first chairman, Fysh and McGinness were pilots and managers, and Kennedy and one other man, Ainslie Templeton, were shareholders. Arthur Baird, another veteran whom Fysh and McGinness had known during the war, came on board as the airline’s engineer. Although the company was registered in Brisbane, its activities actually began in Winton, Queensland, where the first directors’ meeting was held in 1921. Immediately thereafter, Qantas moved its operations to Longreach, where it stayed for several years.

Early on, the Qantas founders realized that the company would need regular contract work. In 1921 they sought and were awarded a government-subsidized contract for regular mail delivery between Charleville and Cloncurry. The pair had also spent much of 1921 flying to small Outback settlements, where they generated interest in aviation by offering short rides for a small fee, and as a result they began attracting air-taxi customers. Fysh and McGinness opened their doors to both mail and passenger service, and on November 3, 1922, they fulfilled their promise to Kennedy by making him Qantas’s first ticketed passenger. McGinness, however, had already begun to feel restless and constrained by the regimented nature of company life, and he left Qantas shortly before Kennedy’s inaugural flight as a ticketed passenger. Fysh took on more responsibility and became the airline’s manager in 1923.

In spite of their best efforts, the Qantas team members faced several early struggles. Their planes were not particularly suited to the harsh Australian climate, and better equipment was difficult to find. In 1924, they settled on de Havilland aircraft. The new planes were enclosed, which meant that passengers no longer had to wear helmets and goggles, and this factor may have helped win over some of their more reluctant potential customers. Fortunately, Qantas also obtained government contracts for additional mail routes, including one from Cloncurry to Camooweal in 1924 and one from Cloncurry to Normanton in 1927. The airline gave itself yet another boost by signing an initial one-year contract with the Australian Aerial Medical Service, Australian Aerial Medical Service which established its first base in Cloncurry in 1928. In 1929, Qantas established its first direct link to the coast with a route between Charleville and Brisbane. Shortly thereafter, the company moved its operational headquarters to Brisbane.

Qantas also introduced several important innovations to commercial aviation. Unusual milestones included Qantas’s construction of its own aircraft, de Havilland DH50’s, which were built under Baird’s supervision at the airline’s Longreach facility from 1926 to 1929. Qantas also spearheaded the construction of the first private airplane hangar in Brisbane and the establishment of a flight school there in 1927. In 1931, Qantas began an important relationship with Britain’s Imperial Airways when it agreed to try using a shared airmail route that ultimately reached from Australia to England. The cargo was first flown by Qantas from Brisbane to Darwin and then on to Burma, where Imperial Airways assumed responsibility for the cargo. In January of 1934, this partnership was made more official when the Qantas and Imperial Airways were combined into Qantas Empire Airways Limited (QEA). Fysh was appointed managing director of the new organization.


The fact that Fysh and McGinness were able to attract investors to the risky venture was a testament to their own ambition and enthusiasm, as well as to their partners’ typically Australian spirit of adventure and enterprise. Their pioneering spirit allowed them to overcome the difficulties posed by finding financial backing, purchasing or building aircraft that could withstand the harsh climate, and winning the confidence of both the government and the general population. In its later years, QEA faced particularly difficult times: Nearly all its planes were commandeered by the Australian government during World War II and were subsequently damaged or destroyed. After the war, however, QEA rebuilt, expanded, and went through several more transformations, and it is still widely known throughout the world.

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Qantas had on the development of Australian aviation and perhaps even on the expansion of European settlers into the country’s interior. Fysh and McGinness were correct when they concluded that ground travel across the vast interior would be impractical for decades, if not for centuries, and so settlement of this area would be largely dependent on air travel. In addition, Qantas’s participation in the Aerial Medical Service’s flying doctor Royal Flying Doctor Service
Flying doctor service (Australia) program undoubtedly helped convince Australians that aviation was the key to the country’s future, because settlement in the dangerous Outback depended on the accessibility of medical services. McGinness’s and Fysh’s contributions to Australia and the British Commonwealth were formally recognized when the men were knighted, the former in 1941 and the latter in 1953. Qantas airlines

Further Reading

  • Brown, John. “Qantas: Birth of an Airline Down Under.” Aviation History 7, no. 6 (July, 1997): 34. Describes the airline’s inaugural passenger flight and early efforts to build Australians’ confidence in aviation as a safe means of travel; summarizes the airline’s history through World War II.
  • Fysh, Wilmot Hudson. Qantas Rising: The Autobiography of the Flying Fysh. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965. An autobiographical account of Fysh’s life from his military service through Qantas’s founding, expansion, and wartime difficulties.
  • Gunn, John. The Defeat of Distance: Qantas, 1919-1939. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1985. The first in a three-volume history of Qantas, this book describes the airline’s early years in great detail, including lengthy quotations from the key figures’ personal correspondence. It was followed by Challenging Horizons: Qantas 1939-1954 (1987) and High Corridors: Qantas 1954-1970 (1988), also by Gunn.
  • Stackhouse, John. From the Dawn of Aviation: The Qantas Story from 1920-1995. Double Bay, N.S.W.: Focus, 1995. A history of Qantas specifically commissioned to celebrate the airline’s first seventy-five years. Numerous illustrations include full-color reproductions of posters advertising the airline.

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