Empire of the air: the dawn of international aviation in Australia

Thursday, 2 July 2020

International flights are off the agenda for most Australians at the moment. That was also the case until 1935, when a new airline called Qantas Empire Airways launched the first regular flights between Australia and Europe.

Connecting Australians to the world

Throughout the twentieth century, the Australian Government saw aviation as a way to connect the nation. Air travel could not only conquer vast distances across the continent, it could also link Australians with the world beyond.

As early as 1919, the Commonwealth awarded a £10,000 prize to the first aviators to fly from England to Australia. But by the early 1930s, only a handful of aeroplanes had arrived from other nations.

To stimulate a regular air link between Australia and Britain, the Commonwealth issued a call for tenders in 1933. Subsidies were offered to carry air mail along three scheduled domestic and international routes. The western route would link Perth, Carnarvon and Broome in Western Australia with Katherine in the Northern Territory. The eastern service connected Darwin with Brisbane across the continent’s northeast.

The overseas route was the most challenging – the winning airline had to offer weekly services between Singapore and Darwin. This was a daunting prospect, as the final leg involved flying 800 km across the Timor Sea at a time when aircraft engines were not especially reliable.

The prospect of an airliner ditching mid-ocean meant that only airliners with two or more engines would be considered. They also had to carry flotation gear and a radio to maintain contact with the ground – still a novelty at the time.

British planes for British pilots

Recently digitised files from our collection detail these demanding requirements for the ‘establishment and maintenance of airline services’.

Held in series MP183/19, the tender applications were submitted to the Civil Aviation Branch of the Department of Defence in 1934. They reveal how important British Empire links were to creating Australia’s first international air route.

By the early 1930s, American aircraft and airlines were beginning to dominate the aviation industry, with services spreading across the Pacific.

There was also another challenger: Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (KLM), which already flew from Amsterdam to Batavia (now Jakarta). By late 1934, KLM could have easily used their fleet of Dutch and American aeroplanes to extend this service to Australia.

The Australian Government wanted to avert these threats. So the tender documents specified that ‘all aeroplanes and engines and spare parts shall be wholly manufactured within the British Empire’. All pilots, navigators, radio operators and engineers also had to be ‘British subjects of British race’.

The new air route might have improved Australia’s international connections, but it did not make the nation any more cosmopolitan.

The beginning of the Qantas era

In April 1934 the international contract was awarded to Qantas Empire Airways – a joint venture between QANTAS Aerial Services, based in Brisbane, and Britain’s Imperial Airways.

Together the airlines flew further than Darwin to Singapore: their combined services connected Brisbane all the way to London.

Taking nearly two weeks, the ‘kangaroo route’ cost 195 pounds each way and included all accommodation and meals except alcoholic refreshments.

This was equal to a manager’s annual salary in 1935, making the beginning of international aviation in Australia a very exclusive enterprise.