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Australian civil aviation

Civil aviation in Australia has been defined by the experience of military aviation, government support, and private sector response to passenger, cargo and mail demands.

Lieutenants WH Fysh and PJ McGinness, 1919.

Lieutenants WH Fysh and PJ McGinness, 1919. Courtesy of Qantas.

The Australian Flying Corps (AFC) was as influential on Australian civil aviation as it was on early Australian aviation. Two former AFC officers, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, established what later became known as Qantas, with Fysh also supporting the establishment of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Wing Commander Lt Colonel Oswald Watt, responsible for 1 Squadron and 3 Squadron on the Western Front in the First World War, contributed significantly to the development of civil aviation standards in Australia.

In 1919, former AFC officers Ross and Keith Smith were the first Australians to fly from England to Australia, as part of air trials sponsored by the Australian Government.

The first regular airmail service leaves from Brisbane, 1934.

The first regular airmail service leaves from Brisbane, 1934. Courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Australian Government engagement with civil aviation continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s with prescribing standards, awarding prizes, establishing flying schools and airports.

After the Second World War, in 1946, the Australian Government established TAA as a government airline in 'competition' with Ansett for domestic air services. In 1947 the government nationalised Qantas, buying shares at market prices, to service Australia's international routes.

Civil aviation, 1920s - 1930s


Air hangar for Qantas Empire Airways Ltd.

Air hangar for Qantas Empire Airways Ltd., 1930-1940. Courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

In 1919, former AFC officers Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness surveyed part of the route of an England to Australia air race. They travelled from Longreach, Queensland to Katherine, Northern Territory in 51 days. The arduous trip highlighted the important part that aircraft could play in practically roadless areas of western and northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.

In August 1920 Fysh and McGinness bought an Avro aircraft and established what later became known as the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (Qantas). By 1922, a scheduled mail service operated between Charleville and Cloncurry, and operations had moved from Winton to a galvanised iron hangar in Longreach. By 1927, the service had extended first to Camooweal then Normanton. In 1929, the route extended to Brisbane and the company moved its headquarters there.

The inland medical service

In Sydney in 1920, Paul McGinness and Hudson Fysh were buying the first Qantas planes when they met Reverend John Flynn, Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission. Flynn saw that aviation could help inland Australia if four vital ingredients could intersect: medicine, communication, aeroplane design and finance. After years of experience in bush hospitals, Flynn knew the medical services he needed. In 1924, Arthur Baird re-modelled a DH50 for transportation of patients. In 1927, Hugh Victor McKay, founder of the Sunshine Harvester company, offered a crucial grant and Fysh advised the Qantas Board that an agreement with the Australian Inland Mission for an aerial medical service was now viable.

The Australian Aerial Medical Service was formed on 27 March 1928, with its first base at Cloncurry. Qantas signed a year's contract to operate medical flights on demand. The Royal Flying Doctor Service was born.

Qantas Empire Airways flying boat

unknown, Qantas Empire Airways flying boat Cooee on Sydney Harbour, c. 1938. RN Smith Collection. Courtesy of Sydney Living Museums (Historic Houses Trust).

Overseas flying boats

In 1935 Qantas took over the Darwin-Singapore sector of the Royal Mail route as well as operated its first overseas passenger flight from Brisbane to Singapore, a four-day trip. By 1938, to meet the growing demand, the airline introduced Short C Class Empire flying boats. As flying boats needed only a mooring buoy, terminal building and fuelling facilities, Qantas established a base at Rose Bay in Sydney. The aircraft flew the entire Australia-England route, with the Qantas and Imperial Airways crews changing in Singapore.

Flying boats played a vital role in World War II, and after the war they opened up the South Pacific and Lord Howe Island as popular holiday playgrounds for Australians. As a result Sydney operated the last major flying boat base in the world until 1974.
Flying boats: Sydney's golden age of aviation, Historic Houses Trust


Ansett Australia was founded by Sir Reginald Myles Ansett in 1935. It made its first passenger flight on 17 February 1936 from Hamilton in western Victoria to Melbourne. In 1946, the company began Melbourne to Sydney and Hobart flights before developing a successful service as a domestic carrier throughout Australia.

Civil aviation - TAA, Ansett and Qantas 1950s - 1980s

Civil aviation expanded rapidly after the Second World War due to the large number of trained military pilots. Military aircraft were converted for use as passenger craft, such as the popular DC3, and the two-airline policy was formed by the government.

TAA and the introduction of modern transport aircraft

Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA) commenced in 1946 as a government airline and was one of the two major Australian domestic airlines that operated in post-war Australia 'in a parody of competition'. For the first ten years of its operations, TAA pioneered the introduction of modern transport aircraft to Australia. TAA was the first to introduce pressurised aircraft into Australia in 1948 with the Consolidated Vultee Convair 240, following the initial demand for a twin-engine aircraft to replace the Douglas DC-3.

Vickers-Viscount--V.816 VH-TVR on display at Moorabbin Air Museum

Vickers-Viscount--V.816 VH-TVR on display at Moorabbin Air Museum. Image courtesy of Australian National Aviation Museum.

TAA was the first airline outside of Europe to introduce the Vickers Viscount 716 in 1954. The Vickers Viscount was the first modern postwar turboprop airliner to enter service in Australia - powered by four Rolls Royce Dart turbo-prop engines. It was designed in the UK in response to the Brabazon Committee's recommendations on post-war airliner requirements. The Viscount was widely used in Australia by TAA, Ansett, Butler Air Transport, MacRobertson Miller Airlines and the RAAF. Seating was usually provided for 47 passengers.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were transported by Trans-Australia Airlines during the Queen's 1954 tour of Australia.

The Queen and Duke arriving in Australia at the start of their 1963 visit

The Queen and Duke arriving in Australia at the start of their 1963 visit. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: NAA-A1777-R64.

The airline also assisted in the development of the Dutch FOKKER F27 aircraft to replace the aging DC3. In the early 1980s, after the relaxation of the Two Airline Policy, Trans-Australia Airlines was the first domestic airline to introduce a wide-bodied aircraft, the Airbus A300B4. Trans-Australia Airlines was the dominant operator until the late 1980s, covering the major interstate and intercapital routes, as well as routes to Papua-New Guinea. The airline was renamed Australian Airlines in 1986 and was sold to Qantas in 1992.


In many respects, the airline which did best out of the post-war period of flux was Ansett. In 1940 Ansett had been a minor local airline. It ceased flying regular routes altogether during the war, but, after the war, quickly re-entered the aviation market in rigorous competition with both Australian National Airways (ANA) and the new government airline TAA.

Ansett DC3

Ansett DC3. Courtesy of Geoffrey Higges.

During the 1940s and 1950s Ansett's budget interstate fares offered a competitive alternative to the services on offer by the ANA and TAA. Ansett bought three C37s and converted them to DC3s and re-established routes linking Melbourne with Canberra and Adelaide, with stops at Mt Gambier and Wagga Wagga respectively. In the highly regulated environment, Ansett was not permitted to duplicate ANA's non-stop services. Reg Ansett was a fierce critic of the emerging Two-Airline Policy.

Ansett plane

unknown, Ansett Gallery. Courtesy of Sir Reginald Ansett Transport Museum.

In 1957 Ansett acquired ANA and thus acquired ANA's fleet of DC6s. In order to counter TAA's superior British-designed and built Vickers Viscounts, Ansett aggressively bought six of them to counter the government airline. Ansett expanded rapidly during the late 1950s and 1960s, taking over regional airlines like MacRobertson-Miller, Guinea Airways and Butler Air Transport. In October 1964 Ansett began flying domestic services with jet aircraft, using the first of many Boeing 727s imported into Australia. By 1968 Ansett was the largest airline in Australia. From being the Two-Airline Policy's greatest critic, Reg Ansett became its firmest supporter.

The 1980s saw a continuation of growth for the airline with an expansion into New Zealand in 1987. Ansett commenced international services in 1993 and was awarded Airline of the Year in travel industry awards the following year. In 1996, as a large international airline, it was bought by the very much smaller Air New Zealand. Due to financial difficulties Ansett went into receivership in 2001 and ceased business permanently in 2002.


After the Second World War Qantas began the task of rebuilding and modernising its fleet. In 1947, the Australian Government nationalised Qantas Empire Airways, buying out the shares held both by BOAC and Qantas at market prices. Hudson Fysh worked closely with the government to make it a success. Fysh remained chairman of Qantas until he retired in 1966.

A major theme in Qantas' post-war history is decolonisation, as it moved from being Qantas Empire Airways to Qantas the Australian Airline. This was a long and at times painful process. For much of the period, traffic on its busiest route, the Kangaroo Route from Sydney to London, was operated in a British Commonwealth pool which brought together BOAC, Air India and QEA.
The heroic age of Australian aviation , Linking a Nation: Australia's Transport and Communications 1788 - 1970, Australian Heritage Commission, 2003.

Rene Kulitja for Balarinji, 'Yananyi Dreaming', a painted Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Courtesy of Qantas.

In October 1953 agreement was reached for Qantas to fly to North America instead of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines (which Qantas eventually absorbed). New services were established to Hong Kong, Japan and South Africa. Qantas grew into Australia 's largest airline. By 1958, Qantas was landing in 23 countries.

Post-war international aviation until the 1980s involved only one airline, Qantas. Since the purchase of 747 jumbo jets in 1971, Qantas has continued to be a significant international airline.

The isolation and harshness of the bush ... made Qantas such a needed, respected and, it must be added, profitable airline in the first place ... However, it was its extremely astute management, both when privately and government-owned, that enabled it to take advantage of these opportunities and so transform in into one of the world's largest and longest-lived international carriers.
The heroic age of Australian aviation , Linking a Nation: Australia's Transport and Communications 1788 - 1970, Australian Heritage Commission, 2003.


The deregulation of domestic aviation in 1990 meant the end of the Two Airline Policy. There has been a proliferation of airlines servicing Australian routes, as well as discount airfares which have enticed more people to fly. New, smaller airlines entered the market to service local and national routes, and many disappeared as quickly as they appeared, such as Compass Airlines. Currently, the airlines Virgin Australia, JetStar Airways and Qantas service different national routes.

Useful links

History of aviation

Australian Flying Corps



Aviation services

Listen, look and play

Print references

N Hayes,Billy Stutt and the Richmond Flyboys - The New South Wales State Aviation School 1915-1918 and beyond, Pacific Downunder, Cowes, 2008.

Last updated: 12th November 2008
Creators: David Gardiner, et al.