As Qantas marks 100 years, three Qld towns all claim to be airline’s true home

When aviation pioneers Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness founded an airline to link remote townships, they sparked a friendly, century-long rivalry between three centres, all of which claim to be home to the flying kangaroo.

Nov 16, 2020, updated Nov 16, 2020
Qantas Founders Museum CEO Tony Martin stands outside the national heritage listed hangar in Longreach. Photo: ABC

Qantas Founders Museum CEO Tony Martin stands outside the national heritage listed hangar in Longreach. Photo: ABC

It started as a dream to link outback towns by air and grew into a global icon, flying more than 50 million passengers a year around the world.

Over the past century, the legacy of Qantas has grown to become much more than an airline — the flying kangaroo is now a globally recognised brand.

Today, 100 years since the airline was founded in western Queensland, an outback rivalry over the story of the airline’s formation shows no signs of easing, as three towns lay claim to being the birthplace of Qantas.

Longreach, Cloncurry and Winton — located in the state’s remote Outback — all argue they are the true home of the national carrier.

“It’s a very proud western Queensland story that couldn’t have happened anywhere else,” said Jeff Close, an amateur historian from the town of Winton, 1300km northwest of Brisbane.

Dream springs from Cloncurry riverbed

A century ago, on November 16, 1920, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited was registered.

Its co-founders, Sir Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, had wanted to establish an airline to alleviate the tyranny of distance facing residents living in Australia’s outback.

“We go with what Sir Hudson Fysh himself said,” Close said. “[Qantas] was conceived in Cloncurry, born in Winton and grew up in Longreach.”

In 1919, then-prime minister Billy Hughes announced a prize of 10,000 British pounds for a Great Air Race for Australians who wanted to fly home from Great Britain after World War I.

Fysh and McGinness were tasked with surveying possible aircraft landing strips across western Queensland and the Northern Territory.

As they travelled over rough terrain from Longreach to Darwin in a Ford Model T, at an average speed of 25 kilometres per day, the pair hatched a plan to establish an air service connecting remote communities.

But according to Hamish Griffin, a Cloncurry resident and advocate for cheaper regional airfares, it was in the dry riverbed of the Cloncurry River that the idea really gained traction.

“If people really, really do a deep dive into the story of how it came about, they would really know that Cloncurry was definitely the founding place of Qantas,” Griffin said.

In December 1919, McGinness came to the aid of a wealthy grazier whose car had broken down in the riverbed.

They formed a friendship and the grazier, Fergus McMaster, agreed to financially back the plans for an airline.

Early moneymen hail from Winton

But Close says it was 347km away in Winton, to the south-east of Cloncurry, that Qantas really took flight.

“Winton really is and was the mover and shaker as … the early money mainly came from Winton,” Close said.

He said five of the company’s eight original shareholders were from Winton. “They put the money up and got it going,” Close said. “They had the drive, the expertise, the youth, the exuberance, the need … Winton was just in the right place at the right time.”

The airline’s first board meeting was held at the Winton Club on February 10, 1921.

The club is still there today, proudly displaying the company’s original articles of association, which list Winton as the airline’s headquarters.

Close feels so strongly about Winton’s role in the airline’s story, he wrote a play about Qantas and performed it at the Winton Club on the airline’s 90th anniversary.

Next year he plans on putting on another play, to recreate the first board meeting in the room it took place in a century earlier.

Longreach becomes airline’s home

A decision was made at that meeting to move operations to Longreach, for logistical reasons.

The town is now home to the Qantas Founders Museum, where visitors can tour significant aircraft including the Super Constellation, the first pressurised plane, and the first jet aircraft the airline owned — the Boeing 707-138 VH-EBA, named “City of Canberra”.

“Longreach had the rail head, the major services came into Longreach, the railway stopped here,” said Tony Martin, the museum’s CEO. “It made sense for Longreach to be the hub to start the airline.”

The hangar built in 1922 to house the planes is now a national heritage-listed site.

It’s the oldest civil aviation building in Australia.

“It’s the place where the airline began its operations,” Martin said. “[Qantas is] one of the only airlines in the world to build their own aircraft, and they did it here in Longreach.

“How exciting is that?”

Qantas is ‘Vegemite, thongs … it’s home’

A century on, the residents of Cloncurry, Winton and Longreach still like to wind each other up about which town can really claim to be the birthplace of Qantas.

Griffin said that because the museum was located in Longreach, it could be “forgiven” for portraying itself as the birthplace of the airline.

But he said, with a wry smile, the record needed to be set straight. “It’s our time to shine. Cloncurry —we’re the place.”

Close said the three towns squabbled over the airline’s history like siblings. “Like kids in a family we can all have our scraps, but in the end we are united very much by our pride in Qantas,” he said.

With a grin, Martin admitted he could be guilty of stoking the “great friendly rivalry” between the towns.

“If I could say to our neighbouring towns, I guess Longreach, like Qantas, had the vision to tell the story here,” he said.

But, all jokes aside, he said the airline’s 100th anniversary was a chance to celebrate one of western Queensland’s greatest exports.

“For us to be part of a story that’s 100 years old, and is such a global story …,” he said.

“Qantas, it’s Vegemite, it’s thongs, it’s koala bears, it’s up there with that branding. It’s home.”

– ABC / Ellie Grounds

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