Norman Brearley
Norman Brearley Norman Brearley

Most people, Australians & non-Australians alike, when asked "which airline operated Australia's 1st scheduled air service?" would answer 'QANTAS'. They would be wrong.

Australia's 1st scheduled air service was operated by Western Australian Airways Limited, departing Geraldton, W.A., on 5 December, 1921. QANTAS (Queensland & Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd.), although established on 16 November 1920, did not operate its 1st scheduled service until 2nd November 1922.

Firstly, a little historical background, to help set the scene. Norman Brearley, founder of Western Australian Airways, was born in Geelong, Victoria, in 1890, but his family moved to W.A. (then with a population of just some 282,000 & only some 334,000 by 1921) in 1906. In 1911, he saw his first aircraft &, in April 1915, after a 5-year apprenticeship as a mechanic, he worked his passage to the U.K. & enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. He was badly wounded in France in October 1916 & returned to W.A. to convalesce. He returned to the U.K., becoming a flying instructor & ending the Great War as the commander of a flying instructors' school, as a Major. He therefore returned to Australia in 1919, with a relatively rare combination of considerable aviation skills & extensive flying experience, plus two recently-purchased Avro 504Js, a spare engine & other spare parts.

The Spirits of Ansett
WWI had created great interest in aviation in Australia, with the local press taking a keen interest in new developments, record attempts etc. So Brearley's return created considerable interest; giving him many opportunities to promote his ideas for the future of civil aviation in Western Australia. Brearley's first public flying demonstration, complete with a band, took place at the Western Australia Cricket Association Oval, Perth (there were no airfields) on 2 August 1919, using one of his Avro 504Js. It was followed by aerobatics & joy-rides (10 minutes cost £5 ($10), which was more than the then average weekly wage). Charter & joy flights throughout south-west W.A. provided cash, experience & public exposure, whilst keeping the two aircraft near to Brearley's base, on the shores of the Swan River, in Perth.

In May 1921, the Australian Federal Government advertised for tenders for its 1st subsidised (maximum £25,000) air-mail & passenger contract, operating a weekly service between Geraldton & Derby, in W.A., for an initial period of 12 months. Tenders were to close in July. The planned route, via such 'larger' towns as Carnarvon, Onslow, Roebourne, Port Hedland & Broome, covered some 1,900km. Much of the isolated & sparsely-populated area to be covered had never been seen from the air. Roads were mostly non-existent, with transport still being mainly by horse, donkey, or camel. The North-West had few people, but over 5 million sheep.

Brearley studied various aircraft types & eventually cabled the Bristol Aeroplane Company, in England; asking if they could supply six 3-seat, 250hp Puma-engined Bristol 28 Tourer Coupé biplanes, capable of cruising at a then respectable 136kph, if his tender was successful. Bristol replied that they could get the aircraft to Brearley, by ship, by late-October/early-November, with payment (some £14,000, including spares) on delivery. Brearley decided to tender for a service, to start on 5 December.

On 2 August, 1921, Brearley was advised that his tender had been accepted. He immediately cabled the Bristol Aeroplane Company, to confirm the order for the 6 Tourers, which arrived only 10 days before the planned commencement date. The first prospectus for Western Australian Airways Ltd. was issued on 29 August, with a nominal capital of £50,000 (of which only some £9,200 had been subscribed by September). The next step was to hire 5 more pilots; Charles Kingsford 'Smithy' Smith, Len Taplin, Bob Fawcett, Arthur Blake & Val Abbott. The preparation of suitable landing grounds proved to be somewhat harder. The Civil Aviation Branch (C.A.B.) was to arrange the normal & emergency landing sites, but, with limited resources & unprepared to spend large amounts on them, contracted most work to local authorities. To make matters worse, those doing the work had often never seen an aircraft & had little idea of their requirements. The vast distances involved, combined with lack of resources, meant that the C.A.B. did little supervision of construction. One landing site was built as a flattened circle, just 31m in diameter & surrounded by 60cm high white stones, to, in theory, make it easier for the pilot to spot. Even the planned main base at Geraldton was found to be well below an acceptable standard & was later abandoned. Complaints from Brearley, after his own survey, fell on deaf ears.

The Bristol Tourers were to carry such 'Essential Equipment' as spare parts, tools, food rations & portable telephones (provided by willing local Post Office staff, to allow pilots to tap into telegraph lines, in case of emergencies). Drinking water was not carried, as it was heavy & it was felt that water from the radiator could be used, in emergencies.

On Sunday 4 December 1921, three of the Bristol Tourers (G-AUDG, G-AUDI & G-AUDK) positioned from Perth to Geraldton, in preparation for the 1st service, the next day.
The Spirits of Ansett
Pilots at Langley Park, Perth, on 4 December, 1921, prior to the Bristol 28 Tourers departing for Geraldton, in preparation for the 1st service the next day. (Left-to-right - Charles Kingsford Smith, Bob Fawcett (killed the next day), Norman Brearley, Len Taplin & Val Abbott).
The Spirits of Ansett
Bristol Tourers of Western Australian Airways at Langley Park, Perth, in late-1921.
The Spirits of Ansett
Bristol Tourer G-AUDI.
The Spirits of Ansett
Bristol Tourer G-AUDG.
On 5 December, Len Taplin took off first, in G-AUDG, followed by Bob Fawcett & 'Flying Mechanic' Edward Broad as his passenger, in G-AUDI. Soon afterwards Norm Brearley followed, with passengers M.P. Durack & Geoff Jacoby, in G-AUDJ. They flew in line, some 100m apart. About 130km north of Geraldton, Len Taplin made an emergency landing on the Murchison House Station, after his engine began misfiring. Bob Fawcett, in G-AUDI, reduced height & circled the area, to check on Taplin & G-AUDG. He apparently reduced speed too much, stalled & crashed, killing both occupants on impact. Norm Brearley, not being able to see Fawcett & wanting to check on Taplin's situation, landed G-AUDJ some 3km away. Soon, two Aboriginal station hands arrived on horseback & advised that one aircraft had crashed, killing both people on board. Ironically, Taplin had soon fixed the engine problem. Fawcett & Broad were buried in the Murchison House cemetery, with the service overseen by the station's manager. Australia's first scheduled airline service had ended in disaster. The C.A.B.'s investigation found that the crash had occurred due to an "Error of judgement; pilot banked too steeply in landing in rough country".

The 2 remaining aircraft were flown back to Perth the next day & Norman Brearley suspended operations until he was satisfied that the standard of landing-grounds, provided by the C.A.B., was adequate.
The Spirits of Ansett
The graves of Ted Broad & Bob Fawcett (early)
The Spirits of Ansett
The graves of Ted Broad & Bob Fawcett (later)
Subject to severe public criticism, the Acting Minister for Defence (of which the C.A.B. was then a branch), admitted that the expenditure on the landing grounds had been just £200 at Geraldton, £300 at Port Hedland (both of which were later abandoned, in favor of sites selected by W.A.A.), £355 at Carnarvon, £190 at Derby, £35 at Wallal (between Port Hedland & Broome) & just £18.15s at Roebourne.

On 21 February, 1922, Western Australian Airways (W.A.A.) recommenced weekly services on the Geraldton-Port Hedland section of its route, after becoming satisfied that the landing facilities, including emergency landing grounds, were now safe.  This work had been done after an extensive survey done by W.A.A. pilots Peter Hansen & Charles Kingsford-Smith, which found major problems with many of the sites.

On 06 April, 1922 W.A.A. recommenced weekly services over its complete Geraldton-Derby route.  The complete Geraldton-Derby flight took some 2.5 days; departing Geraldton Friday afternoons (after the train from Perth arrived with the mail) & arriving Derby at 08:00 Mondays, departing 09:00 & arriving back at Geraldton late-Wednesday.

The original rate was 1 shilling per mile for passengers (meaning that a Geraldton-Derby flight cost some £60 - over 13 times the then average weekly wage). The standard fares were gradually reduced & by September 1923, the Geraldton-Derby fare was £23. On 5 December 1923, W.A.A.'s contract for Geraldton-Derby airmail was renewed for 3 years & on 17 January 1924, W.A.A.'s Derby-Geraldton service was extended southwards, from Geraldton to Perth, after W.A.A., now commonly referred to as simply 'Airways', were allowed to compete with the state railway. During June 1925, W.A.A. ordered three four-passenger D.H.50As, to begin replacing the Bristol Tourers & on 13 December 1926, Western Australian Airways Ltd. changed its name to West Australian Airways Ltd. On 2 July 1928, Australia's first interstate airmail contract, between Perth & Adelaide, was awarded to West Australian Airways, for 5 years, using four 14-passenger D.H.66 Hercules. Services began on 26 May 1929.

Early in 1934, the Federal Government decided to extend the Perth-Wyndham route to Daly Waters & sought new tenders for the complete route. On 19 April, the Commonwealth Government awarded the 5-year Perth-Daly Waters route contract to MacRobertson Miller Aviation Co. (M.M.A.), rather than W.A.A., to the great surprise of many. M.M.A. began operations on 3 October, leaving W.A.A. with only its now unsubsidised Perth-Adelaide route.

During April 1936, Adelaide Airways Ltd. offered to purchase West Australian Airways & on 12 June, Adelaide Airways purchased the company for a reported £25,000. On 1 July, Adelaide Airways & West Australian Airways became part of the new Australian National Airways Pty. Ltd., which was later to become the giant of Australian domestic airlines. 'Airways', Australia's first airline, had survived for less than 15 years.

Fred Niven
May 2004
Photos via Merv Prime)