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Civil aviation in Australia was in one sense brought into being by the pilots who returned to the country after World War I.[i] In response to the rising use of aircraft in warfare – Turkish positions were bombed with hand grenades from Italian aircraft during the Italo-Turkish war in 1911[ii] – the Commonwealth government established the Australian Flying Corps in 1912 and the Central Flying School in the following year at Point Cook, Victoria. At the 1911 Imperial Conference in London, it had been agreed that aviation needed to be fostered by all national armed forces in the Empire. Australia was the first Commonwealth country to do so. 

Panorama of crowd assembled at the reception for Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith at the end of the first trans-Pacific flight, Mascot Aerodrome, Sydney, 10 June 1928,(National Library of Australia)

Some Australians had a more roundabout path into aviation via the defence forces. Bert Hinkler, for example, had been rejected after applying to join the newly formed aviation section of the Australian Army. He left Australia in 1913 and gained a position in the Sopwith aircraft factory in south-west London. He enlisted in the British Royal Naval Air Services in September 1914.

These aviators were imperial nationalists. While being patriots and Australian nationalists, they were also empire loyalists. Their wartime experience also left them restive and not a little devil-may-care at the cessation of hostilities. During March 1919, the Australian government, at the instigation of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, announced a breathtakingly large prize of £10,000 – the average weekly wage was then just over £9 – for the winner of an air race from England to Australia. Pilots had to be Australian and they needed to complete the journey in no more than 30 days in a British-made plane. Six aircraft and sixteen men entered the competition. The event unfolded like a Bulldog Drummond saga:

four [men] died in crashes, two were arrested as spies in Yugoslavia and two others, after a forced landing in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), had to fend off local tribesmen with hand grenades. Victory went to Ross and Keith Smith (both… [immediately] Knighted) in a British-built twin-engine Vickers Vimy heavy bomber, repaired en route with chewing gum and pieces of fruit crates.[iii]

Charles Kingsford Smith with bags of the first official mail between Australia and England, Croydon Airport, Brisbane, 1931 (National Library of Australia)

This real-life adventure struck the popular imagination so much so that a Sydney manufacturer produced a children’s board game, ‘The Sir Ross Smith Aeroplane Race Game’.[iv]

Imperial airspace was one of a few spaces in which aviators could operate: the others were private, commercial and national. And it was a space which accommodated women. Commercial space was far less accommodating: between 1924-27 the International Commission on Air Navigation banned women from holding commercial licenses. Transnational flight gave some women opportunities to explore imperial airspace.[v] Empire aviatrixes thrilled publics across the world with their death-defying feats. British pilot Amy Johnson arrived in Brisbane in 1930; Freda Thompson was the first Australian women to fly solo from England to Australia in 1934; Maude Bonney was the first Australian women to fly solo to England in 1933 and Africa in 1937.This, as a number of writers have noted, was the so-called ‘heroic age’ or ‘golden age’ of Australian and imperial aviation.

There is a leather suitcase in the National Library of Australia.[vi] It relates to an incident in 1935 when pilot Charles Kingsford Smith, co-pilot P.G. (Bill) Taylor and radio operator John Stannage had taken off from Sydney’s Mascot Airport for New Zealand on a promotional freight and mail run. During the flight the centre engine’s exhaust manifold broke off and badly damaged the starboard propeller. Turning back to Sydney, Kingsford Smith closed down the starboard engine, fully powered the other two and jettisoned the cargo. The port engine, however, started leaking oil. Taylor walked out on the starboard wing strut six times to save its oil in a thermos. Each time the full thermos was passed to Stannage in the cockpit who poured it into the suitcase. Taylor then topped up the port engine using the oil in the suitcase. He was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal for this act of heroism.[vii]

Wreckage of Amy Johnson’s DH Moth after a crash landing at Eagle Farm, Queensland, 1930 (National Library of Australia)

Such stories circulated powerfully in the culture and feed into imperial dimensions of civil aviation. Governments did not just make significant financial contributions to supporting the fledgling industry. They also made heavy emotional, ideological and political investments.[viii] While aviation grew significantly between the war, it spread out, if somewhat slowly, through empires. Britain, like Belgium, France and the Netherlands, strove to build aerial networks within its empire which reached its territorial height in this period. Capturing markets was certainly a consideration. But more importantly, as Marc Dierikx has noted, ‘national prestige’ was paramount.[ix]

Few private interwar airlines were profitable in Britain or Australia and most were heavily subsidised. Contracts to fly mail and freight were the most usual form these took. Thus airlines were first and foremost ‘high-profile national flag-carriers’.[x] Legal considerations also prompted governmental intervention. The Paris Convention of 1919 at the Versailles Peace Conferences had agreed that the international movement of aircraft should not be unrestricted. Countries were given sovereignty above their territories and international waters.[xi]

Aerial connections with territories in the Empire allowed imperialist rivalries to be played out in a new space. Dominance in different air spaces and the level of technological sophistication were measures of the health of empires. And imperialistic competitiveness was ‘the decisive factor in government promotion of the development of long-distance air routes’.[xii]

Merging four struggling British airlines, Imperial Airways Ltd was established by the British government in 1924. It purposes was to forge routes between Britain and its empire. Two year later at the Imperial Conference, a plan was proposed for creating a regular service from Britain to India, Ceylon and Australia. Imperial Airways increasingly withdrew from European services to concentrate on this route. In the process it ran into diplomatic and other clashes with the Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij (KNILM), the airline of the Dutch East Indies, founded in 1928.[xiii] KNILM wished to commence a Batavia to Sydney service in 1929. Writing to the Netherlands Consul-general in Sydney that year, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce pronounced that as far as he was concerned, ‘air services to and from Australia operated by an airline other than Imperial Airways or an Australian company, were simply out of the question’.[xiv] Due to a complex set of international relations and agreements, KNILM did begin a twice-weekly service to Sydney from July 1938. But a Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) aircraft was not to touch down in Australia, on this occasion in Sydney, until 9 December 1951.

The imperial connection was strengthened in other ways. In 1934, to get around a number of legal restrictions, QANTAS and Imperial Airways set up subsidiary named Qantas Empire Airways which was generally referred to as QEA or Qantas. Substantially subsidised, it operated its first London to Brisbane flight in December that year. QEA was legally an Australian company and it had the contract for the Brisbane-Singapore leg (which fell through) and from 1935 that from Darwin-Singapore. This was the beginning of the Kangaroo Route. Imperial Airways, however, was the majority shareholder in the company. But the bonds of Empire were also threatened that year. QEAs first flight had taken 12 days. Three months earlier, the MacRobertson Air Race, held to commemorate Melbourne’s centenary and with a prize pool of £15,000, had been run from Mildenhalk near London to Melbourne. The winner of the handicap division, and the overall runner up with a race time of 81 hours and 10 minutes – under three-and-a half days – was a Dutch airliner flying an American-built Douglas DC-2. It had been entered by KLM.[xv]

This powerfully symbolised a watershed in civil aviation. America had made significant technological advances in stress metal aircraft and aerodynamics. The days of wooden-bodied planes were numbered. Imperial Airways responded quickly by devising a scheme to introduce the ‘Empire Flying Boat Scheme’ – later renamed the ‘Empire Air Mail Service’ – which were much more comfortable and roughly as fast as their competitors. Imperial Airways formally adopted the scheme in January 1936 which meant that ultimately QEA had little choice than to follow suit.[xvi] This, however, did not happen until January 1937. A negotiating team was sent to Britain which initially rejected the plan. Peter Ewer has documented the ‘political surrender’ brought about, among other things, by pressure applied by Britain, lobbying by certain ‘Australian politicians and officials’ and the desire of the Australian government to avoid international embarrassment from ‘declining again the repeated Dutch offers to run the Douglas service on from Java’.[xvii]

During World War II Qantas stuck by the Empire, keeping open the Imperial transport route from Perth via Colombo to Karachi and London. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Australia began to shift its allegiance from Britain to the USA.[xviii] After the war, in a post-colonial environment, imperial nationalism gave way to Australia nationalism in civil aviation.

Heritage Sources 

Individual Australians such as Lawrence Hargrave were pioneers in the initial development of aviation in a world context. However, the overall development of aviation in Australia was heavily influenced during the first half of the 20th century by developments in the UK. The interests of the British Empire had long term effects on the selection of key personnel, aircraft types and methods of operation in Australia. The 1919 air race from Britain to Australia celebrated the idea of a direct aerial connection between the two countries[xix]. Over time local needs and the developing local aviation industry became more important and influential. By the end of WW2 Australia had stepped decisively away from the British Empire and from then on was more influenced by world developments, particularly those in the USA.

The role of empire and the shift towards a more Australian national interest is traced in many collections. The QANTAS historical holdings, for example, cover this transition in great detail. Major national collections also contain many items that illuminate Australia’s relationship first to Great Britain and then increasingly to the wider world.

The existing major collections in museums and archives are in the main readily accessible to the public and well-maintained. Access to these information sources through a single digital portal would be highly desirable. There are also major private collections of photographic and documentary material which relate to this theme, including the tens of thousands of images held by the photographer John Hopton[xx], and the extensive aviation archive compiled by Keith Meggs, both of Victoria. Whilst both of these collections have some online presence, notably the Monash University presentation of Meggs’ material[xxi], their long term future and accessibility remain unresolved.

Museums, Collections & Archives

Australian War Memorial, ACT

Large collection of material such as objects, records, photographs relating to aviation’s role during the great wars in association with the British Empire such as oral histories from WW1 mainly Gallipoli.

Also a small collection of artworks and portraits of RAAF personnel that are associated with the British Empire. Also includes material regarding the Empire Air Training Scheme.

National Archives of Australia, ACT

Reports, documents and other ephemera relating to Australian aviation and the British Empire such as papers and speeches by Prime Ministers and Secret Documents from the Imperial Conference in 1930.

National Film Sound Archive, ACT

Oral histories and songs about empire aviators such as Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Alan Cobham. Newsreels and audio recordings of aviation’s role in the British Empire.

National Library of Australia, ACT

Photographs and documents relating to aviation’s involvement with the British Empire such as the Qantas Empire Airways. Suitcase used to transfer oil during the Southern Cross trans-Tasman flight.

Several WW1 medals and memorabilia belonging to Captain Charles Ulm and Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith.

National Museum of Australia, ACT

Post bag used by the Qantas Empire Airways. A large collection of memorabilia and objects relating to Sir Charles Kingsford – Smith and Captain Charles Ulm.

Neil Jensen Collection which contains material from Edgar Wikner Percival who design and manufactured aircraft for the British.

National Portrait Gallery, ACT

Portraits and busts of Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and Captain Charles Ulm. Portraits and photographs of individuals associated with empire such as Hudson Fysh and Sir Lawrence Wackett.

Australian Aviation Museum, Bankstown, NSW

Short C Class Empire Flying Boat model that was used by the Imperial Airways.

Powerhouse Museum, NSW

Has material regarding Lores Bonney a pioneering female aviator such as photographs, perfume bottles and commemorative plaque. 

State Library of New South Wales, NSW

Books, documents, pamphlets and photographs regarding the British Empire such as Qantas’s involvement with the Imperial Airways and reports on imperial aviation.

The Qantas Heritage Collection, NSW

Has material, objects and memorabilia relating to Qantas’s involvement with the Imperial Airways to form Qantas Empire Airways.

Hinkler Hall of Aviation & Hinkler House Memorial Museum, QLD


Museum dedicated to Bert Hinkler aviation pioneer during the days of Empire contains aircraft and archival material relating to Hinkler. Hinkler House was moved from England to Queensland and recreated and restored to a period when Bert Hinkler lived in it.

Qantas Founders Outback Museum, QLD

Has material relating to the early days of Qantas and its involvement with the Imperial Airways to deliver services across the Empire.

Queensland Air Museum, QLD

Ukulele that was inscribed by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith in 1931. A suitcase that belonged to a child who migrated to Australia from the UK after the war.

Queensland Museum, QLD

Mailbag used in the first air mail delivery between Australian and Britain. Bert Hinkler’s Arvo Baby used in his solo flight in 1920 and googles.

State Library of Queensland, QLD

Photographs, documents and books relating to Aviation’s involvement with the British Empire such as photographs of Qantas Empire Airways.

South Australian Aviation Museum, SA

Material relating to early aviation pioneers such as Wilkins, Harry Butler and Roy Gropler.

State Library of South Australia, SA

Papers and diaries belonging to Keith and Ross Smith.

Airways Museum, VIC

Material relating to the period of Australia’s involvement with the British Empire such as Qantas Empire Airways and Guinea Gold Airways.

Objects and ephemera relating to Ross and Keith Smith, Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.

The Harman Trophy awarded to outstanding aviators in the League of Nations. Awarded to Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Hon. Hugh Grosvenor.

Australian National Aviation Museum, VIC

Archival material relating to John Duigan who designed the first Australian made plane.

Museums Victoria, VIC

Photographs of Empire Flying Boats from Imperial Airways. 

RAAF Museum, Point Cook, VIC

 Material from Point Cook, Australia’s first air base which chronicles the RAAF involvement with the British during its creation and subsequent participation the WW1 & 2. 

State Library of Victoria, VIC

Photographs, documents and books relating to Aviation’s involvement with the British Empire such as photographs of Qantas Empire Airways.


Old Bar Airstrip - Farquhar Inlet Old Bar Rd Old Bar, NSW

Played a role in the development of air mail services. Has associations with early empire aviators such as Jean Batten, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm.

QANTAS Hangar Longreach, Landsborough Hwy, Longreach, QLD

Listed on the National Heritage List and several other heritage lists, it was the place where Qantas began delivering airmail for Imperial Airways under Qantas Empire Airways.

 Smith Brothers Memorial, James Schofield Drive, Adelaide, SA

The memorial dedicated to the Smith brothers who completed the first official England to Australia flight. Their original aircraft the Vickers Vimy is preserved at this site.


People & Organizations

Amy Johnson

First woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Material such as photographs and documents regarding Amy Johnson can be found in the National Archives of Australia and other state libraries.

Bert Hinkler

Early Queensland pioneer aviator. Material regarding Hinkler can be found in many museums and institutions such as Queensland Museum, Hinkler Hall of Fame, National Film Sound Archive and National Archives.

Charles Kingsford Smith

One of the most famous pioneer aviators material associated with him can be found in museums such as the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia, Airways Museum, Queensland Air Museum and the National Archives of Australia to name a few.


One of the last surviving airlines to be associated with the period of imperialism. Qantas or Qantas Empire Airways material can be found in the National Museum of Australia, Qantas Heritage Collection, Qantas Founders Outback Museum, National Library of Australia, State Library of Australia and Airways Museum.

Ross and Keith Smith

The brothers were the winners of the England to Australia competition. Material regarding them can be found a number of museums such as the Airways Museum, National Museum of Australia, South Australian Aviation Museum, National archives and the State Library of South Australia.

[i] Robert Lee, Transport: An Australian History, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, p268.

[ii] See James D. Crabtree, On air defense, Praeger Publishers, Westport, 1994, p9.

[iii] Margaret Simpson, On the Move: a history of transport in Australia, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004, p134.

[iv] One is held in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. See http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=196074 accessed 20 February 2014.

[v] Liz Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Quebec, 2008.

[vi] Jennifer Gall, Library of Dreams: Treasures from the National Library of Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2011, p92.

[vii] Keith Issacs, ‘Taylor, Sir Patrick Gordon (1896-1966)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 12, MUP, Melbourne, 1990.

[viii] See, for example, Gordon Pike, Air Empire: British Civil Aviation 1919-1939, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2009.

[ix] Mark L. J. Dierikx, ‘Struggle for Prominence: Clashing Dutch and British Interests on the Colonial Air Routes, 1918-42’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 26, no 2, 1991, pp333-351

[x] ibid, p334.

[xi] Undoubtedly most at the Conferences would have read or know of H.G. Wells, The War in the Air, London, 1908, which described the outbreak of a first world war based on aerial warfare.

[xii] Dierikx, op cit, p335.

[xiii] Howard Dick et al, The Emergence of a National Economy: An economic history of Indonesia 1800-2000, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002, ch 6.

[xiv] Dierikx, op cit, p345.

[xv] State Library of NSW, ‘MacRobertson Centenary Air Race’, http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/history_nation/aviation/crossing_oceans/air/macrobertson.html accessed 21 February 2014.

[xvi] Dierikx, op cit, p347.

[xvii] Peter Ewer, ‘A gentlemen’s club in the clouds: Reassessing the Empire Mail Scheme, 1933-1939’, Journal of Transport History, vol 28, no 1, 2007, p83.

[xviii] Peter J. Rimmer, ‘Australia Through the Prism of Qantas: Distance Makes a Comeback’, The Otemon Journal of Australian Studies, vol 31, p142.

[xix] Simpson, M., 2004, On the Move: a history of transport in Australia, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney.

[xx] Dupas R., n.d., John Hopton Collection, 1000aircraftphotos.com, accessed 14th July 2014 http://www.1000aircraftphotos.com/Contributions/Hopton/Hopton.html

[xxi] Naughton, R., 2000, The Duigan Pusher Biplane of 1909-11 by Keith Meggs, Hargreave: Aviation and Aeromodelling-Independent Evolutions and Histories, The Centre for Telecommunications and Information Engineering, Monash University, accessed 1st August 2014 http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/duigan_ahs_meggs.html