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In his now classic book The Tyranny of Distance, first published in 1966, Geoffrey Blainey asked his readers: ‘Were aircraft ever as miraculous as the first Australian mail steamers which were faster than any other form of passenger transport and carried the latest news as well? Did aircraft shape the lives of Australians more than the network of railways in the nineteenth century? Were aircraft in their first half century ever as miraculous as the international telegraph which conveyed messages and news faster in the 1870s than the latest aircraft can carry them?’.[i] For Blainey, the answer to all these questions was a vaguely qualified no. This perhaps explains why he only devoted 7 of the 365 pages of his book to the rise of aircraft. Many, however, would disagree with his assessment.  

Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, November 1, 1934 (State Library of Queensland)

The Tyranny of Distance is essentially a work about the nineteenth century. In terms of modern inventions, it concentrates on the first surge of change in Australia brought about by railways, steamships and the telegraph. The rise of civil aviation was part of the next phase of technological innovation which occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century primarily around the development of aircraft, cars and radio.

In his book Wings to the World, Hudson Fysh, early Australian aviator and chairman of Qantas until 1967, wrote that his generation in the industry had been ‘dealers in time and space’, ‘lifting our former isolation and enabling us to take our part in world affairs’.[ii] Aircraft increasingly shrank space as they became faster, reducing isolation. Reporting on the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race that had been won by Campbell Black and Charles Scott, the Argus wrote that:

In the [eighteen] ‘sixties Melbourne was 70 to 100 days out from England; a few years ago it was six weeks distant; and in 1926 Sir Alan Cobham opened up a new vista by reducing the time to 27 days. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith made it in 12 days in 1929; and two years later Scott flew to England in 10 days. But the air race has made those flights, valuable as they were as pioneering achievements, seem like leisurely strolls. Where pioneers walked, Scott and Black ran.[iii]

As Graeme Davison has noted, in two generations, people went from measuring international travel time from weeks, to days and finally to hours.[iv]

Domestically, remote communities were to benefit enormously from developments in civil aviation. In 1926, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was established as a partnership between the Australian Inland Mission and Qantas. Championed by the Reverend John Flynn, the RFDS was the world’s first aerial medical organisation. Its first flight took off on 17 May 1928. Later, Ernestine Hill was to write that ‘the most elegant cry for the Flying Doctor is a silent one – the station graveyards and the little graves’ that were scattered throughout outback Australia.[v] State Department of Health Nurses began to work on the RFDS planes not long after the commencement of the service and in 1947 it employed the Service’s first nurse. At the end of the twentieth century nurses – mainly female – were performing around 85 per cent of health care as sole practitioners. Nurse-Doctor teams were used in emergencies. At this time the service was flying around 8.8.million kilometres a year, servicing 155,000 clients, 14,500 of which needed to be hospitalised.[vi]

Other services followed. The Aerial Medical Service, operating at the top end of the Northern Territory, was set up in 1943. Established in 1924, the Royal Far West Children’s Home developed an aerial transport service in the 1930s and lobbied the NSW government to construct airstrips. Nancy Bird-Walton was employed to run this aerial scheme in 1935.[vii] Angel Flight, an Australia charity that provides health care, was established it April 2003. Its founder, Bill Bristow, was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2009 for services to rural and remote communities.

Civil aviation was to have a significant impact on only a small numbers of Australians in terms of isolation until late 1960s. It did, however, for many years serve to heighten White Australia’s sense of remoteness from the Mother country and, from World War Two, the United States as well as its precarious position in Asia. Qantas, for example, did not commence its first services outside the Empire until just after it was nationalised in 1947. In 1978, advertising executive and broadcaster Phillip Adams remarked: ‘It’s enormously encouraging to see more and more of us queuing at Customs at Mascot or Tullamarine with our cartons full of trannies and Johnny Walker bought at a useful discount in Singapore. It show our growing sophistication and our ability to come to terms with our Asian destiny’.[viii]

Heritage Sources

Isolation by definition is hard to represent through physical items; photographs and personal accounts provide a more direct path of access to this story.  Collections of this type at the NMA, the NLA and the major state archive collections are potential sources. There is undoubtedly more important privately owned material still to be identified and collected. It is also reasonable to view items associated with the 1919-20 air race as part of this story, in that the race was held to establish direct and rapid aerial communication on a route where sea travel took weeks or months. The Australian War Memorial (AWM) holds a DH9 aircraft that completed the gruelling trip, and the winning Vickers Vimy is preserved in an individual case at Adelaide Airport. The work of the RFDS is also relevant to this theme and is represented in a range of state and local collections.

Material relevant to this theme that is held within established collecting institutions is mostly both accessible and well cared for. It is anticipated that many privately held items will be found through the course of this research which may be vulnerable to loss.

Sister Edwards and Dr. L. Dawson inside the Australian Inland Mission hospital at Birdsville, Queensland, August, 1956 [picture] Bill Brindle (National Library of Australia)

Museums, Collections & Archives

Australian War Memorial, ACT

DH9 aircraft used in the 1919 -1920 air race.

National Archives  of Australia, ACT

A collection material relating to John Flynn, the founder of the Royal Flying Doctors Service. These include documents and oral histories from John Flynn and the people who knew him.

Documents and records that are related to E J Conellan and Conellan Airways. These include contracts, lease agreements and aerial surveys.

National Library of Australia, ACT

A collection of photographs, documents and ephemera that relates to airlines that connected regional centres such as MacRobertson Millers and Qantas. The NLA also has material relating to the delivery of airmail to isolated communities.

National Museum of Australia, ACT

Jan Phillips Collection contains items from the East West Airlines, a regional airline that serviced regional centres and major cities. This collection contains uniforms, photographs and East – West magazines.

Australia Post Historical Collection contains material from Australia Post dating from the late 19th century. These include mail bags that were used to deliver mail through Qantas to remote and isolated communities.

Butler Air Transport Museum Tooraweenah NSW

A regional airline that helped provide services to local communities in the region. This museum is dedicated to Cecil Arthur Butler and the airline he created.

Narromine Aviation Museum, NSW

A regional centre and major airhub since the early 20th century.

The Qantas Heritage Collection, NSW

The Qantas Heritage Collection contains material from when it began as a regional airline and then as part of Qantas Empire Airways.

Central Australian Aviation Museum, NT

Situated in the hangar where Conellan Airways began, the museum houses several historic aircraft and memorabilia relating to Conellan, Royal Flying Doctors and aviation in the Northern Territory.

Royal Flying Doctor Service, Alice Spring Tourist Facility, NT

A major organisation that connected regional communities through the delivery of medical services. The facility at Alice Springs features material relating to its formation and history.

Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, QLD

Contains a gallery that showcases development and history of the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service and aviation in regional Queensland.

Qantas Founders Outback Museum, QLD

Is a museum devoted to Qantas and its development. Has material relating to Qantas early years servicing regional Queensland through airmail services and the first inaugural flight of the RFDS.

Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre, VIC

A major regional air hub that was part of the war and also serviced civilian aircraft. The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre is dedicated to Nhill part in early aviation and its continued use as a recreational aerodrome. The heritage centre also encompasses the Nhill Aeradio Station.

Sir Reginald Ansett Transport Museum, VIC

Museum devoted to Ansett and its founder which has a great impact on Hamilton and the region in its early days. Has memorabilia, records and aircraft from the early days of Ansett.

TAA Museum, VIC

Museum focusing on the Trans-Australia Airlines and Australian Airlines. It has uniforms, advertisement and historical documents relating to TAA and other Australian airlines.


Qantas Huts (former) Sydney Hwy , West Island Settlement, Cocos Keeling Island

An isolated refuelling point in the Cocos Keeling Islands, this site was often used in the early days of aviation by aircraft on their way to South Asia.

Arthur Butler Memorial Aerodrome , Aerodrome Road, Tooraweenah, NSW

The base of operations for Butler Air Transport which provided services to regional communities in NSW.

QANTAS Hangar Longreach, Landsborough Hwy, Longreach, QLD

This nationally listed site is the place where Qantas had its operations providing services to the region and eventually nationwide.

Ansett's First Hangar, Ballarat Road Hamilton, Southern Grampians Shire, VIC

Hangar where Sir Reginald Ansett started his transport company which was important to the development of Hamilton as a regional aviation hub. 

 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.

Barloweerie Aerodrome, Meeberrie-Mt Wittenoom Rd on Pia Aboriginal Reserve Murchison, WA


An important site to the local community that provides essential services such as commercial air and mail services.

Royal Flying Doctor Service, House and Office, Cnr Clarendon & Fairbairn Sts Derby, WA

Listed on the WA Heritage list, this site represents the role of the flying doctors in the Kimberly communities by providing medical services to remote areas.

People & Organisations

Butler Air Transport

Butler Air Transport was an important regional air service in NSW servicing regional centres in NSW and Queensland as an air mail carrier and a civil transport airline.

Connellan Airways

Conellan Airways began as a mail carrier for the Northern Territory and Western Australia, connecting Alice Springs and Wyndham. It then became a carrier for the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service and eventually becoming a regional airline. Material regarding Connellan Airways can be found in the National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia and the Central Australian Aviation Museum.


One of the oldest continuing airlines in Australia which started out as a regional air mail carrier to become an international airline, helping to connect isolated communities. Qantas material can be found in numerous places such as the National Museum of Australia, the National Library of Australia and the Qantas Founders Outback Museum. Qantas is also associated with several sites that deal with the isolation such as the Qantas hut in the Cocos Keeling Island.


[i] Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyrany of Distance, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1977, p304.

[ii] Hudson Fysh, Wings to the World, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1970, p169.

[iii]Argus, 24 October 1934, cited in Graeme Davison, The Unforgiving Minute: How Australians Learned to Tell the Time, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p102.

[iv] ibid, pp101-2.

[v] Ernestine Hill, Flying Doctor Calling: The Flying Doctor Service of Australia, Angus and Robertson, London, 1947, p23.

[vi] Jill Barclay, ‘The Royal Flying Doctor Service in Australia: the nurses’ story’, Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no 20, 1998, p52.

[vii] Nancy Bird-Walton, My God! It's a women: the autobiography of Nancy Bird, Angus and Robertson, North Ryde, 1990.

[viii] Wray Vamplew (ed), Australians: Historical Statistics, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, Sydney, 1987, p181.