Great untold stories of Qantas – Book review
If Jim Eames had still been Qantas’ Director of Public Affairs and somebody else was planning to produce a book like his latest work – The Flying Kangaroo – Jim’s job might well have been to run interference on the project. But it’s clear that he enjoyed ample input from past and present Qantas identities, and the reward is a light-hearted, professionally researched and easy-to-read blend of the events, situations, humour and characters that helped define today’s Qantas as it nears its 100th birthday.
Noting there is already ample coverage of the airline’s entire history on the bookshelves, he explains his focus on people and incidents. “What I feel has been missing is perhaps the more human side of the airline so many Australians have admired over the years.”
Depicting colourful characters, daring adventures and hilarious pranks over many years, Eames sets about filling in those gaps, including coverage of some pretty scary events in the airline’s earlier years.
Among these was the Constellation that crashed and burned when an engine failed on takeoff at Mauritius (with no fatalities), the handling of which was later hailed as a model of safety management and a credit to Qantas’ crew training.
Then there was the “Bahrain Bomber” event, a temporary loss of control in a Boeing 707 at altitude over the Persian Gulf which all survived despite the aircraft having reached out and touched the sound barrier before recovering from a 5 km spiral dive. Again no fatalities but some lessons learned that helped enhance the safety of the fast-growing global industry.
The air traffic controllers were still in a learning curve too, and Qantas had its share of close shaves overseas including a near-collision over Thailand almost head on, when a giant US Air Force C5A Galaxy air transport missed a Qantas B747 by an estimated 50 feet. (The Galaxy’s transponder had been turned off.)
Following-up on that one, Qantas’ (then) safety chief Ken Lewis tracked down the Galaxy squadron commander in Hawaii and began delivering a robust rebuke. When “Lewie” paused for breath the commander reminded him, “Well, there’s a war on, you know.”
“I know that,” replied Lewie, known for his straight-talking manner, “I just didn’t know we were the bloody enemy.”
Eames’ book highlights the leadership role that Qantas has inherited throughout its history because its route distances are among the world’s longest and therefore the most demanding. The distance factor not only poses challenges in modern fleet planning, but also goes right back to the airline’s beginnings when Qantas had to build its own Avro 504K biplanes (in Longreach) to keep its fleet up to strength and well-maintained, while building the company’s self-sufficiency in days where a spare part might have been a month away or more.
Eames also describes how the airline’s founding partners’ commitment to integrity, ethics, professionalism and customer service set the foundations for the culture that has helped Qantas sustain its reputation and status among the world’s safest airlines.
Qantas operations in Papua New Guinea are, as you might expect, rich in characters, events and the occasional escapade, as are Qantas’ adventurous roles in WW2 and other conflicts. Countless pilots and engineers formed the backbone of a very large workforce, maintaining and flying DC3s, Catalinas and single-engined “bush” aeroplanes in one of the world’s most challenging aviation environments.
Post-war aircraft appraisals in the airline’s most formative years, saw Qantas leading in fleet decision-making while looking towards its own future. Eames recounts the way Qantas steered itself through or around political pressures to maintain loyalty to the UK by equipping its post-war international fleet with the Avro Tudor, an outdated derivative of the Lancaster bomber. The Tudor was only on the drawing boards and still had wartime seating, so Qantas stubbornly went for Lockheed’s Constellation. But although that aircraft played a vital role in route development it became known as “our feathered friend” because of the frequently-feathered Curtiss-Wright Cyclone engines so often noted on arriving Constellations.
The Flying Kangaroo shares new insights into the ever-shifting ground surrounding Qantas’ ownership, mergers, management interactions and its ultimate privatisation, quoting former CEO John Ward:
“Some have suggested I was unlucky enough to get the job of running Qantas during just about its most difficult period. I drew the trifecta: a pilots’ strike, the Gulf War and the recession.”
Eames also quotes what he says is the most often-repeated comment to be heard whenever Qantas old-timers gather:
“We’re glad we saw the good years.”