Southern Cross Award Winner
Bush Pilots Airways Limited (BPA)
Bush Pilots Airways Limited was established in Cairns in 1951 and over the next 30 years, grew into a major regional carrier servicing much of rural and remote Queensland. For the residents and businesses in those communities affected by the tyranny of distance, the airline was a life-line to the outside world.
The airline was the vision of founder Sir Robert Henry Norman OBE. While serving as a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in Europe during World War II, Sir Robert would often think of establishing his own company, “Bush Pilots”. It took until 1951 for his dream to be realised.
Sir Robert was an honorary pilot for the Queensland Aerial Ambulance in Cairns. While on a medical emergency call out to a cattle station west of Charters Towers, owned by grazier, Bev Anning, Sir Robert and Anning discussed the need for an outback emergency air service with an aircraft more suitable than a Tiger Moth for carrying patients. Anning suggested graziers could help fund the service in a partnership with the North Queensland Aero Club.
After seeking legal advice, Sir Robert instead decided on establishing a limited liability company. A prospectus was drawn up and the company launched with three initial shareholders.
The company’s first aircraft was a De Havilland DH-90 “Dragonfly” (VH-AAD), which was purchased from Adastra Airways Ltd in Sydney. Sir Robert flew the aircraft up to Cairns on 19 June 1951 and it went into operation on 23 June.
As the number of shareholders increased over the next few years, the company was able to expand its fleet. By the second half of the decade, it had 11 four-seat Auster Autocars flying throughout Cape York Peninsula, the Atherton Tableland and the north Queensland plains.
In 1957 Sir Sydney Williams OBE joined the board as a “city” director as the other directors were outback cattle station owners or managers. In 1962 he became Chairman and when Sir Robert Norman left in 1965 took on the role of Managing Director also. In 1959, the company purchased its first all metal aircraft, a Cessna 182, and started operating a flying surgeon service based out of Longreach.
With Sir Sydney at the helm, the airline continued to expand as companies such as Craig Mostyn & Co. Pty Ltd and Shaw Savill shipping line took up shares and invested money to finance expansion into larger aircraft and a larger route network. The Company’s first scheduled air service commenced in 1968 flying between Karumba and Cairns.
In May 1972 Bush Pilots absorbed Queensland Pacific Airways Ltd taking over its Douglas DC-3 aircraft to boost northern services while adding new services further south including: Brisbane to Toowoomba, Dalby and Roma in 1974: and, in the following year, to Rockhampton, Cunnamulla, Biloela and the Burnett.
The fleet was expanded to include four Britten-Norman Trislanders in 1975 and two Cessna 404s in 1977. The services north from Brisbane were popular with business travellers and tourists alike.
In 1978 Bush Pilots Airways change its name to BPA. Two years later, it established the flying surgeon service in a second centre, Roma, from which surgeons could be flown to outback hospitals. It also provided services to Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory and, at one stage, was registered in Papua New Guinea where it operated a charter service for mining companies.
In September 1981, an agreement was reached which enabled BPA to streamline its reservations and ground-handling arrangements through Ansett. Then, on 1 December that year, BPA was rebranded Air Queensland.
Under its new name and the arrangements with Ansett, Air Queensland carried over 280,000 passengers annually to 89 centres across Queensland and the Northern Territory. Its 33-aircraft fleet included: six Metro propjets; three Fokker Friendship F27 propjets; six DC-3s; four Cessna 402s; two Cessna 404s; five Twin Otters; the four Trislanders; and two new turbo-prop ATR 42s.
In the mid-1980s a bidding war for Air Queensland erupted between Ansett and TAA – renamed Australian Airlines and then later merged into Qantas. Both carriers recognised the value of regional feeder services. TAA won the day and Air Queensland became part of Australian Airlines in 1985, even though its reservations and handling were provided by Ansett (this went to Australian Airlines at the end of the Ansett contract). It was fully absorbed into Australian Airlines on 30 April 1988. Ron Entsch was General Manager up to that time.
Much of Qantaslink’s current Queensland network has its roots in the Bush Pilot Airways / BPA / Air Queensland schedule.
In line with Sir Robert’s original vision, there was much more to Bush Pilots Airways than its commercial operations. In addition to operating flying surgeon services out of two regional centres, the company and people were always ready to help out individuals and communities in times of need.
On 6 March 1956, Cyclone Agnes devastated much of far north Queensland. Despite the treacherous conditions, Sir Robert flew to outlying communities to warn them of approaching flood waters and in the days that followed, to deliver food supplies to those families cut-off by flooding. Eighteen years later when Cyclone Tracy hits Darwin on Christmas Day 1974, a new generation of pilots from the airline provided emergency response support, evacuating residents to Alice Springs. Such are the huge benefits of regional air services.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame proudly presents the 2016 “Southern Cross Award”, honouring an organisation which has made an outstanding contribution to aviation, in particular regional air services, Bush Pilots Airways.