100 years of Qantas: The dark side of the world's safest airline

When Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man, named Qantas as the safest airline in the world, the Flying Kangaroo was showered with marketing manna from the heavens in which it operates.

The memorable "Qantas never crashes" scene - notably excised from the inflight versions of the movie by other world airlines with less illustrious safety records - coincided with an era when flying was riskier than it is today.

In 1988, the year of Rain Man's release, there were 29 major airline fatal accidents and incidents compared with 22 in 2019, a year which rates as the safest, in fatality terms, in aviation since 1946.

The last deadly Qantas accident was in 1951 when a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon crashed in the Central Highlands of New Guinea killing all three people aboard.

Qantas was in expert marketing flight mode again last week with prominent - albeit more muted than planned - celebrations marking the centenary of its foundation by Hudson Fysh, Fergus McMaster and Paul McGinness.

The oldest airline in the English-speaking world's beginnings in a dusty outback Queensland coincided with the last global pandemic, the Spanish flu scourge, which was at its zenith in the years 1918 and 1919.

By late 1920, the year the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS) was officially established, the pandemic was finally drawing to an end around the globe.

But a century later, another pandemic has grievously clipped Qantas' myriad wings. COVID-19 has grounded much of its fleet with thousands of its crew and staff rendered unemployed - hardly the ideal backdrop for a centennial celebration.

The premierial-induced chaos surrounding a federated Australia's open-shut-open-shut state and territory borders has only served to exacerbate the airline's unrelenting woes.


"Internationally, it will obviously take some time for Qantas to come back, given not only the implications of the virus on overseas travel but its impact on the world economy," says Jim Eames, historian and author of The Flying Kangaroo and Courage in the Skies, published by Allen & Unwin.

While Qantas's safety record is enviable, the centenary commemorations, and Raymond Babbitt himself, overlooked the full, and, at times calamitous, history of the de facto national carrier.

Only heavy fuel load-like reserves of courage, skill and tenacity in the air and on the ground have saved it from other disasters, though there was one period when even those qualities were not wholly adequate.

Six Qantas aircraft were either shot down or disabled by the Japanese during World War II and the airline also suffered several fatal accidents in its first 20 years of operation.

And despite the airline's enviable fatality-free jet-age, there have been several near misses.

One lesser-known mishap was the "Bahrain bomber" incident in 1969 when for two terrifying minutes a Qantas Boeing 707 went into a "inverted corkscrew dive" as a result of inconsistent technical information in the cockpit.

In 2010, a QF32 Airbus A380 made world headlines when it suffered a dramatic engine failure above Indonesia with the airline's impeccable safety record maintained through a combination of pilot acumen and sheer luck.

Another international headline grabber came when a Qantas 747-438 jet was involved in a near catastrophic incident when it shot past a runway as it was landing in a severe tropical storm in Bangkok.

But the war years were Qantas's darkest days in terms of the human cost. By the end of World War II, says Eames, Qantas "had lost all except one of its flying boats, 14 crew and 79 passengers" and its Empire flying boats had been shot down by Japanese Zeros off Java and Timor, destroyed on the water at Broome's Roebuck Bay or lost on Allied support missions to the war zone.

But Eames, a former Qantas director of public affairs, says that at the same time, this helped it pioneer long distance flying through its use of Catalinas for more than 30-hour non-stop flights through enemy territory, with its "Secret Double Sunrise Service" from Perth to Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Another factor that helped save the airline financially during and after World War II, says Eames, was Fysh's insistence that his airline be able to maintain its Empire, and other aircraft in its fleet, in Australia. This resulted in critical support for aircraft maintenance which the company was able to carry out on US bombers and fighters at workshops in Sydney and Brisbane as the Allies moved north to confront the Japanese.

Decades later, this helped underline the airline's enviable safety record. Yet Qantas was never able to fully exploit the publicity from Rain Man, since airline safety is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, predictably unpredictable proposition. In his days at Qantas, Eames' team always flagged the carrier's safety prowess with a mixture of circumspection and pride.

Despite a litany of safety-related "lucky breaks", as Eames phrases it, the unparalleled Qantas safety ethos was instilled in the airline early on by Fysh and his first engineer, Arthur Baird, and continued through to the jet airliner age.

Eames provides a seminal example of the trademark Qantas approach to safety.

"In the 30s, on a flight from outback Queensland to Brisbane, Captain Bill Crowther was forced to turn back due to a sandstorm. When he finally arrived in Brisbane, Crowther didn't know whether to expect a dressing down for the delay or not.

"Instead, he was invited into the head office where Fysh had gathered all his senior staff to thank him for his decision to turn back. That type of philosophy, paraphrased within the company as 'safety is no accident' continued for many years."

Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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