Exploring Australia's golden age of air travel

The most impressive aeroplane at The Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach is not the giant Boeing 747 that sits on the red dirt like a beached whale on wheels.

It's a smaller, older aircraft - a Douglas DC-3 - that compels you to take a closer look, to run your hand along its silvery body that's pocked with countless rivets.

One glance inside the twin-prop veteran's door and you're transported to a bygone era of aviation.

"We used to fly in that plane to go and visit your mother's parents," my dad says.

This aircraft - rather than stimulating intellectual questions about how far it can fly and how many passengers it carries - instead stirs the emotions.

"Oh, we used to have some fun times when we travelled to NSW in that old plane."

Although I haven't taken a flight in an aircraft quite as ancient as this, it does coax out childhood memories of flying.

Like my father, I too can remember a time when catching a plane was an event - one that involved dressing up for the occasion, having family and friends wave you off from an observation deck, and always being served food and drinks in-fight.

No doubt this shiny shrine to the history of Qantas has been stirring emotions in Australians since it opened in the mid-1990s.

The museum, set on flat land next to the Longreach Airport, was established after a group of locals decided that they wanted to preserve the story of Qantas. It has since grown into a world-class modern museum that features planes and displays that draw about 40,000 visitors each year.

One of the highlights is the original 1921 Qantas hangar, an unassuming galvanised iron building that houses a DH-61 Giant Moth biplane - an eight seat passenger plane and the first Qantas aircraft fitted with a toilet.

Next door in the main building there's an open-cockpit Avro 504K, one of the first two aircraft owned by the airline, then known as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd.

Towering over all the planes on display is the scarlet 37m high tail fin of the Boeing 747 - the biggest airliner in the world until it was surpassed in size by the Airbus A380 in 2007.

The arrival of the jumbo in 2002, which made the trip to Longreach with minimum fuel and no passengers or cargo to manage the all-too-short and narrow runway - 1684m long and 25m wide - was greeted in 40C heat by 6000 spectators, about 50 per cent more than the resident population at the time.

Visitors to the museum can now take a tour inside the plane and even don a harness and walk on the wings.

Also on display is a Boeing 707, a plane that changed the social interaction between Australia and the UK by roughly halving the travelling time to London to 28 hours. The new Boeing 707s were so fast they also introduced Australians to "jet lag" for the first time.

And while the 747 and 707 are undoubtedly the biggest planes at the museum, my father and I keep coming back to the smaller, older aircraft.

It's their accompanying stories that we especially find fascinating.

As closing time approaches we're still engrossed in tales from a time when pilots were as exotic as astronauts are today.

As we depart we chuckle as we recount the stories we've read - the one about the fearful passenger who made out his will before flying with Qantas co-founder Hudson Fysh, and the time a pilot found a snake in his open cockpit.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland.



Longreach is in central west Queensland, about 700km from the coast, west of Rockhampton. QantasLink (www.qantas.com.au) operates daily return flights between Brisbane and Longreach.


Qantas Founders Museum (www.qfom.com.au) is open daily from 9am to 5pm (except Christmas Day).

More info: www.adventureoutback.com.au


The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland