Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Connellan, Edward John (Eddie) (1912–1983)

by Peter Donovan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Edward John (Eddie) Connellan (1912-1983), aviator, pastoralist and businessman, was born on 24 June 1912 at Donald, Victoria, eldest of seven children of Victorian-born parents Thomas Peter Connellan, farmer, and his wife Lucy, née Glowrey. Eddie completed his secondary education at Xavier College, Melbourne, in 1927-29. He joined the Victorian Education Department in 1930, but resigned in July 1933 to go into business for himself. Neither of his firms, Rural Radio Pty Ltd and London Aero Ads Pty Ltd, was successful, but his involvement in the latter encouraged him to learn to fly and he gained his private pilot’s licence on 8 July 1936.

Flying became an obsession, as did the Northern Territory, where he saw business opportunities. Connellan made two aerial surveys of the Territory in 1938, to assess opportunities for an air service and to select a cattle station. Afterwards, he negotiated a Federal government subsidy for a mail service between Alice Springs and Wyndham, Western Australia, and a contract with the Australian Aerial Medical Service (Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia). His friend Damian Miller, a grandson of Henry 'Money' Miller, helped to finance additional aircraft and staff and joined him as a pilot. Connellan flew the first medical flight from Alice Springs in July 1939, with his new business, Survey & Inland Transport, conducting the inaugural official mail run in August. On 29 August 1940 at the Catholic Church, Alice Springs, he married Evelyn Mary Grace Bell; they were to have a daughter who died in infancy and two sons.

During World War II the authorities considered Connellan’s work essential to the war effort and he continued the mail run with charter work throughout the Territory. He registered the name Connellan Airways in July 1943, but his postwar plans for his aerial service conflicted with the Federal government’s two-airline policy, which prevented him from competing on routes serviced by the major airlines. Nevertheless, with station people as shareholders, he incorporated his business as a limited company in February 1951.

`E. J.’ was about 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall with light auburn hair and fair skin, which meant that he frequently wore a wide-brimmed hat. He was a man of immense energy and sharp intellect who possessed an unshakeable self-belief. A prominent figure in Central Australian affairs, he was a natural choice as chairman of the provisional committee of the Northern Territory Development League in June 1944. He resigned in November after some members sought to use the proposed organisation to remove the administrator Aubrey Abbott, but served on the executive when the league was formed early in 1945.

Connellan had realised his dream of developing a pastoral property. Having selected in 1938 the preferred site for his station, about 100 miles (160 km) north-west of Alice Springs, he acquired the lease in partnership with others in 1942 and registered the Narwietooma Pastoral Co. in September 1943. The deaths of his partners during the war enabled him to acquire all shares in the property in 1946; he sank the first bore next year and grazed cattle on the station from 1948. He became successful and served on the executive of the Central Australian Pastoral Lessees’ Association (Centralian Pastoralists’ Association) for ten years and as president in 1950-51. He moved his family to Narwietooma in 1955 and supervised all station work. His interest in pastoral improvement was evident when he published a pamphlet, Drought Management and Pasture Protection in Central Australia (1965).

Other business ventures included a partnership with the former policeman Ted Morey in Wildman River Safaris in March 1948. Morey pulled out in 1949 and the project lasted only one more season. In addition, Connellan became the chief promoter and inaugural chairman of Alice Springs Commercial Broadcasters Pty Ltd, the Centre’s first commercial radio station, which was established in February 1969. In December 1965 the Federal government had appointed Connellan as one of three non-official members of the Northern Territory Legislative Council. However, he resigned in November 1967 after elected members questioned his objectivity because of his receipt of a Commonwealth subsidy for his aerial service. The Federal government later appointed him as a member (1974-78) of its Transport Industries Advisory Council.

Meanwhile, Connellan Airways Ltd grew, although never to the extent that E. J. would have wished because of government-imposed limitations: the price of a guaranteed fifteen-year subsidy from 1965 was a government appointee to the Connellan board. Also, his reluctance to share authority or entertain the idea of his airline (renamed Connair Pty Ltd in July 1970) becoming a public company restricted access to ready sources of credit for purchase of newer and larger equipment.

Other circumstances hampered growth. The Royal Flying Doctor Service acquired two Connellan aircraft for its own use in 1965 and ceased using company pilots in 1973. The effects of Cyclone Tracy at Christmas 1974 disrupted schedules, although the company escaped damage to staff or aircraft and played a part in Darwin’s relief. Then Connair lost its `plum’ route from Alice Springs to Mount Isa and Cairns, Queensland, following a pilots’ strike in September 1976. The biggest setback was the death of Connellan’s eldest son, Roger (b.1944), when a former employee deliberately crashed an aeroplane into Connair’s offices at Alice Springs in January 1977. Connellan had groomed Roger as his successor and was forced to increase his involvement in airline management again, although he had been treated for cancer.

Connair finally received permission to become a regional airline in September 1977, but it remained handicapped by its lack of capital. This ultimately persuaded Connellan to sell his company to East-West Airlines Ltd in March 1980. He used a large proportion of the sale proceeds to establish the Connellan Airways Trust to provide educational opportunities for outback people. The deputy prime minister Doug Anthony launched the trust in February 1983.

Connellan had received several awards in recognition of his services to aviation. They included Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal in 1953, his appointment as OBE in 1957, and the 1964 (Walter) Oswald Watt gold medal. He was elevated to CBE in 1976 and appointed AO in 1981. Survived by his wife, and their younger son, he died on 26 December 1983 at Narwietooma station; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Alice Springs memorial cemetery. Before his death he had completed Failure of Triumph: The Story of Connellan Airways, which was published in 1992.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Parnell and T. Boughton, Flypast (1988)
  • P. Donovan, `EJ Connellan—a Brief Biography’, in E. J. Connellan, Failure of Triumph (1992)
  • D. Carment and B. James (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 2 (1992)
  • Australian, 3 Mar 1977, p 11
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 28 Oct 1979, p 16
  • Bulletin, 27 Dec 1983/3 Jan 1984, p 46
  • Canberra Times, 29 Dec 1983, p 7
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Dec 1983, p 6
  • Centralian Advocate, 30 Dec 1983, p 1
  • Northern Territory News, 28 Jan 1984, p 13
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Donovan, 'Connellan, Edward John (Eddie) (1912–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/connellan-edward-john-eddie-12341/text22171, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017