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Ritchie, Robert James (1915–1988)

by Malcolm Campbell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Robert James Ritchie (1915–1988), pilot and airline chief executive, was born on 5 November 1915 at South Ashfield, Sydney, younger of twin sons and third child of Irish-born Robert Lowry Hayes Ritchie, electrician, and his New South Wales-born wife Alma Lavinia Souter, née Dalwood.  Educated at Cleveland Street Boys’ Intermediate High School, Bert left school in 1929 and began work, first as a trainee telegraph messenger, then as a radio telegraphist, for Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd.  On 23 February 1937 at St Barnabas’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Gwendoline Rose Lester (d.1984).

After taking flying lessons at Mascot airport, Ritchie obtained his private pilot’s licence in June 1937 and his commercial one a year later.  Soon afterwards he resigned from AWA to join W. R. Carpenter & Co. Ltd as a pilot.  He was transferred to New Guinea and flew for Carpenter’s subsidiary, Mandated Airlines Ltd, on the Sydney-Rabaul mail run.

In December 1941-January 1942 Rabaul was evacuated as Japanese forces invaded New Guinea.  Ritchie played a prominent role, ferrying fifty-six women and children to Port Moresby.  He then piloted the 'Bully Beef Bombers', assorted military and civilian aircraft that dropped supplies to Australian infantry units engaged in ground operations against the Japanese.  On 26 October 1942 he enrolled in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve with the rank of flight lieutenant and was a pilot in the general duties branch; he remained in New Guinea until 1943.  He was to retire from the RAAF Reserve on 5 November 1960, when he reached the maximum age for his rank.  Prior to taking up employment with Qantas Empire Airways Ltd in September 1943, he undertook navigation training and instruction on Catalina flying boats.  Stationed in Perth, he flew the long Indian Ocean crossing to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) eighty-one times, initially in Catalinas and later in long-range Consolidated B-24 Liberators.

After World War II Ritchie assumed greater responsibilities at Qantas.  He led the training program for pilots involved in the introduction of the Lockheed Constellation and was appointed flight captain for this fleet.  Increasingly, administrative responsibilities drew him away from day-to-day flying, though his operational background proved critical in shaping Qantas’s fleet developments.  In 1949 he was appointed assistant operations manager and played a significant role in the airline’s decision to select the 707 of the American aeroplane-maker Boeing over that of British competitors.  The decision did much to shape Qantas fleet choices for the remainder of the twentieth century.  In 1955 Qantas’s founding general manager, Sir Wilmot Hudson Fysh, retired.  Ritchie was promoted to head the company’s air operations and technical services, a position he held until his appointment as deputy chief executive in 1961.

When the chief executive, Sir Cedric Turner, retired in 1967, Ritchie, who was well liked within the organisation, was appointed to head Qantas Airways Ltd.  He soon initiated a major reorganisation of the airline.  His Christmas message to staff at the end of 1967 forecast the 'Sensational Seventies', with a doubling in the size of the company in the next five years.  However, the 1970s proved to be a turbulent decade.  The airline faced stiff competition from American carriers on the Pacific route and increasing cost pressures challenged profitability.  International passenger air traffic also declined and, in 1971, Qantas acknowledged that it faced a 'financial crisis'.  The same year the airline experienced an extortion threat when a 'Mr Brown', later identified as Peter Macari, claimed that there was a bomb on board a Hong Kong-bound jet and demanded $500,000.  Ritchie personally handed over the money outside Qantas House as instructed.  The claim proved to be false but only a small proportion of the money was recovered.  The early 1970s also saw the introduction of the Boeing 747Bs and a decline in Qantas’s profits because of increases in world oil prices.

Ritchie retired from Qantas in 1976 upon reaching the statutory age.  A journalist saw him as 'the tough, pragmatic pilot who hides under the veneer of the impeccable executive:  silver hair, silver moustache, smart suit'.  John Gunn, a historian of Qantas, recognised his 'great technical erudition'.  Ritchie was appointed CBE in 1969 and AO in 1982.  During Malcolm Fraser’s government he became deputy-chairman, and then chairman, of the Australian Tourist Commission.

Active in community affairs, Ritchie served (1975-88) as a director of the Royal New South Wales Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.  He maintained his recreational interests of golf and swimming.  On 9 January 1988 at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, he married Gladys Blodwyn Lewis.  He died on 1 April that year at St Leonards and was cremated.  His wife and the daughter and four sons of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gunn, High Corridors, 1988
  • J. Stackhouse, From the Dawn of Aviation, 1995
  • J. Stackhouse, The Longest Hop, 1997
  • Qantas News, June 1961, p 1
  • Qantas News, 21 June 1976, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1976, p 8
  • Ritchie papers (Qantas Heritage Collection, Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Malcolm Campbell, 'Ritchie, Robert James (1915–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ritchie-robert-james-14451/text25541, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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