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Sir Donald George (Don) Anderson (1917–1975)

by John Gunn

This article was published:

Sir Donald George (Don) Anderson (1917-1975), public servant, was born on 1 March 1917 at Waikerie, South Australia, son of Alex Gibb Anderson, labourer, and his wife Clara Catherine, née Nash, both native-born. Educated at Adelaide High School, Adelaide Teachers' College and the University of Adelaide, Don qualified in 1938 to teach in primary schools; the four subjects he passed at university earned him an appointment next year at Minlaton Higher Primary School. He had also worked in journalism and played cricket, football and tennis. Enlisting in the Citizen Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, in 1940, he appeared to contemporaries on his pilot's training course as a tall (some 6 ft 3 ins, 191 cm), seemingly amiable and slow-moving young man. On 4 April 1941 in St George's Anglican Cathedral, Perth, he married Monica Mary Porker, a telephonist. Commissioned on 25 January 1942, he flew transport aircraft in the South-West Pacific Area and the United States of America, and was mentioned in dispatches for services between 1 July and 30 September 1945. He held the rank of temporary flight lieutenant on his demobilization in 1946.  

Joining the Department of Civil Aviation as an examiner of airmen, Anderson was appointed an airway surveyor (flying), air navigation branch, directorate of air navigation, D.C.A., on 19 June 1947. Promoted next year to the new office of superintendent, air traffic control branch, Melbourne, he was a member of the Australian delegation to the International Civil Aviation Organization conference at Montreal, Canada, and chaired a session on the rules of the air and air traffic control. He continued to indulge his passion for cricket and became a stodgy opener for the Essendon first-grade XI. In 1951 he rose to be assistant director-general (personnel and establishments) and in 1954 assistant director-general (administration, personnel and establishments). On 1 January 1956 he succeeded Sir Richard Williams as director-general of civil aviation. Domestic commercial aviation was in crisis and Anderson's major task was to study the industry's problems. His proposals in May 1957 revitalized the government's two-airline policy, by which the main trunk routes were reserved for two major carriers, one government owned and the other privately owned. Holding concurrently the posts of rationalization co-ordinator and departmental head, he was judge and jury in the disputes between the two airlines which were referred to him; that appeals against his decisions were rare seemed further 'proof of his accepted detachment'.

In 1957 Anderson led a mission to Washington to negotiate a route across the U.S.A. to Europe for Qantas Empire Airways Ltd. The agreement assured the viability of Q.E.A. and marked a personal triumph, but, in subsequent international haggling over traffic rights, he was to gain mixed results. Awarded the Oswald Watt medal in 1957 for his contribution to Australian aviation, Anderson was appointed C.B.E. in 1959 and knighted in 1967. His responsibilities for ground facilities and safety presented problems of increasing complexity as the domestic and international civil aviation industry grew, bringing with it advanced technology, and he fought strenuously for the funds necessary for capital investment in infrastructure that ranged from radar to runways.

Called 'the Longfella' in his department, Sir Donald dressed untidily, smoked heavily and belonged to the Savage Club. His height combined with his increasing weight (over sixteen stone, 102 kg) to give him a commanding presence. He travelled widely, and frequently, and his shuffling gait became well known. Some of his staff were allowed to see his humour and keen sense of the ridiculous; those who worked close to him generally considered him tough and ruthless; most people in the aviation industry accepted him as a benevolent dictator. With his ambition, drive and innovative organizing ability, he influenced every facet of civil aviation policy until his retirement in 1973. He then became chairman of Qantas Airways Ltd.

In his new post, located in Sydney, Anderson advocated low-cost travel, served on the executive committee of the International Air Transport Association, and joined the board of the Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children. Having suffered from diabetes for five years, he again retired in August 1975. He died of cardiac failure on 30 November that year at Heidelberg, Melbourne, and was cremated. His wife and two daughters survived him. In recognition of his achievements the International Civil Aviation Organization in 1978 honoured Anderson posthumously with its thirteenth Edward Warner award.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Corbett, Politics and the Airlines (Lond, 1965)
  • S. Brogden, Australia's Two-Airline Policy (Melb, 1968)
  • H. Fysh, Wings to the World (Syd, 1970)
  • J. Gunn, High Corridors (Brisb, 1988)
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), July 1969
  • ICAO Bulletin (Montreal, Canada), Sept 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

John Gunn, 'Anderson, Sir Donald George (Don) (1917–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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