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Lester Joseph Brain (1903–1980)

by Cameron Hazlehurst

This article was published:

Lester Joseph Brain (1903-1980), aviator and aviation administrator, was born on 27 February 1903 at Forbes, New South Wales, second son of Austin Lionel Bennett Brain, a mine-manager from England, and his native-born wife Katie Mary, née Murray. After topping his class in mathematics at Sydney Grammar School, in 1919 Lester joined the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney Ltd. He was one of five civilian applicants accepted by the Royal Australian Air Force for the twelve-month course in flying-training which began in January 1923 at Point Cook, Victoria. Passing out at the head of his group, Brain was commissioned in the air force reserve. In April 1924 he moved to Queensland to become a pilot with Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd.

On 7 February 1925 he made the first scheduled QANTAS flight from Cloncurry to Camooweal. Later that year he flew (Sir) Fergus McMaster and his brother Francis on a one-week tour intended to establish Francis as a political candidate. In 1925-26 Brain helped the American L. J. Stark prospect by air for a gold-reef in the Tanami Desert, Northern Territory. Brain's familiarity with the northern terrain made him the logical choice to conduct a search for the hapless aviators Keith Anderson and Robert Hitchcock whose aircraft, the Kookaburra, went missing in April 1929 while they were endeavouring to rescue (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm. For locating the Kookaburra near Wave Hill and for subsequently finding two British flyers who had crashed on the Arnhem Land coast, he was awarded the Air Force Cross that year. (Sir) Hudson Fysh reported to QANTAS's board that the publicity Brain had gained for himself and his company 'could probably not have been bought for any money'.

In recognition of his skills and maturity, in March 1927 Brain had been appointed chief instructor at the airline's Brisbane Flying School and QANTAS's local branch manager. 'My job was Manager, Pilot, Flying Instructor, Sales Manager, Secretary and Typist all rolled into one', he recalled. On 8 July 1930 he married Constance Pauline Brownhill at Holy Innocents' Catholic Church, Croydon, Sydney. When QANTAS transferred its headquarters to Brisbane that year, Brain, by now chief pilot, was put in charge of sales, demonstrations, agency tours and taxi trips. Although no longer employed as a regular pilot on domestic routes, he delivered the company's first D.H.86 airliner from Britain in 1934 (by which time he had logged 6694 flying hours), and took the controls for inaugural mail and flying-boat services.

Promoted flight superintendent (1934) and flying operations manager (1938), Brain continued to fly scheduled services to Singapore and Karachi. As early as 1935, however, he had told Edgar Johnston, controller-general of civil aviation, that he was willing to take a drop in his gross annual income (over £1000) for a position in the 'administration and executive side of aviation'. In February 1936 he expressed interest in becoming Johnston's deputy and in early 1939 was an unsuccessful candidate for the post of director-general of civil aviation.

Brain had been appointed flying officer on 1 March 1935 in the Citizen Air Force Reserve. He was to rise to temporary wing commander (1944) and to supervise the support which Qantas Empire Airways Ltd provided to the allied war effort. A key figure in organizing Q.E.A.'s ferry service that brought eighteen Catalina flying boats from San Diego, United States of America, to Australia in 1941, he piloted the first plane delivered; his direct flight across the South Pacific was the third ever completed. In early 1942 Brain had charge of ground-staff at Broome, Western Australia, an important staging point and refuelling base for aircraft which evacuated refugees from the Netherlands East Indies. During the Japanese air-raid on 3 March, he rowed out to rescue survivors from flying boats in the harbour. His action was commended by King George VI.

In spite of its reservations about Brain's limited financial experience, in late 1945 Q.E.A.'s board made him assistant general manager. With Fysh only eight years older, he saw no prospect of further promotion. When the Australian National Airlines Commission advertised a salary of £2250 a year for an operations manager of the new Trans-Australia Airlines, Q.E.A. could not make a competitive offer to retain its most valuable operational executive. T.A.A.'s chairman (Sir) Arthur Coles was sufficiently impressed with Brain to appoint him general manager in June 1946; his salary was to start at £3000 per annum, with possible increments increasing the sum to £5000.

Given a right of veto over the choice of his top three executives and control over all other appointments, Brain began work in Melbourne with twenty-one staff. Within four months the fledgling airline was organized into eight departments, employing one thousand people throughout the country and equipped to begin scheduled passenger services. In partnership with Coles, who handled political issues, Brain proved to be an exceptionally creative administrator.

Overcoming resistance from government departments that were reluctant to yield staff, offices, buildings and hangars, Coles and Brain provided a formidable, price-cutting challenge to T.A.A.'s principal competitor, Australian National Airways Pty Ltd. Favourable financial treatment and arrangements for the acquisition of aircraft fuelled accusations that T.A.A. was the tool of a socialist bureaucracy. But the morale of the young, mostly ex-service, staff was sustained by forthright leadership and shrewd public relations. The two-airlines policy instigated by the Menzies government finally legitimated Brain's successful business, while guaranteeing the survival of one major private operator.

Uncomfortable with a more interventionist chairman G. P. N. Watt, who resisted the general manager's expected salary increases, Brain resigned in March 1955. After five years in Sydney as managing director (1955-60) of de Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd, suppliers of Vampire trainers to the R.A.A.F., he accepted a directorship and consultancy with East-West Airlines Ltd. Brain was appointed A.O. in 1979. A playing member of Royal Sydney Golf Club, he also belonged to the Australian Club; the Athenaeum Club, Melbourne—with which he had enjoyed reciprocal rights—declined to have him as a member, allegedly because he was a leader of a government business enterprise. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, Brain died on 30 June 1980 in Sydney and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Brogden, The History of Australian Aviation (Melb, 1960)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • H. Fysh, Qantas at War (Syd, 1968)
  • I. Sabey, Challenge in the Skies (Melb, 1979)
  • D. Smith and P. Davis, Kookaburra (Syd, 1980)
  • J. Gunn, The Defeat of Distance (Brisb, 1985)
  • J. Gunn, Challenging Horizons (Brisb, 1987)
  • N. Parnell and T. Boughton, Flypast (Canb, 1988)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 2 July 1980
  • Eric White & Associates, Wings Across Australia, (typescript, 1965, Australian Airlines, Public Affairs records, Melbourne)
  • Australian Airlines, personnel records (Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst, 'Brain, Lester Joseph (1903–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Lester Brain, n.d.

Lester Brain, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 155945

Life Summary [details]


27 February, 1903
Forbes, New South Wales, Australia


30 June, 1980 (aged 77)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.