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Cecil Arthur Butler (1902–1980)

by Sylvia Marchant

This article was published:

Cecil Arthur Butler (1902-1980), by unknown photographer, c1959

Cecil Arthur Butler (1902-1980), by unknown photographer, c1959

State Library of New South Wales, Australian Photographic Agency - 46352

Cecil Arthur Butler (1902-1980), aviator, was born on 8 June 1902 at Sparkhill, Warwickshire, England, son of Arthur Harry Butler, commercial clerk, and his wife Ann Rebecca, née Seabridge. The family migrated to New South Wales about 1910 and settled at Lithgow. Suffering from dyslexia, Arthur was educated by his mother until he was 9 and subsequently went to Cooerwull Academy, Bowenfels, and Lithgow District Public School. In 1917 he was apprenticed as a tool, jig and gauge maker at the local Small Arms Factory, transferring in 1921 to the Australian Aircraft & Engineering Co. Ltd at Mascot, Sydney. He attended Sydney Technical College at night, obtained his ground engineer's licence in 1923, and worked for the Larkin-Sopwith Air Craft Supply Co. Pty Ltd and Larkin's Australian Aerial Services Ltd as a ground engineer at Hay. Having gained his pilot's licence in 1927, Butler went 'barnstorming'.

Ambitious to design and construct his own aircraft, in 1930 he completed and tested a small, all-metal, high-winged monoplane. Later that year he piloted a tiny Comper Swift from England to Australia in the record time of 9 days, 1¾ hours. On 30 March 1932 at St Ambrose's Anglican Church, Gilgandra, New South Wales, he married Doris Elaine Garling. With financial support from P. S. Garling (his wife's uncle), in 1934 Butler successfully tendered against stiff competition from established airlines for the Charleville (Queensland)-Cootamundra (New South Wales) section of the England-Australia airmail route; he fulfilled the terms of the contract for four years, using D.H. 84 Dragon aircraft.

When the airmail contract expired, Butler Air Transport Co. carried on as a civil airline, serving centres in New South Wales and Queensland. During World War II Butler continued to operate some routes and also made aircraft parts for the government. He refused to accrue large profits from war-effort work and charged only to recover costs.

After the war he registered Butler Air Transport Pty Ltd as a public company. He built up the largest and most successful airline operating in New South Wales, using in turn three Douglas DC-3s, Avro Ansons, D.H. 114 Herons and three Airspeed Ambassadors. Combining determination and efficiency with the ideal of involving the company in the communities it served, Butler encouraged his employees to become shareholders in the firm: in 1947 they owned 51 per cent.

Butler stubbornly resisted efforts by the Commonwealth government to nationalize the airlines, but the implementation of the two-airline policy restrained B.A.T.'s development and was the root cause of his exit from the industry. In the early 1950s, through costly litigation, he averted a take-over by Australian National Airways Pty Ltd; while his purchase in 1955 of two Vickers Viscounts gave him access to Melbourne, it brought him into conflict with other operators. In 1957 Ansett Transport Industries Ltd—by acquiring A.N.A.—had a substantial parcel of B.A.T. shares and bought more from Butler's employees. Butler was effectively forced out of aviation in a bitter shareholding battle in 1958 when (Sir) Reginald Ansett gained control of B.A.T. Following several skirmishes in the courts, the battle ended. Defeated but unbowed, Butler disdained the proffered managing directorship and severed all connexion with the company.

He planned to start afresh with French Caravelle jets, but the Department of Civil Aviation rejected his request to import the aircraft in 1959 on the grounds that airports lacked adequate runways. In addition, there were doubts about his financial viability. Butler fought a dogged, rearguard action to re-enter the industry. It was to no avail. Instead of retiring to lick his wounds, he chaired the New South Wales Ambulance Transport Service Board and, with another famous aviator Nancy Bird Walton, raised funds for an air-ambulance service. In 1958 he was appointed O.B.E.

Some 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall, Butler was broad shouldered, with an impish face and a twinkle in his eyes. Essentially quiet and goodnatured, if at times impatient and impulsive, he could keep an audience spellbound for hours with his tales of early Australian aviation. He belonged to the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales, Pymble Golf Club and the Institution of Engineers, Australia; he also liked to play chess. In 1968 Butler suffered a stroke. Although partially paralysed, he taught himself to type and in 1971 published a history of Australian civil aviation, Flying Start. He then started to paint—mainly aircraft. In 1975 his picture, 'An Auspicious Occasion', was accepted for the Wynne competition. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 13 April 1980 at Wahroonga and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Civil Aviation Branch, Department of Defence, Report on Civil Aviation in Australia and New Guinea (Melb, 1933)
  • G. R. Copley, Australians in the Air (Adel, 1976)
  • B. Carroll, Australian Aviators (Syd, 1980)
  • D. Eyre, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft in Australia and New Zealand (Syd, 1983)
  • S. Brimson, Flying the Royal Mail (Syd, 1984)
  • N. M. Parnell and T. Boughton, Flypast (Canb, 1988)
  • Aircraft, Mar 1947, p 17
  • People (Sydney), 30 Nov 1955
  • Aeroplane Monthly, Oct 1986, p 532
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 6 Jan, 23, 30 Mar 1958, 14 Feb, 26 Apr 1975, 14 Apr 1980
  • C. A. Butler, Autobiography, Butler papers, (privately held)
  • M. Pratt, interview with Arthur Butler (transcript, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • Department of Civil Aviation files
  • private information.

Citation details

Sylvia Marchant, 'Butler, Cecil Arthur (1902–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 July 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

Cecil Arthur Butler (1902-1980), by unknown photographer, c1959

Cecil Arthur Butler (1902-1980), by unknown photographer, c1959

State Library of New South Wales, Australian Photographic Agency - 46352

Life Summary [details]


8 June, 1902
Sparkhill, Warwickshire, England


13 April, 1980 (aged 77)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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