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Sir Wilmot Hudson Fysh (1895–1974)

by J. Percival

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Sir Hudson Fysh, Australian News and Information Bureau, n.d.

Sir Hudson Fysh, Australian News and Information Bureau, n.d.

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L53900

Sir Wilmot Hudson Fysh (1895-1974), airline director, was born on 7 January 1895 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Frederick Wilmot Fysh, merchant, and his wife Mary, daughter of Henry Reed. His great-uncle Sir Philip Fysh was twice premier of Tasmania. After education at various schools including Launceston Grammar School and Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria, he became a jackeroo and woolclasser, but on the outbreak of war enlisted as a trooper in the 3rd Regiment of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade. Serving on Gallipoli and in Egypt and Palestine he was commissioned lieutenant in 1916 in the brigade's machine-gun squadron before transferring to the Australian Flying Corps as an observer. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and graduated as a scout pilot at Heliopolis on 28 February 1919.

After his return to Australia that year Hudson Fysh, with Paul McGinness, another ex-service airman, and Arthur Baird, an engineer, planned to enter the Australian government's £10,000 prize contest for a flight from England to Australia. Unable to proceed because of the death of their financial backer, Sir Samuel McCaughey, Fysh and McGinness were instead commissioned by the government to survey the Longreach (Queensland)-Darwin section of the route: their T-model Ford was the first car to journey overland to the Gulf of Carpentaria. On 16 November 1920 Fysh and McGinness with western Queensland graziers Fergus McMaster, Ainslie Templeton and Alan Campbell formed the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd (QANTAS). Operating with an Avro Dyak and an old BE2E war-disposals aircraft the company moved its head office from Winton to Longreach in 1921 and engaged in taxi, ambulance and stock inspection services, and joy-riding.

Through the second half of 1921 the company, backed by Federal politicians such as (Sir) Donald Cameron, Arthur Rodgers, James Hunter, Sir Thomas Glasgow and (Sir) Walter Massy Greene, worked to persuade the government to back a regular Charleville-Cloncurry passenger service. In February 1922 QANTAS tendered successfully and the service, with its invaluable mail-subsidy, opened on 2 November with 87-year-old Alexander Kennedy as its first passenger. Two surplus war-disposals Armstrong Whitworth aircraft were used.

A poor student at school, Fysh now tried to make up for lack of training; he read voraciously, studied economics and took a course in Pelmanism (memory-training). A shy, quiet man, he had nevertheless great political acumen and a hard head for business and soon established a reputation as a stern, uncompromising taskmaster. He became managing director of QANTAS in 1923, remaining a regular pilot until 1930 when the company registered its first million miles (1.61 million km) and moved its head office to Brisbane.

By this time QANTAS had begun flying schools in Longreach and Brisbane, had constructed seven of its own aircraft, operated Australia's first daily air-service (between Brisbane and Toowoomba in 1928-29) and had had the Charleville-Cloncurry route extended to Brisbane. In 1921 Fysh had advised John Flynn on the practicalities of a flying-doctor service and in 1928-47 QANTAS piloted an ambulance airplane for the Australian Inland Mission.

In April 1931 Fysh flew the Brisbane-Darwin section of an experimental airmail service between Australia and England. In 1933, as a passenger in the British Imperial Airways monoplane Astraea, he made a survey of the route to Karachi and on 18 January 1934 QANTAS in equal partnership with Imperial Airways founded Qantas Empire Airways Ltd (QEA), with Fysh as managing director; in the face of fierce competition from other local airlines and Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), the new company secured the Australian government airmail contract between Australia and England. With the opening of the England-Australia flying boat service in 1938 headquarters were moved to Sydney. In 1940 Fysh was a founding director of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL) which established the first air service to New Zealand.

During World War II Fysh, a squadron leader in the R.A.A.F. reserve, oversaw the use of QEA equipment and expertise against the Japanese; in 1943 the company ferried equipment and troops to New Guinea and evacuated casualties. In July that year QEA reopened the Middle East air route to England by flying via Perth and Ceylon; the trip to Ceylon took twenty-seven hours, the longest non-stop regular air service ever established.

In December 1946 the Australian government acquired the original half-interest of Imperial Airways in QEA and next year became the company's sole owner. Unlike his colleagues, Fysh accepted the inevitability of the government purchase; he conducted the negotiations, remained managing director and at the same time succeeded McMaster as chairman. He become chairman of the newly formed hotel company Qantas Wentworth Holdings in 1951. Appointed K.B.E. in 1953, he retired as managing director of QEA in 1955, in which year also the old QANTAS went into liquidation. In the past Fysh's single-mindedness had led to some bitter clashes; in 1934-35 his insistence on the use of the unreliable DH86 had caused a falling-out with the distinguished aviator (Sir) Patrick Gordon Taylor. He was in frequent conflict with other members of the QEA board and eventually relinquished chairmanship in 1966.

In retirement Fysh wrote an autobiographical trilogy, Qantas Rising (1965), Qantas at War (1968) and Wings to the World (1970). He also published Taming the North (1933), The Log of the Astraea (1933?), Round the Bend in the Stream (1968), a treatise on trout fishing, and Henry Reed: Van Diemen's Land Pioneer (1973). An original committee-man (1945) and later president of the International Air Transport Association, he was a prominent member of the Australian Early Birds' Association, the Australian National Travel Association, the Australasian Pioneers Club, and the Institute of Transport. He was a fellow of the British Interplanetary and of the Royal Aeronautical societies.

Fysh died on 6 April 1974 at Paddington, Sydney, survived by his wife, Elizabeth Eleanor Dove, whom he had married at St James Church of England, Sydney, on 5 December 1923, and by a son and daughter. His estate was valued for probate at $95,817.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Hall, Flying High (Syd, 1979)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1974
  • Australian Financial Review, 9 Apr 1974
  • Canberra Times, 9 Apr 1974
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 9 Apr 1974, p16.

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. Percival, 'Fysh, Sir Wilmot Hudson (1895–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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