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Edgar Charles Johnston (1896–1988)

by J. D. Walker

This article was published:

Edgar Charles Johnston (1896-1988), aviator and public servant, was born on 30 April 1896 in East Perth, tenth of eleven children of Western Australian-born Harry Frederick Johnston, surveyor, and his wife Maria Louisa, née Butcher, from Tasmania. Bertram Johnston was his brother; Marshall Clifton was his great-grandfather. Educated at Guildford Grammar School, in 1914 Edgar took up an engineering apprenticeship with the surveys branch of the State’s Department of Lands and enrolled in the engineering degree course at the University of Western Australia.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 29 April 1915, Johnston served on Gallipoli with the 28th Battalion and on the Western Front with the 24th Field Artillery Brigade. On 16 March 1916 he was discharged to take a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. He flew first with No.24 Squadron then with No.88 Squadron, in which he became a flight commander with the rank of captain. A `brilliant and most dashing leader’, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his conduct in two engagements on 4 September 1918 in which the four Bristol Fighters under his command accounted for seven enemy aircraft. In aerial combat overall, he and his observers claimed twenty victories. He was demobilised from the Royal Air Force and repatriated in 1919.

Back in Perth, Johnston resumed his post with the Department of Lands and qualified as a surveyor. On 23 February 1921 at St Mary’s Church of England, South Perth, he married Margaret Allison, daughter of Andrew Gibb Maitland. He had been appointed superintendent of aerodromes in the new civil aviation branch, Commonwealth Department of Defence, in January. Based in Melbourne, and with little assistance, he chose sites for and laid out aerodromes—including Mascot (Sydney), Essendon (Melbourne), Archerfield (Brisbane) and Parafield (Adelaide)—and other landing fields and emergency strips. He was also responsible for navigation beacons.

Captain Johnston became deputy-controller of civil aviation in 1929 and acting-controller in 1931, succeeding Horace Brinsmead as controller in 1933. He was chairman of an interdepartmental committee on air communi­cations and a member of the Air Accidents Investigation Committee. In 1936 he was appointed controller-general and foundation chairman of the Civil Aviation Board. He supported the adoption by Australian airlines of the American Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 aircraft, thus antagonising people `in high places’ who wished to restrict imports to British machines. Responsible for international aviation negotiations, he helped Qantas Empire Airways Ltd to obtain a share of the England-Australia route. The report on the crash in October 1938 of the DC-2 airliner Kyeema at Mount Dandenong, Victoria, censured him for having delayed installation of new ultra-high-frequency navigational beacons and for other administrative failures. The leader of the Opposition, John Curtin claimed that Johnston was `a possible scapegoat’. In 1939 when the board was superseded by the Commonwealth Department of Aviation, he was passed over for the post of head, becoming assistant director-general under Arthur Corbett.

A founding member (1940) of the Tasman Air Commission, Johnston later sat on the Tasman Empire Airlines Ltd policy committee. During World War II he was heavily engaged in the department’s activities in support of the war effort; his bargaining skills and technical expertise often proved crucial. He was an inaugural member (1946-52) of the Australian National Airlines Commission, which operated as Trans-Australia Airlines. After the war he again became extensively involved in setting up international airline agreements and played a leading role at the first assembly meeting (1947) of the International Civil Aviation Organization. He was a board-member of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Ltd, formed in 1946, and of TEAL (1954-55).

Johnston retired from the Department of Civil Aviation in 1955. International adviser (1955-67) to Qantas, he took part in negotiations when the company was developing its `Kangaroo Route’ to London and also seeking to extend its service across the Pacific Ocean. He supported the Department of Aviation Historical Society (later Civil Aviation Historical Society) from its formation in 1982. Patron of the Victorian/Tasmanian division, he was elected first national life member in 1984. The society inaugurated a series of memorial lectures in his honour in 1988. A keen fisherman and bushwalker, Johnston promoted both forms of recreation in Victoria. He died on 24 May 1988 at Malvern, Melbourne, and was cremated. His wife and their daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Butler, Flying Start (1971)
  • I. Sabey, Challenge in the Skies (1979)
  • Aviation Retrospect (1985)
  • J. Gunn, The Defeat of Distance (1985)
  • J. Gunn, Challenging Horizons (1987)
  • J. Gunn, High Corridors (1988)
  • C. Shores et al, Above the Trenches (1990)
  • J. Gunn, Contested Skies (1999)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Dec 1938, p 13
  • series B2455, item Johnston E C (National Archives of Australia)
  • Johnston papers (Civil Aviation Historical Society, Victoria/Tasmania division, Melbourne).

Citation details

J. D. Walker, 'Johnston, Edgar Charles (1896–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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