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Nov 3, 2015

Qantas, a glorious if sometimes dark past you never knew about

The ghosts of past heroes, sociopaths and visionaries in Qantas have been given life in The Flying Kangaroo (Allen and Unwin) an extraordinary book of secrets and insights by J

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The ghosts of past heroes, sociopaths and visionaries in Qantas have been given life in The Flying Kangaroo (Allen and Unwin) an extraordinary book of secrets and insights by Jim Eames, one of its great surviving insiders from the latter half of the last century.

No one in the media of the day on 4 June 1966 understood that one of its Boeing 707s, en route from Sydney to Brisbane then Honolulu had violently started to porpoise up and down so severely those on board heard the airflow breaking away from  the temporarily uncontrollable jet like ripping cracking cloth.

So concerned were the pilots that they ordered an oceanic return path lest the problem return and cause them to crash over inhabited land. The cause was faults in the Boeing’s horizontal stabilisers in its tail.

But that event is nothing for white knuckle reading compared to the incredibly narrow margin by which a USAF C5-A transport jet (think predecessor to a C-17)  came within a sliver of time and distance to a high speed collision over Thailand on 13 September 1990 with a then very new Qantas 747-400 in circumstances an unrepentant US military appeared to suppress.

The destruction of a Qantas Super Constellation in a takeoff accident at Mauritius on 24 August 1960 could have ruined Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man line  “Qantas never crashes”, where Eames also reveals the secret deals done to secure that cameo moment of enduring high reputational value for the airline in cinematography.

But not only does he explain how Qantas assisted that boost to its image, but gives a gritty account of how all on board the dolphin like four engine propeller airliner escaped with their lives.  Read that and you will pay attention, minute attention, to the next dozen of so cabin safety briefings you sit through in any airliner before takeoff.

The Flying Kangaroo covers much more than heroic saves, the most famous of all of course being QF32, when Airbus A380 Nancy-Bird Walton was so damaged by an uncontained engine failure near Singapore in 2010 that it is enough to make your blood run cold just thinking about it, five years ago tomorrow.

While it acknowledges but doesn’t itself explore QF32 it does reveal things about the ‘Bahrain bomber’ incident of 21 February 1969, when for two minutes a 707 that suddenly displayed inconsistent flight information in the cockpit was put into an inverted corkscrew dive so stressful that had it been fully loaded it would have ruptured the airframe according to post incident analysis.

That incident saw an off duty captain climb against G-forces over the backs of flight attendants pinned to the floor to reach the cockpit (fortunately before mandatory locked doors) and assist the duty crew to recover control.  Inside the trashed cabins of the 707 a baby in arms had floated during a period of near zero G the distance of the economy cabin to be buried in debris but was miraculously unharmed.

In this and many other matters The Flying Kangaroo is full of details never before seen in public print.  Written it should be pointed out by a former manager of its PR unit  who kept quite a few of them (but, cough, not all) out of the papers, including the Sydney Morning Herald when I was possibly its bluntest Travel Editor to date.

In its darker parts the book documents the tyranny of seniority in the flying ranks, which isn’t it could be argued, just about Qantas, but the entire hierarchy  of humiliation that applied to law, public administration, the ABC, and the then strong manufacturers and shipping lines of post war Australia until well into the  70s when the way things had always been went to nursing homes and graveyards.

(My father worked ships as a chief engineer, for much of the time a free agent who took voyages with whomever would pay the best for the services backed by his marine engineer’s ticket, and often took one of us as children, to sea as one of privileges that came with such commissions.

There were some primeval bastards in the merchant marine, and reading Eames’ revelations, I think I met at least two of the senior Q.A.N.T.A.S pilots whose antics he describes, back when Sydney’s Rose Bay still took flying boats but from TEAL and then Ansett/Airlines of NSW.)

In defence of the memory of Qantas, those hurtful and often individually destructive things that get brushed as workplace bullying of a much milder form today were integral to way older generations of professionals grew up and progressed in those times.  Eames has still kept some secrets about the earlier Qantas managements that both of us and reporters past, Frank Proust, Stanley Brogden and David Robertson never did, nor will, ‘tabloidise’.

The Flying Kangaroo also reveals much of the thinking and score settling that characterized the merging of Australian Airlines (formerly TAA) and Qantas pre-listing on the ASX in mid 1995, including the politically complex factors of Bob Hawkes personal friendship with  Sir Peter Abeles at Ansett and the abandonment (perhaps inevitable for other reasons) of the late 80s infatuation in Canberra with a three way merger of Qantas, Australian and Air New Zealand.

Did you know that Canberra preferred Rod Eddington over James Strong (who had rebranded TAA as Australian) as its first choice as the CEO of a listed Qantas, but was rebuffed by the airline’s board of directors?

Eddington was running Cathay Pacific at the time, not Ansett, and was to segue in a most distinguished manner from that soon to burn wreck of an airline to British Airways, where he pointed it toward divestiture of its 25 percent stake in Qantas, which Keating had insisted upon as the corner stone investment in the privatized Qantas contrary to the merged entity being keener on it being placed with Singapore Airlines.

There is a very strong sense in this book of  the ‘alternative’ futures that may have become the early 21st century history of Qantas had the other fork in the road been taken in the 90s, and needless to say, the infamous 2006 private equity bid had failed.

I’m not sure that the current Qantas will order copies of this book for its employees and top tier frequent flyers, although it should have the courage to do so and be proud of what it says.  But they’ll still buy it anyhow. It’s an often surprising, non fairy floss reminder of how Qantas has come so far in its 95 years.

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6 comments

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6 thoughts on “Qantas, a glorious if sometimes dark past you never knew about

  1. comet

    Did Qantas pay for that “never crashes” line in Rainman?

    Despite it’s excellent safety record, Qantas has had an incredible number of near misses that were a whisker away from catastrophe.

    QF34 engine explosion over Batam Island, Indonesia.

    QF1 that ended up in a Bangkok golf course.

    QF72 that plunged nose first, injuring over 100 people while declaring a Mayday near Learmonth, Western Australia.

    QF30 oxygen bottle exploded, rupturing the fuselage over the South China Sea.

    QF2 coffee grounds in the first class galley created a flood that resulted in a total loss of AC power on approach to Bangkok, disabling many flight controls including auto braking and reverse thrust.

    And of course QF10, with 382 people on board, which passed under a US AirForce C-5 Galaxy with only 50 feet separation over southern Thailand.

    That Galaxy incident was widely reported in the press at the time. I mean, 50 feet… is it possible to have a nearer miss than that one? Passengers could see the lights of the C-5 just above them as the 747-400 was buffeted by wake turbulence.

    All of these incidents were very close to turning into death and dedtruction. I might have forgotten some QF incidents, but that’s all I could remember.

  2. Norman Hanscombe

    Quite the opposite, comet, as QANTAS refused to run the movie on its flights because some of their customers were going to use other airlines and they didn’t wish to have their customers worried about those other airlines on the next leg.
    Once again we see in Crikey a sad loss of anyone with clear memories of past events being encouraged to help fill the vast gaps in Crikey’s corporate memories; but wikk the Crikey Censors allow this straight through?

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Eureka!!! Can we expect this to be a new trend by the Crikey Commissariat?

  4. Ben Sandilands

    Norman,

    It’s a book review. I didn’t write the book. I’m not employed by Crikey. I’ve not met any of their editors ever. They have no idea what I’m doing until it is published.

  5. Seth Knoepler

    Comet:
    The Herald Sun has published an excerpt from “Flying Kangaroo” (accessible yesterday but today behind their paywall) which, if I recall correctly, explains that far from having to pay for the Rain Man line, not only was it the film’s producer who asked Qantas to verify the carrier’s record but that the extremely grateful Qantas management had to practically beg the producer to accept a comp as a token of the company’s appreciation. Warning: The Herald excerpt is a first-class appetizer.

  6. gearsau

    Looks interesting. Have just ordered the book.

    My brother and a good mate worked as stewards for 30 years or so. They can tell some tales as well. Many not for publication.

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