Captain E.C. Johnston, DFC (1896-1988)

Captain Edgar Charles Johnston was born in Perth on 30 April 1896, the son of H.F. Johnston, Surveyor- General of Perth. Educated at Guildford Grammar school, his professional training as a surveyor was cut short when he enlisted in the AIF in April 1915. He served in Egypt and Gallipoli before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). After a period of training at Uxbridge, with Charles Kingsford Smith and other Australians, he was sent overseas to join the 24 (later 88) Squadron RFC. As a Flight Commander, he was awarded the DFC for gallantry and was Mentioned in Despatches.


On returning to Australia in 1919 he completed his articles and practised as a licensed Surveyor with the W. A. Lands Council. His unusual combination of flying experience and surveying led to his appointment in March 1921 as Superintendent of Aerodromes in the fledgling Civil Aviation Branch, incidentally the first employee of the fledgling Department. He was responsible to the Controller of Civil Aviation (Colonel H.C. Brinsmead) for the licensing of all privately owned aerodromes and for the selection and preparation of landing grounds on the air routes throughout the Commonwealth.

Within a few weeks he selected sites for Government Aerodromes in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. He conducted some epoch-making trips around Australia by land and by air to establish air routes and aerodromes. On these journeys he was accompanied by early aviators such as Major Harry Shaw and Jimmy Larkin. Click here to see a photo of Shaw and Johnston on an early tour to select aerodrome sites. Edgar Johnston was also responsible for all works on the capital city aerodromes.

Edgar Johnston quickly proved himself to be a competent airman-administrator and, while developing his executive capacity, he also gained a Commercial Pilot's Licence - No 6 - which he held for the next fourteen years. Click here to see a photo of Edgar Johnston with airline pioneer Ron Adair in about 1926.

Upon the resignation of Captain E.J. Jones in September 1929, Captain Johnston took over duties of Deputy Controller of Civil Aviation (Department of Defence). As the Deputy Controller was also the Civil Aviation representative on the Air Accident Investigation Committee, Johnston was responsible for organising and directing the air search for the missing ANA Avro X VH-UMF Southern Cloud.

Upon the departure of Colonel Brinsmead for England in November 1931, Captain Johnston was appointed Acting Controller and continued in that capacity until permanently appointed to the position in 1933, when Brinsrnead was invalided from the Service following injury in an aircraft accident.

As Chairman of the Inter-Departmental Committee which was appointed by the Commonwealth Government to enquire into the future policy on air communications within and beyond the Commonwealth, he was foremost in compiling the Committee’s report. The outcomes included the payment of subsidies for the carriage of airmail within Australia and establishing an air service between Darwin and Singapore to join up with the Imperial Airways Service to London and Europe. He also battled against political opposition to allow the importation of American-made metal aircraft like the DC2 and DC3.

In 1935 Captain Johnston investigated air transport and civil aviation organisation and practice in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada, the United States, India and the Netherlands East Indies. He represented the Civil Aviation Branch in discussions at Wellington, New Zealand, in 1936 where Australia’s participation in Pacific air services was discussed. He was again involved, three years later, in the foundations for trans-Tasman and trans-Pacific services being laid. When Tasman Empire Airways was inaugurated on 25 April 1940, he was Australian representative on the Tasman Air Commission.

When the Department of Civil Aviation was created in December 1938, Captain Johnston was passed over for the position of Director-General. Many felt that he had been unfairly dealt with as a result of the fall-out from the crash of the ANA DC2 Kyeema in October 1938. Instead, he was appointed as Assistant Director-General, with responsibility for the Transport and Legislation Branch, and remained in this position until he retired in 1955.

Between 1939 and 1945, when the whole resources of the new department were diverted to the war effort, he gave service of inestimable value - notably in the diversion of civil air transport to a wide variety of urgent tasks and in the restoration of the British Commonwealth air link, broken by enemy action. In the late war years Captain Johnston was given special responsibilities for two major initiatives of profound significance: the inauguration of ICAO, and the Commonwealth Air Transport Council.

When the first international conference was held at Chicago in 1944, his ability was quickly recognised. He was elected chairman of the Sub-Committee on Publications and Forms and vice-chairman of the Sub-Committee responsible for the system by which, for many years, all aircraft were registered and identified. Thereafter he was Australia’s deputy leader at the meeting of the Provisional International Civil Aviation Organisation at Montreal in 1946 and of the delegation to the first Assembly of ICAO at Montreal in 1947. On the election of the Australian Minister for Civil Aviation, Arthur Drakeford, as President, Captain Johnston succeeded to leadership of the Delegation. (Click here to see Captain Johnston's equator-crossing Certificate from the trip home.) He led the Delegation to the Second ICAO Assembly at Geneva in June 1948. Click here to read more about Australia's involvement with ICAO.

Following discussions at Montreal in 1944, the Commonwealth Air Transport Council (CATC) was created in 1947 with Captain Johnston as leader of the Australian delegation. He was a member of the delegation to the first meeting of the South Pacific Air Transport Council - the Pacific off shoot of CATC - held in Canberra in December 1946.

Captain Johnston was concerned with detailed and exacting discussions in 1952 and 1953 relating to a partnership of British Commonwealth airlines in the South Pacific, and in the achievement of the now historic parallel partnership between British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and Qantas Empire Airways (QEA) over the England-Australia route. His high reputation as a negotiator was enhanced through the conclusion of bi-lateral air transport agreements with Canada, the United States. Pakistan, India, Ceylon and the Netherlands.

As a member of the Australian National Airlines Commission, E. C. Johnston did much to establish Trans Australian Airlines (TAA) in 1946.

He retired from DCA in 1955, and for the next 12 years until 1967 was Qantas’ International Advisor. Captain Johnston’s career established a record that was probably unique in the world, in terms of his personal role in the direction and growth of Australia’s civil aviation agency. Throughout the first 35 years of its history he played a major part, at the most senior levels of responsibility, in forming the structure of airports, air navigation facilities, airworthiness monitoring, licensing standards and air transport standards.

In 1987 Captain Johnston presented the Civil Aviation Historical Society with an extensive and valuable collection of historical documents. The collection forms the core of our archives known as The Edgar Johnston Archive of Australian Civil Aviation Administration. He was the Society's first Patron.

Edgar Charles Johnston died on 24 May, 1988. The photograph above was taken at his desk in Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, in May 1933.


Right: Edgar Johnston, photographed in June 1933.

(Photos: CAHS/Edgar Johnston collection)

Click here for an index to the The Edgar Johnston Archive of Australian Civil Aviation Administration

Click here for an index to the Edgar Johnston Library Collection

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