Western Australia's Failed Airline Companies 1929-1933
by Dr Leigh Edmonds
These companies and organizations were: the Aerial Commerce Company (which started operation in about July 1929), Seaplanes Limited (registered in December 1929), National Airways Limited (registered in January 1930), Western Aerial Services Limited (registered in February 1930), Wings Limited (re-formed from Western Aerial Services in July 1930), Baker Aviation Company (in operation from about November 1930), Goldfields Air Navigation Limited, (registered in December 1930), Air Taxis (in operation from about February 1932) and Avi-Tours Aeroplane Company of WA (registered in February 1932).(1) In addition there were private individuals such as Irene Dean-Williams and Vivian James who let their privately owned aeroplanes for hire.(2)
Avi-Tours Aeroplane Company
Although it was the last of these organizations to be formed, Avi-Tours Limited was not established to carry out air services but to construct and test a design for a radical new type of aeroplane. At its centre was E K Galway, an American holding a half share in a patent for a new method of flight control and, although shares in the company were made publicly available, Galway received one share for every one issued to investors so that he could keep control of the invention.(3) The fuselage of the aeroplane was a standard Moth light aeroplane but the wings were very large and attached to the fuselage in an unusual fashion with the intention of improving handling capabilities at very low speeds.(4) The design was, however, structurally unsound and on almost every test flight it suffered an accident until, during an unauthorized flight at a farm near York in November 1932, Galway was killed when the aeroplane crashed from about 200 feet.(5) With his death no attempt appears to have been made to resurrect the project.
National Airways & Seaplanes Ltd
Of the other companies, some appear to have been little more than plans for organizations which never owned or operated an aeroplane. National Airways Limited was registered by four people sharing the name Wood, all of the same address in the Perth suburb of Victoria Park, with the object of carrying on air services in Western Australia and elsewhere. However, they appear to have done nothing about putting their plans into practice.(6) Seaplanes Limited was formed by a syndicate of businessmen in Fremantle to operate air services in Western Australia. They announced that they had ordered two aeroplanes and planned to erect a hangar for them on the banks of the Swan River between the bridge and Rocky Bay near Fremantle, and had plans to operate to places such as Rottnest and Camden Islands.(7) Later they announced that one of their aeroplanes had been shipped and was due before the end of November 1929 while work on the hangar had started.(8) Nothing further, however, was heard of these plans.
Baker Aviation Company
Other companies also have poorly recorded histories but did own aeroplanes and undertake flying. The Baker Aviation Company was set up at the Maylands aerodrome by H F Baker (at the time sometimes called Harry 'Cannonball' Baker). He bought a second hand De Havilland Moth which was painted red and white and used it for hire, joy-riding and flying tuition at Maylands and at Merredin where an aero club was formed.(9) In February 1931 the Merredin club had sixty members and had awarded Baker a contract won at tender to provide flying training at £3 an hour but it seems that very little pilot training took place.(10) During the latter half of 1931 Baker became loosely involved with the Aero Club of Western Australia, ferrying aeroplanes and flying at displays and in November 1931 he probably gave up his private business when he joined the Aero Club as an instructor.(11) (Baker later joined the staff of West Australian Airways and later again went to Australian National Airways when it took over the Perth to Adelaide air service. As well Baker was a skilled mechanic and taught aeronautical subjects at the Perth Technical College for many years.(12))
Goldfields Air Navigation Ltd
Goldfields Air Navigation Limited was established to use an aeroplane previously owned by a company which had failed in South Australia.(13) It was taken to Kalgoorlie with the original intention of carrying gold bullion for mining companies which otherwise had to pay large insurance premiums on gold being transported by road or rail.(14) This proposal did not eventuate and the company then proposed to operate the aeroplane on a service flying between Kalgoorlie and Wiluna twice a week.(15) The company commenced a weekly service from Kalgoorlie to Wiluna and return at the end of January 1931 and soon reported that 'prospects for the future were bright', that the service would grow with Wiluna and that the service might soon link Wiluna with Perth and also link Kalgoorlie with Esperance.(16) However within a month of the service starting the company's aeroplane was damaged on a cross country flight and, despite suggestions that the aeroplane would soon be repaired, and that traffic prospects promised to improve, the service did not resume.(17) The company's aeroplane was sold to a New Guinea company for £650 and flown to the east by C W Snook in October 1931.(18)
West Australian Aerial Services Ltd
Of all the companies which were formed during this period the one which promised to be most useful and successful was West Australian Aerial Services Limited. It had a capital of £100,000 and among its provisional directors was H W Mann, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, the surveyor A W Canning and H J Larkin, the managing director of LASCo, the Melbourne based aviation company which operated a series of Commonwealth government subsidised air services in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Its objects were wide enough to cover every form of air transport and it was to be linked to LASCo which would supply technical advice and five Lascoter aeroplanes designed and built in Melbourne. (The title of this company suggests that it was to be linked to LASCo in the same way that Australian Aerial Services was.) The company's prospectus suggested that the company would raise an annual revenue of over £52 000 and cost about £41 000 per annum to operate, leaving a substantial profit margin.(19) The company proposed to inaugurate air services between Kalgoorlie, Wiluna, Esperance and Perth. It also proposed to provide regular air taxi services at the rate of 1/- a mile for the first passenger and 6d a mile for additional passengers and also provide flying training.(20)
These plans did not come to fruition and, instead, the company made its income from touring thousands of miles through country areas, visiting practically every town in the agricultural and mining areas selecting landing grounds and appointing agents. Its pilots were F Nesbit, who had served as a pilot with West Australian Airways, and C W Snook, who had recently returned to Western Australia after a long period of flying in the eastern states.(21) By the end of May 1930 the company had 120 applicants for its flying school and had started training some of them. Later in the month it proposed to inaugurate an air taxi service between Wagin and Perth with the return fare of £13 for the 130 mile journey.(22)
In late July 1930 West Australian Aerial Services Limited underwent reconstruction and became Wings Limited. None of the previous directors were involved and there was no link with LASCo.(23) At the time of this change it was more popular with trainee pilots that the Aero Club of Western Australia and it did more than three times as much training flying as the club. Nesbit in particular had the kind of personality which attracted admiration and interest in aviation and Wings.(24) The company did so well that it ordered a new Puss Moth, a light aeroplane with an enclosed cabin which was so novel that hundreds of people visited Maylands to see it when it arrived.(25) However, within two weeks of its arrival the Puss Moth, with Nesbit and two pupils, crashed in the Darling ranges and all three were killed.(26)
This accident was a severe blow to Wings because of the loss of Nesbit and the new aeroplane but also because the crash helped to make the public wary of flying.(27) The company decided to continue in operation and concentrate of flying training and Snook was chosen as it's new managing director.(28) There were plans to link various country centres with Perth when the Puss Moth was replaced but generally Wings concentrated on pilot training and tours of country areas giving joy-rides and encouraging people in country areas to form aero clubs and use Wings for their pilot training.(29) However, by about April that year there was less work for Wings to do and although it found employment in doing aerial photographic work its plans for a ground training school did not eventuate. In addition one of its two aeroplanes was damaged and that further restricted the company's ability to operate.(30)
As the year progressed Wings looked further from Perth for its customers, going to many of the eastern goldfields centres and Geraldton. It bought an additional aeroplane to help with pilot training and fees were reduced.(31) This, however does not seem to have helped halt the decline and the final straw for Wings appears to have been when the company's remaining aeroplane crashed on a flight from Onslow to Perth in August 1931. The company went into liquidation several weeks later.(32)
Air Taxis may have taken over the operations of Wings.(33) The company's pilot, C W Snook, carried out flights for hire, joy-riding and pilot training from Maylands aerodrome for several months and undertook longer flights to such places as Busselton and Yallingup, Katanning and Wagin.(34) From August 1932 Snook ventured further from Perth, taking with him Reece, a parachutist, to give displays at country centres. At first these journeys were limited because the company had pilot training commitments in Perth on the weekends.(35)
Gradually, however, the trips to country areas became more important and longer trips were undertaken. In September 1932 Snook visited towns such as Beverley, Merredin and Bruce Rock on one trip and Lake Grace, Newdegate and Wagin on another. He discovered that it paid to visit country towns on shopping days when more people would be in the towns.(36) In October Snook and Reece visited towns such as Pithara and Cadeaux and in November they made a three weeks tour to eastern goldfields centres such as Kalgoorlie, Leonora, Wiluna, Meekatharra and Mt Magnet.(37) In December they covered the south eastern corner of the State, including such towns as Pingarra, Bridgetown and Busselton and for two weeks in January and February 1933 they visited even remoter areas of the state including Norseman, Esperance, Albany and Denmark.(38)
In March 1933 Snook went to Great Britain but it is possible that Air Taxis continued operations for a further few months with H A Baker (one of Western Australian Airways' first pilots) as the pilot until the aeroplane was sold to a private pilot.(39)
Aerial Commerce Company
The longest lasting and most successful of these companies was the Aerial Commerce Company, owned by H C Ittershagen. Among Ittershagen's many business ventures was the agency for Lanz crude oil tractors which sold widely across Western Australia. He conceived of the idea of using light aeroplanes to carry mechanics and spare parts to provide his customers with a quick repair service and imported two Klemm light aeroplanes, initially with this in mind.(40) He leased endowment land at West Subiaco, had it cleared for a small aerodrome and erected a hangar there. The first of his aeroplanes arrived in July and the second in November 1929, the first one able to carry one passenger and the second able to carry two passengers.(41)
Among many activities these aeroplanes were used for hire and to fly to farm field days where Lanz tractors were demonstrated. In January 1930 a Klemm with floats was the first aeroplane to fly to Rottnest Island and later this aeroplane flew to Bunbury and Albany.(42) H F Baker was Aerial Commerce's first main pilot and he flew Ittershagen on many trips around the south west of the state. Baker also became the instructor of the Subiaco Aero Club which was formed with Ittershagen's encouragement to use the aerodrome and the Klemm aeroplanes.(43) The company and the aero club operated successfully through 1930, with the club members able to take a 10 hour course in learning to fly for £25 and the Klemm's were available for taxi flights, joy rides, advertising and photographic work. The club held fortnightly meetings and social functions including dances, picnics, parties and field days; one at Rockingham and another at Bullsbrook at where Baker, who had his own aeroplane by this time, gave flights.(44) H A Blake, who had been attracted back to flying by Ittershagen's operations, became the main pilot for Aerial Commerce when Baker became involved in his own activities. Ittershagen, who was near 60 years of age at this time, also learned to fly and took a pilot's licence.(45)
In August 1931 the Subiaco Aero Club organised a large aerial pageant at the West Subiaco aerodrome which every aviation company in the state attended and in October the club organised a display at the Maylands aerodrome in which, again, all the state's aviation organizations took part.(46) Despite this activity it is likely that both Aerial Commerce and the club were not doing much flying by mid 1931 because Wings was using one and perhaps both of the company's Klemm aeroplanes at the West Subiaco Aerodrome in July 1931.(47) When Wings went into liquidation Aerial Commerce made use of its Klemms again and also took over the Simmonds Spartan which had been Wings' remaining aeroplane. However interest must have been very low because Ittershagen arranged with Brooklands (WA) raceway to construct a race track for cycles and cars around the aerodrome and, for some time at least, 'these sports in conjunction with flying, attract[ed] large crowds.'(48) In July 1932 there was a mixed carnival at the West Subiaco aerodrome (also known as 'Brooklands') at which there was a race between an aeroplane, a car and a motor bike, a parachute descent by Lieutenant Reece, a dog race, model aeroplane displays, foot races, gilder displays, trick and comedy motorbike riding and aerobatics.
However, at about the same time Ittershagen wrote 'if things go as they are at present, we shall have to close our aerodrome after three years flying and spending about £6,000 ...'(49) By May 1933, when Ittershagen left on an overseas business trip, he had virtually given up aviation activities and although, when he returned, he attempted to gain Commonwealth government support to manufacture Klemm aeroplanes in Australia, he received no encouragement and ceased to take an active part in aviation.(50)
All the companies which carried out operations during this period had many things in common but the most important was the lack of financial resources and the steady decline in patronage. The lack of financial resources meant that they had very little to fall back upon as the depression deepened and if any of their aeroplanes were put out of operation. Baker Aviation, Air Taxis, Goldfields Air Navigation and Western Air Services had only one aeroplane each and if that was damaged they were unable to make any income to support themselves. The same situation applied to private aeroplane owners like Dean Williams and James who had only one aeroplane to let for hire. Similarly Wings, which may have had three aeroplanes at its peak, and Aerial Commerce which had two or three, still had their potential to raise income severely reduced if any of their fleet went out of operation. Another limitation was the fact that most of the aeroplanes used by these companies could carry only one or two passengers so that, apart from pilot training and giving joy-rides, their aeroplanes were of little commercial use. With the exception of Wings' Puss Moth all the aeroplanes had open passenger cockpits which meant that they were unlikely to attract any but the most adventurous and curious members of the public to use their services.
Only Aerial Commerce and Air Taxis survived beyond the end of 1932 and even those companies were in very poor condition by then. The main reason for this was because, although it appeared the public was still interested in aviation and would attend aerial displays to look at aeroplanes, they could not generally afford to make personal use of them. At Wings and the Subiaco Aero Club the early hope for profits to be made from pilot training and giving joy rides evaporated during 1932. Aerial Commerce managed to prolong its existence by incorporating new forms of public entertainment in Perth to attract new customers while Air Taxis went to distant parts of the state to find new customers. Both approaches appear to have worked for a time but eventually the entertainments which Aerial Commerce was involved in drew less crowds and Air Taxis ran out of new territories to exploit.(51)
It is also worth noting that all this activity was carried on by only a few people and only a small number of aeroplanes. Aerial Commerce imported its two Klemm aeroplanes which were used, for a time, by Wings and, with the exception of the Goldfields Air Navigation company's Junkers and the Wings Puss Moth, all the other organizations seem to have used the same two or three Moth light aeroplanes. For example Western Air Services and Wings both used the same Moth aeroplane which then became the subject of Avi-Tours experiments.(52) An exception was the three seat Spartan aeroplane which Wings bought from a private pilot and then passed to Aerial Commerce.
Pilots also passed from one company to another. Nesbit flew for Western Air Services and Wings while Snook flew for both those companies and then Air Taxis before going overseas. H F Baker flew with Aerial Commerce before forming his own company and then going to the Aero Club of Western Australia and then West Australian Airways. H A Blake also flew for at least two companies, Aerial Commerce and Air Taxis. It is interesting to note that all the companies which were successful for a time included among their founding organizations known pilots with a committment to aviation. Goldfields Air Navigation, National Airways Limited and Seaplanes Limited were established by businessmen or enthusiasts with little practical experience of aviation. On the other hand Nesbit, who was important in the formation of Western Aerial Services and Wings, had become known through flying with West Australian Airways and Snook, who was the chief pilot for Wings and Air Taxis, was a West Australian who had done much flying in the eastern states after returning from the war.(53) The exception is Aerial Commerce but Ittershagen had shown, over the previous 30 years in business, that he was determined to keep on with what he started and he became enthusiastic about aviation once he became involved in it, as is demonstrated by his obtaining a pilot's licence.(54)
Similar conditions applied in the other Australian state most like West Australia - Queensland - which had a subsidised air service and was relatively isolated. There were a number of aviation companies set up about this period and although many more of those were in the same class as National Airways or Seaplanes, without the support of a known pilot and never operating an aeroplane, there were one or two which began with a similar burst of enthusiasm and then quietly disappeared through lack of resources. The most spectacular was Queensland Air Navigation Limited which was launched by Brisbane businessmen to conduct a service along the coast from Brisbane to Townsville. They published a glossy prospectus and used professional stock brokerage techniques to sell most of the company's shares so that, by the time the company commenced operations, it had 1,486 shareholders and a paid up capital of £60,326/13/10. However, the company lost £11,000 a month and soon went out of business.(56)
All these organizations lacked Commonwealth government subsidies. These companies had to find other sources of income which seemed most possible through locating a niche which would provide sufficient income to survive. Goldfields Air Navigation thought they had a possibility with the Wiluna to Kalgoorlie route, but the traffic proved insufficient. The other companies had less firm plans, hoping to exist, as Norman Brearley had done in 1919 and 1920, on irregular sources of income. Snook, most obviously, followed Brearley's earlier activities to their logical conclusion by touring as far into the state as was commercially viable. But, like Brearley, they all soon discovered that it was not possible to survive in this way. Plans for air services between towns came to nothing for lack of support and the supply of those willing to learn to fly or take joy flights was limited. This supply of customers declined sharply in 1931 and 1932 as the Depression reached its most severe and less people could afford aviation.
By mid 1933 the only commercial flying in Western Australia was being done by West Australian Airways and the Aero Club of Western Australia. Both these organizations predated all the companies which were formed and failed between 1929 and 1933 because they received Commonwealth government subsidies. Whether any of these companies could have survived if there had not been a Depression is, perhaps, a matter for some further examination.
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