Saving Miss Flinders – and our desire to fly


The closure of Tasmania’s borders as part of our response to the coronavirus pandemic has brought the state’s reliance on aviation into sharp focus.

Indeed, as you read this piece I will be heading to Canberra for parliament’s three-day special sitting next week. Instead of taking my usual route between Launceston, Melbourne and Canberra airports, I will be combining a long drive with an overnight ferry trip to ensure I meet all my appointments. While my extended journey gives me plenty of time for thinking and reflection, this crisis-induced situation forced me to consider how flying has become a common, and much relied upon, mode of transport for Tasmanians.

This reliance is not by accident; Tasmania has a rich aviation history. And the state’s North has played a strong role in that record. Qantas co-founder Sir Hudson Fysh was born in Launceston and Harold Gatty, the navigator on the first flight around the world and founder of Fiji Airways, was from Campbell Town.

From aviators to infrastructure, the building where Tasmania’s aviation industry began still stands at Launceston Airport, Western Junction. The Holyman Hangar (also known as Hangar 17) was built in 1933 by shipping line owners Victor and Ivan Holyman, with pioneering pilot Laurie Johnson, for the launch of Tasmanian Aerial Services. This operation included services to Flinders and King islands, Latrobe, Wynyard and Smithton via the British-made Desoutter monoplane Miss Flinders and the Fox Moth biplane Miss Currie.

Mr Johnson opened up passenger and mail flights to Flinders Island in 1932, with the first scheduled flight made on 19 March that year. One of Mr Johnson’s passengers was a representative from The Mercury newspaper with a supply of that day’s edition. The next day he made what was probably the first medical evacuation by plane from Flinders Island when Alf Cook was flown from Whitemark to Launceston with the island’s Dr Connell. The plane was met at Western Junction by an ambulance and the passengers taken to Launceston General Hospital.

Miss Flinders remained in service in Tasmania up until 1935, when the plane was accepted by the de Havilland Aircraft Company at Mascot, NSW, in part payment for a new aircraft purchased by Holyman Airways. After numerous owners and various duties on the mainland, Miss Flinders reached the end of its working life and returned to Launceston in 1966 to be displayed at the newly-built Launceston Airport terminal.

Upon its expansion in 1936, Tasmanian Aerial Services had become Holyman Airways and then Australian National Airlines, which was the biggest airline in Australia, and the ninth biggest in the world, during the 1940s. Ansett purchased Australian National Airlines in 1957, with Hangar 17 used by Ansett Airfreight until 2001, when the company ceased operations. However, Tasmania’s oldest aviation building was given a new lease on life in 2015 as Launceston Distillery, where Tasmanian single malt whisky is now produced. The building still retains its connection to the industry as the meeting venue for the Tasmanian Aviation Historical Society (TAHS).

And Miss Flinders flew full circle too, coming back home to the hangar this year after being displayed for decades at Launceston Airport and then Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG). TAHS president Andrew Johnson, who is the grandson of Miss Flinders’ previous owner and operator Lawrence Johnson, was working at QVMAG when the plane arrived on loan from the Federal Government in 1997. Part of Andrew Johnson’s role was putting the plane back together for display at the Inveresk museum, and he wrote he was relishing doing the same again in his new role in the Autumn edition of the historical society’s newsletter.

“Members of TAHS made a commitment for the society to retain the Desoutter as part of their responsibility to address the lack of historical aviation focus in Tasmania,” Mr Johnson wrote.

“The significance of the role played by Miss Flinders in the development of Australia’s aviation history cannot be underestimated,” he said.

The decision by the Federal Government to gift Miss Flinders to the society has ensured this important part of our aviation history stays in Tasmania. Liberal Member for Bass Bridget Archer made the presentation in March, saying she appreciated “the important role that TAHS is taking on the ongoing preservation and display of Miss Flinders”.

Tasmanian Aviation Historical Society plans to have the plane back on display in 2022, ready for the 90th anniversary of Miss Flinders’ arrival in Launceston.

Tasmanian air traffic may have lessened due to the coronavirus pandemic, but our strong aviation history shows soaring the skies is firmly part of our state’s character. Like many Tasmanians, I am looking forward to flying again very soon.