From wheels to wings
BY DR CLIVE FRASER
It has been exactly 100 years since a duo of intrepid explorers set off from Longreach in Western Queensland in a Model T Ford to survey landing strips for an air race.
The story began with a competition proposed by Australia’s Prime Minister (Billy Hughes) for an air race between London and Sydney.
The rules stipulated that the pilots must be Australian and the journey had to be completed in under 720 hours.
Billy Hughes offered a prize of £10,000 which in today’s money is a huge $791,885.88.
The explorers had both served at Gallipoli and then in the Flying Corps in Palestine prior to returning to Australia.
They had intended to be participants in the air race, but their generous sponsor (Sir Samuel McGauhey) died before their funds were secured.
The explorers were Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness and their support crew consisted of their driver/mechanic George Gorham.
The overland trip to Darwin was of 2180 kilometres with mostly no made roads, no bridges and barely a track to be followed.
Damage to the vehicle included bent axles and a broken radiator and fan, but the Model T made it all the way.
The journey also marked the first crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria by automobile.
With conditions on the ground being impossibly harsh it was no wonder that Fysh and McGuiness dreamt of making the journey by air.
Those dreams were realized in 1920 with the formation of the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service.
Their first planes were a pair of Australian assembled two-seater Avro 504Ks almost identical to those flown in World War One.
Instead of taking two days to travel from Winton to Cloncurry by horse-drawn coach, flying with Qantas would shorten the journey to three hours.
Hudson Fysh continued to steer Qantas to great success until his retirement as Chairman in 1966.
Fast forward to 2009 and a second set of intrepid explorers attempted to re-trace the original trek in another 1919 Model T Ford.
This time around they’d have GPS and a satellite phone, but the tracks were the same as Fysh and McGinness had travelled on.
They would also only be carrying 47 gallons of fuel, the same as in 1919.
The journey was filmed and their Model T named ‘Molly’ is on display in Longreach at the Qantas Founders Museum.
The vehicle suffered a broken front axle which was re-welded en route.
The Model T was powered by a 2.9 litre four-cylinder engine delivering 20 horsepower (15kW).
There were times during the 1919 journey that an extra two horses were required to pull the vehicle through some deep creek crossings.
But in 2009, the extra horses would come from modern SUVs.
So with so much extra horsepower there should have been no excuse for not completing the trip.
But all of that extra gear does come at a cost with the added weight limiting travel over land.
And so it was that at Sandy Creek ‘Molly’ floundered and just would not make it up the bank.
With no horses in sight the decision was made to re-trace the journey back to a more conventional route.
Disappointed the crew were left thinking that they’d failed, only to discover that Fysh and McGinness had probably back peddled at just about the same spot.
In 1919 Fysh and McGinness took 51 days to drive from Longreach to Katherine.
It’s now a 22-hour drive on the Landsborough Highway according to my GPS.
Doctor Clive Fraser
Published: 13 Nov 2019