Hopes to Remember Central Australia’s Pioneering Outback Airline, Connair

It survived the extremes of the Australian outback and battled through some of the nation’s worst aviation accidents, yet few people have ever heard of it.

Starting in 1939 as government subsidised mail service, Connellan Airways (renamed Connair in 1970) is credited with opening up the Australian outback.

Founded by Victorian-born Edward Connellan, the small bush airline went on to service hundreds of remote stations, mines and communities across northern Australia.

It also operated the first tourist charter service to Ayers Rock (Uluru).

But former pilot David Frederikson, who flew with Connair between 1968 and 1976, said the airline has been mostly forgotten in Australia’s history.

“Most people under 30 would not have a clue that this airline held the Territory together,” he said.

“For bush people, it was their lifeline

“We’d deliver food and people coming and going from hospital, prisoners, dead bodies, tractor tyres, outboard motors, we used to carry everything.”

When roads, and air strips, were cut off by floods, the company would perform food drops for stations and communities.

“We had the traffic officer chained in the back with a safety harness on and we’d fly down low over the strip and he could get six [sugarbags of food] out per run,” said Mr Frederikson.

“So we’d end up doing six runs down the strip and he’d get the 36 bags out and we’d skid them in the mud.”

Restoring a ‘work-horse’

David Frederickson

The many challenges of early outback aviation led to an impressive feat of local engineering.

Against manufacturer’s advice, the airline’s fleet of six de Havilland Heron aircraft was fitted with more powerful engines and the plane’s wings were remodelled.

Over a thousand hours of work led to a plane that could carry heavier loads, fly further distances and land on shorter runways than the original Heron.

“These aircrafts … became a bit of a sports car,” Mr Frederkison said.

“I had a very soft spot, particularly for this airplane, because I did so much time in it and an aeroplane that you fly every second day becomes just an extension of your body and you feel very close to it, and I still do.”

Mr Frederkison is one of a number of volunteers who helped to find and restore one of the Heron airplanes used by Connellan Airways from the early sixties.

The plane were exhibited at the Central Australian Aviation Museum in November last year.

“We’ve been trying to get a Heron for a long time,” said fellow volunteer and former Connellan Airways employee Jim Thomas.

“I think it’s a tribute to the pilots and the people who worked here years ago.

“People generally don’t realise how vastly things have changed with GPS and technology you have today.

“It wasn’t that long ago that it was extremely basic, flying through dust storms and having to navigate from a map.”

Memories of the airline’s first ‘air hostess’

Connellan Airways staff
Wendy Georgetti-Remkes was the company’s first air hostess, as they were then known, and ended up designing her own uniform, and those of the crew.

“The first one I designed was a little yellow frock and a pill box hat, cute but not very practical,” she said.

“After that I came up with a brown skirt for me and brown trousers for the pilots, simply because it matched the dust.”

Wendy would sit in the cockpit of one of a small fleet of Herons, operating the radio as “second crew” and looking after up to 16 passengers.

One memorable incident came when the plane took a bit of a dip after miners disembarked at the MacArthur River Mine, near the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The heavy mining equipment in the back of the plane caused a weight imbalance in the Heron.

“The aeroplane slowly but surely tipped back and sat on its tail,” she said.

“The pilot said, ‘OK fellas, you’ve got to get back on the aeroplane, one by one, very slowly, starting from the front’.

“So they all had to very carefully tiptoe back up to the front and she tipped back onto her nose.”

Passengers disappeared ‘into the scrub’

About 50 children standing on aeroplane

In the mid sixties, flying people in and out of the Aboriginal missions and government settlements was a big part of the airline’s operations.

According to Wendy, Aboriginal passengers disappearing en route to their destinations was not uncommon.

She remembered one occasion when a woman and a child were being flown back to their community after being in hospital.

“We stopped at a station and everyone had to disembark because we were refuelling,” she recalled.

“The vision I had in the heat that was shimmering, it was so hot, was this woman, bare feet, child on hip, heading straight into the scrub.

“A week later I saw the pilot and he said, ‘she made it, they always do’.

“The woman had walked for three days to get to the community.”

Suicide attack kills five

Old photo of woman in a cockpit

On January 5, 1977, a disgruntled former employee of Connair stole an aircraft and flew it into the company’s hangar at Alice Springs Airport, killing himself and four others.

One of those killed was pilot Roger Connellan, Edward Connellan’s son, and the fiancée of Ms Georgetti-Remkes, who arrived at the scene several hours later.

“One of the main engineers was there and he looked up, I’ll never forget the look of horror on his face, and he came running towards me,” she said.

“I got out [of the car] and the engineer reached me at the same time and I basically collapsed, because I realised something terrible had happened.”

The death of Roger, and increasing financial pressures spelled the end of Connellan Airways in 1980.

Wendy spent another four decades travelling the world in the aviation industry but says Connellan Airways is at the core of her heart.

“It deserves worldwide recognition in my book because it was unique,” she said.

“The role that Connellan Airways played in history for this country is invaluable and nobody’s ever heard of it

“I’d like to see them interested, and the way to do that is to make people aware of what this little airline did with a big heart.”