Electra! Reg Ansett's Involvement.
by Robert N. Smith

 

Over the years much has been said and written about Sir Reginald Myles Ansett (1908-1981), some favourable, some of it not so favourable. Despite individual opinions few would dispute the fact that he was a dedicated aviator of the old school who sought to fulfil his dream. The methods ultimately employed to realise his ambitions could be debated ad infinitum but the fact remains that he succeeded in creating an Australian icon, recognised throughout the aviation industry and the world as being one of the truly great airlines.


Reg Ansett played a major role in securing the Lockheed L-188 Electra for his restructured airline Ansett-A.N.A.in the late 1950's. To this day the full story surrounding the acquisition of the three original Ansett aircraft is believed by many to steeped in intrigue, political interference and behind-closed-door deals. You the reader must be the judge. Nevertheless it is an undisputed fact that the three L-188’s delivered to Ansett-A.N.A. in 1959 and 1960 gave the company 25 years of continuous service, an outstanding achievement for any aircraft, even by world standards.


To truly appreciate the Electra story as it relates to Australia, one must understand something about our airline industry as it stood in the late 1950’s, and the Australian culture of the period.


Our national ‘psyche’ was still geared towards the United Kingdom - our population identified with ‘Mother England' and our central bank controlled all foreign currency dealings, which were predominately Pounds Sterling. A ‘buy-British’ attitude remained strong, despite recent exposure to various American airliners such as the Douglas DC-4, DC-6 and Convair 240 / 340 aircraft. This attitude was strongly enforced by the then Australian Federal Government under the leadership of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, whose pro-British attitude was well-known.

 

Air travel at this time was primarily the domain of the rich, business people or senior government employees. It was certainly not viewed by the average working class Australian as a routine means of public transport. The concept of package holidays to tourist destinations had still to be developed, while the introduction of economy class seating and corresponding fares had only been introduced by Ansett in March 1948 in an effort to stimulate business. Innovative as it was, economy class air travel was still only coming into reach for the average Australian family.


The Australian Federal Government had also been exploring ways to restructure the air transport industry. The first stage was the formulation of the ‘Airline Agreement Act’ of 1952. This was the beginning of the infamous ‘Two Airline Policy’ which controlled aspects of aviation in Australia until 1987.


The Airline Agreement Act covered the two main domestic airlines at that time, the privately owned Australian National Airways Pty Ltd (A.N.A.) and the government owned Trans Australia Airlines (T.A.A.). Ansett Airways was excluded from this legislation as it was seen to be a small airline and not likely to seriously threaten A.N.A. or T.A.A. The legislation was primarily geared to ensuring the survival of A.N.A. through government guaranteed loans to modernise its fleet, and to rationalise the latter's access to lucrative government travel business and the carriage of mail for the Post Master General.


The chairman of A.N.A. Sir Ivan Holyman died suddenly on 18th January 1957 in Honolulu. Whilst the departure of such a person in any organisation should not have dire consequences for it, in this particular case it did. Sir Ivan was the 'cement' binding the proud but now financially haemorrhaging A.N.A. empire together. His successor, Percy Haddy, in hindsight was not the best appointment for this position. Coming from the Adelaide Steamship Company (Adsteam) an old reputable Australian shipping line and one of the group of companies which owned A.N.A., he had little experience in aviation, and by all accounts possessed poor interpersonal skills, particularly when dealing with Government and media representatives. The result was A.N.A.'s continued financial decline.


Being an astute businessman Reg Ansett took advantage of the situation as it presented itself. Following his visit to the U.S.A., he announced on 19th June 1957 that holding orders had been placed with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for the delivery in 1959 of the new Lockheed Electra to Ansett Airways. The number of aircraft in this holding order was not specified.One week later, on 24th June 1957, he launched a bold take-over bid for A.N.A. worth some six million dollars. This was rejected by the A.N.A. board on the grounds that the airline was worth much more.


Regrouping, and with new equity partners, Vacuum Oil (Mobil) & Shell, Ansett's major fuel suppliers, an increased take-over offer of $6.6 million was made on 30th July 1957. Realising that there was no other viable option, it was accepted by the A.N.A. board on 23rd August 1957.


With the acquisition of A.N.A. the foundation was laid for the addition of Butler Air Transport and Queensland Air Lines to the Ansett organisation, as A.N.A.'s holding company Bungana Investments had a controlling interest in Butler which in turn controlled QAL. It was a major restructure of the Australian airline industry.

Thus1957 became the watershed year, and the beginning of the Australian Electra story.


It was now time for Reg Ansett to seriously consider re-equipment options in order to place the newly restructured airline, Ansett-A.N.A., in a viable position to compete with the Government’s airline. This announcement was not long in coming. Just one month later on 23rd September 1957 Reg Ansett signed a $US10 million deal with Lockheed for the delivery of four new L-188 Electras to spearhead the airline's fleet, for delivery in October 1958, January, October and November 1959. The airframes involved were 1039, 1047, 1061 and 1069.


This bold move did not sit well with the Federal Government, as it was not in keeping with their ‘buy British wherever possible’ policy, and to some extent, in conflict with the regulatory powers it was still implementing under the Airlines Agreement Act, to which Ansett had become a signatory, following its takeover of A.N.A.


Realising it now faced a new and vibrant competitor, T.A.A. pushed ahead with its own re-equipment plans. It sought to build on the business philosophy of Sir Arthur Coles, T.A.A.’s first chairman, “that in order for a business to remain viable it must have the edge in the quality of product it offers”. This naturally pointed to the next generation of airliners, powered by jet engines. The one chosen was none other than the French product, the Sud Aviation SE-210 Caravelle which was based on the British DH-106 Comet.


Under the terms of the Airline Agreement Act, this jump in technology was considered by Ansett to be too great for Ansett-A.N.A. to handle effectively, given the limited experience they had had to this point with pressurised airliners alone, and no experience with turboprop airliners. The Electra seemed to be the best solution as it gave Ansett the exposure it needed to turboprop equipment, and was larger than the Vickers Viscounts currently in service with T.A.A.

It came as a shock to everyone when on 27th March 1958 the Federal Government stepped in and denied Ansett the import licence on the four ordered Electras, and T.A.A.’s proposed Caravelles. Instead both airlines were granted import licences on the British Vickers Viscount 800 series aircraft. This was not the favourable outcome either airline was looking for.


Ansett received some unexpected support in its lobbying on the Electra case from an unexpected source - Qantas. Australia’s only international carrier had indicated that it was seeking new equipment to replace the ageing DC-4’s on its Asian and Pacific routes, and that it had a requirement for four such aircraft.


What is often overlooked by many people is that Qantas owned a large part of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd - TEAL (or Air New Zealand as it became not long afterwards). This resulted in Qantas having a major input on that airline’s re-equipment plans. The New Zealanders wanted to upgrade to the de Havilland DH-106 Comet 4 but Qantas insisted that the Electra would provide commonality between fleets, and would be the best option for trans-Tasman operations. Needless to say the Qantas argument won-out in the end.


On 22nd May 1958 it was announced by the then Australian Minister for Civil Aviation Senator Paltridge that funds were being made available to the airlines for the purchase of twenty-one new aircraft. The breakdown delivered few surprises. It included approval for Qantas to purchase four Electras (c/n's 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008); TEAL ordered three Electras ( c/n 2005, 2010, 2011); while Ansett-A.N.A. and T.A.A. were granted two each. Cries of horror were heard on both sides of the Tasman Sea. The New Zealand flag was reportedly flown at half-mast outside TEAL headquarters, whilst Ansett came to the realisation that it would have to relinquish two of its reserved Electra airframes to the opposition!


The Government had indeed flexed its muscles once again and by doing so had indicated what was being proposed in legislation being drafted for presentation to Parliament in the near future. Undaunted, on 23rd July 1958 Reg Ansett announced that he had placed orders for 14 turboprop aircraft, namely 4 Lockheed Electras, 4 Vickers Viscount 832s, and 6 Fokker F27 Friendships.


Legislation introduced to Federal Parliament as the ‘Airlines Equipment Act’ on 24th September 1958 dictated that Ansett-A.N.A. and T.A.A. must operate identical aircraft on all mainland services, along with identical fares. The only difference between the two airlines would effectively be the paint on the aircraft’s exterior, and the corresponding cabin service!

Accepting these arrangements, Reg Ansett lost no time in formalising the order for the two Electras he was officially allowed to acquire. This was done on 9th December 1958 for airframes 1039 & 1047 as stated earlier. T.A.A. on the other hand were slower off the mark in formalising their order, resulting in Ansett gaining a three months operational advantage. The first two T.A.A. airframes were c/n 1061 and 1069, the last two originally set aside for Ansett in 1957.

This anomaly in operational advantage gave rise to a further tightening of Government control over the airlines, the Airlines Equipment Act of 1961. This basically dictated that both airlines must introduce new airliners into service at the same time. In fact, it went one step further, as it stated that new aircraft had to arrive in the country together.

Up to this point everything seemed to be above board, but was it? Reg Ansett realised that two operational airframes did not make a fleet. If something happened to one, then it was no longer a fleet. Lobbying continued at Government level, to be granted an import licence on a third airframe. On 4th March 1959 Reg’s submission to the Minister for Civil Aviation stated that Ansett-A.N.A. would not require any government loan guarantee, or any $US as the sale of outdated prop airliners (6 x DC-4’s, 2 x CV-340’s and 2 x DC-6’s) would realise approximately $US 2 million, covering most of the cost of the third Electra airframe, which was priced at $US 2.6 million.


To further boost his case Reg stated that the current fleet of 2 Electras was achieving a load factor of some 99.03% on the Melbourne-Sydney route, and that the addition of a third aircraft would provide Ansett-A.N.A. with a net profit gain of some 300,000 pounds per year. He also stated that the airline had until 18th March to confirm the option held by Lockheed on this third airframe which could be delivered in December 1959.


However the Minister for Civil Aviation failed to communicate the Government’s position by the due date. The application was formally rejected on 20th March.


Did Reg Ansett go ahead at this point and strike a deal with Lockheed management, to construct the third airframe for his airline, without disclosing this order to the Government and T.A.A.? To do so would indicate he must have been confident of obtaining Federal Government approval to purchase a third aircraft at some future date.


The Airlines Equipment Act continued to draw criticism from all parties, especially Ansett. The inequalities between the turboprop fleets of Ansett-A.N.A. and T.A.A. could no longer be ignored by the Minister, T.A.A. had 26 such aircraft as opposed to Ansett’s 14. This fact was finally recognised by the Minister when he wrote to Ansett on 14th November 1959 granting the import licence for a third Electra to both airlines.


Ansett wasted no time in formalising the acquisition of this Electra - airframe c/n 1044. He met with Lockheed’s president, Robert S. Gross on 19th November 1959 at Lockheed’s headquarters, with the order being officially placed the following day. However, this aircraft had already been built and was being utilised by Lockheed as an avionics testbed.


Manufacturer’s records regarding airframe (or c/n) 1044 are not clear. The actual first flight date is not known with certainty. However David G. Powers in his book 'Lockheed 188 Electra' (World Transport Press, Inc, 1999) gives a first flight date on this aircraft as 1st November 1959. It was registered to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as N1883. Aircraft either side of c/n 1044 took wing in March 1959. However this anomaly can be found with other Electras, and is not confined to c/n 1044.

 

The original Electra N1883, c/n 1003, was deregistered on 18th March 1959, and then converted to the Orion aerodynamic prototype, flying for the first time in this guise on 19th August 1959. March 18th, 1959 is significant, as it was the date given to Ansett by Lockheed to confirm the purchase of its third Electra!


It was extremely fortuitous for Ansett that Lockheed had a spare airframe available, a supposedly 'white-tail', just when the Ansett order was confirmed. T.A.A. on the other hand had to wait until August 1960 before its third Electra, airframe c/n 1147 entered service, giving Ansett a six-month operational advantage!


A Lockheed flight crew delivered the aircraft from Burbank to Honolulu, where it was handed over to the Ansett ferry crew, who had recently arrived from Australia. This gesture saved considerable time in getting the aircraft into service.

The rest is history. The Electra proved to be a sound investment. They gave many years of faithful service, both in passenger and pure freighter roles to Ansett. A fourth airframe, c/n 1123, was acquired by Ansett Airlines of Australia in August 1975, registered as VH-RMG, to provide extra air freight capacity. They were loved by their flight crews and passengers alike. To the enthusiast they exuded raw power and muscle, especially when the deep-throated Allison engines rumbled into life, spinning up those massive paddle blades, set close to the ground, a sight and sound lost in today’s world of sleek Airbus and Boeing jets. T.A.A.’s management in later years conceded the Electra was indeed a worthwhile acquisition - not its first choice, but one that rendered invaluable service and reliability.


Subsequent efforts by other operators to introduce the Electra into Australian service came to nothing. Indian Ocean Airlines brought an Electra to Australia in late 1992 , airframe c/n 1036, intending to use it for passenger operations but it did not enter revenue service, and departed after a short stay. Charrak brought an Electra into the country in April 1996 for pure freight operations, airframe c/n 1112, and while it did undertake some revenue services, it was a short-lived operation.


Sadly, the days of Electra operations around the world are coming to an end, just as they did in Australia. Aircraft are being scrapped due to corrosion and inability to obtain replacement parts, the hulks cannibalised to keep the few remaining examples airworthy.


Today only one airframe from each of the once proud Ansett-A.N.A., T.A.A. and Qantas fleets remain active around the world - for how much longer is anyone’s guess.