Review by Andy Wright.
This book was nothing at all like I expected. Sure, it has some cracking tales of flying and odd postings, but I was expecting a book full of amusing and clever stories imaginatively told by some of the great characters of Qantas and, therefore, Australian aviation. Read the cover and that’s what it suggests. Sit down, fasten your seatbelt and chuckle away. It is certainly not that at all. It is much more.
I’ve said before, when reviewing Bill Anderson’s A Lifetime in Longhaul, that I am an unabashed Qantas fan for various reasons, but with a particular leaning towards the airline’s history and its ability to get on with the job. It is not the flashiest operation, it is not the cheapest to fly and it cops a good amount of, sometimes justified, criticism. However, it is there every day, such a constant in people’s lives that it almost blends in to the background, quietly and effectively doing what it is relied upon to do. It attracts criticism, all too easily at times, as we expect such a high standard because the airline itself holds itself to performing at such a high level. In many ways it is no different to numerous other airlines in this respect but Qantas remains our national carrier and, therefore, will always be subject to the strongest scrutiny despite it being part of the furniture.
It is the people that make things work, of course, that are responsible for everything that Qantas was, is and will be. Every single one of them, from the earliest Queensland fliers, the former RAAF aircrew who led the intercontinental charge after the war, the first female cabin crew and the staff at the many refuelling bases around the world in the Constellation and Boeing 707 days, to the engineers who go above and beyond, the ground handlers working in all sorts of weather and the aircrew re-training on new aircraft, lives and breathes the airline. There is always a little turbulence of course and Jim Eames’ book mentions numerous industrial actions and the evolution of Qantas’ handling of each unique situation. The one general trait, however, is that no challenge is too great. It has to be cost-effective of course as this is, after all, a business, but if it can be made to work or, more correctly, engineered, it will be done.
The author of The Flying Kangaroo, clearly, wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the airline, but he is not backward in coming forward about what could have been done better. Importantly, his discussion is heavily supported by quotes and memories from those who were there and the vast majority are honest (sometimes brutally) and enlightening. All of Qantas’ formative post-war operations feature, namely New Guinea, Constellations and dodgy engines, the 707 revolution and the coming of the 747. A very pleasant surprise was the lengthy look at the airline’s operations in to, and out of, Vietnam during the war. It is a tangible reminder, along with the various natural and manmade disasters over the decades, that, if the balloon goes up, there’s a good chance an airliner with a flying kangaroo on its tail will be there to help.
There are some great characters (I did note that the great Keith Thiele was referred to as Keith Thistle which was my only disappointment) and tales of derring-do and hi-jinks within the pages of this book and none fail to entertain while making the reader realise that, for the most part, many of those who got up to mischief, key to the airline’s culture and professionalism though they were, would not survive in today’s world of high sensitivities and political correctness. Perhaps that’s for the best as the smallest voice can attract an international audience if it finds the right avenue. That’s not to say today’s Qantas is staffed by robots, far from it, but it is certainly a different animal to what it was in the days of the telex, the navigator and the multiple stop itinerary.
However, The Flying Kangaroo talks about where today’s Qantas came from and there are many characteristics that remain and will continue to do so. The airline world is cutthroat and many have fallen by the wayside or, worse, been disastrously affected by shortcuts or a lowering of standards. Luck will always play a part and Qantas has had its fair share. Its ventures have not always been successful, but others that no one else would, or could, touch have been the making of this airline. There has to be fanfare, celebration and excessive marketing to make a business stand out against it competitors, and Qantas is no stranger to such things, but just as effective is the constant delivery of the every day, or what becomes the every day, responsibilities, the things that everyone sees but, mostly, don’t register.
Such things are remarkable in their routine. They are achieved by a multitude of people doing their job and, when required, going above and beyond to deliver something special or even just maintain the status quo.
The Flying Kangaroo is an honest, no-nonsense and warm-hearted discussion of the history of one of the world’s great airlines and the people responsible for making it so. Despite covering some of the political wranglings behind the scenes, it remains an easy, flowing read although the Australian Airlines takeover takes a bit of effort on the home stretch. There is a bit of flying for everyone, from de Havilland Beavers to 747s, and there is little doubt that most readers will recognise some of those Qantas people featured within. Such is the impact and influence of the ‘Spirit of Australia’.
Note: This book is now five years old and many of those who make Qantas the international symbol it is are currently stood down due to reduced operations as we handle the COVID19 pandemic. Whether everyone returns to work is not known, but they have all contributed to the history of one of the world’s great airlines.