The man who led TAA in to the air in 1946, Lester Joseph Brain, was born in Forbes, NSW on 27 February 1903. He was the second son of Austin Lionel Bennet Brain and Katie Mary (née Murray).
Educated at Sydney Grammar School, he initially joined the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney until his acceptance as one of only five civilian applicants for the 12-month RAAF flying course at Point Cook, Victoria in 1923. Graduating at the head of his group of trainees, Brain was commissioned for the Air Force Reserve.
He moved to Queensland in April 1924 to become a pilot for Qantas. Among the highlights of his early years with the airline were: the first scheduled flight from Cloncurry to Camooweal on 7 February 1925; a week-long tour of outback Queensland flying Qantas Chairman Sir Fergus McMaster and his brother Francis to political meetings; and flying American LJ Stark in 1926 to prospect for gold across the Tanami Desert.
Given his experience in out back flying, Brain was selected In April 1929 to search for the crew of the Kookaburra, Keith Anderson and Robert Hitchcock. The pair had gone missing trying to rescue Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, who had crashed landed the Southern Cross near Wave Hill in Western Australia on their attempt to fly from Australia to England.
Brain successfully located the Kookaburra, but unfortunately Anderson and Hitchcock perished. In May that same year, he rescued two British pilots, Moir and Owen, after they crash-landed at Cape Don in Arnhem Land. For these efforts he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
In 1927, he was appointed Chief Instructor at Qantas’s Brisbane Flying School as well as its local branch manager. He later became Chief Pilot. When the head office transferred to Brisbane, Brain had extra responsibilities including sales, demonstrations and agency tours.
In 1934 as Flight Superintendent, Brain ferried Qantas’s first DH 86 four engine airliner from Britain. He initially rejected the aircraft with its single pilot configuration due to his knowledge on the effects of fatigue on pilots on long haul flights. The aircraft cockpit was re-designed to cater for two pilots. He also flew a number of inaugural flying boat services for Qantas.
In 1938 Brain was promoted to Flying Operations Manager and continued to fly scheduled services on Qantas’s international services to Singapore and Karachi.
With the potential for international conflict on the horizon in Europe, Brain was appointed flying officer in the Citizen Air Force Reserve in 1935. Over the period of World War II, he rose to Temporary Wing Commander supervising Qantas’s support to the Allies.
He organised the ferry of 18 Catalina flying boats from San Diego to Australia in 1941 and flew the first South Pacific crossing himself – only the third such crossing completed. The flight took a week and involved 60 flying hours.
In February 1942, he was put in charge of Qantas’s Broome base, which was a vital staging point for aircraft evacuating personnel from the Dutch East Indies. Just one month later, Broome was attacked by Japanese fighters, in which some 70 people died and 24 aircraft were destroyed.
Brain and a colleague rowed in to the harbour and rescued 10 people from the water and this, along with a search for a missing US Liberator shot down in the raid, led to him receiving a King’s Commendation for “brave conduct at Civil Aerodromes”.
When the War ended, Brain was appointed as the Assistant General Manager of Qantas. Hudson Fysh remained General Manager of the airline and was unlikely to retire for some years.
At that time, the Commonwealth Labor Government was keen to ensure vital industries were retained, including airlines. In 1945 the Federal Parliament passed legislation establishing the Australian National Airlines Commission, a government owned authority which would own and operate aircraft in domestic airline services as Trans Australia Airlines (TAA).
Brain applied for the position of Operations Manager on an annual salary of £2,250, but the airline’s chairman, Sir Arthur Coles, instead offered him the position of General Manager on a salary of £3,000 with an undertaking to raise this to £5,000 in the future. He resigned from Qantas and took up the new role at TAA on 3 June 1946.
Brain quickly moved to establish the new airline, recruiting pilots, engineers, operations and support personnel from the RAAF and other airlines. He also obtained a number of surplus Douglas DC3 aircraft from the RAAF. His plan was to have the airline operating by October that year, the same time four new Douglas DC4 Skymaster four engine aircraft were due to be delivered.
However, Brain was pressured into operating the first scheduled flight from Melbourne to Sydney on 9 September, prior to the Federal election to show that the Government of the day could meet its promise. While Brain was keen to deliver, safety was vital. He wrote to his pilots “… schedules are important, but safety is most important”.
By August 1949, TAA had carried one million passengers and by June the following year, it made its first profit and was increasingly popular as an airline of choice. In 1951 the new Menzies Government enshrined Australia’s Two Airline Policy which provided for competition only between the Government owned TAA and a private airline (then Australian National Airways which later merged with Ansett to become Ansett Airlines of Australia).
While TAA went from strength to strength, Brain became increasingly frustrated by government bureaucracy including Cabinet’s rejection of his salary increases. He resigned from TAA in February 1955 and was subsequently appointed Managing Director of de Havilland Aircraft in Sydney. During his time there, the Company manufactured 60 Vampire jet trainers for the RAAF at its Bankstown facility along with a number of Sea Venoms for the RAN.
He retired from full time work in 1960 and joined the Board of East West Airlines and did consultancy work for a number of airlines including freight operator IPEC.
In 1979, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to aviation. A book on his life written by Neil Cadigan was published in 2008.
Lester Brain married Constance Pauline Brownhill on 8 July 1930 in Sydney and the couple had two sons and two daughters. Unfortunately, he suffered from cancer for a long period and passed away on 30 June 1980.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame proudly inducts pilot and airline manager, Lester Joseph Brain AO AFC.