For half his life, Fergus McMaster had no reason to even think of aviation, let alone imagine that it would absorb him completely for his last thirty years. Born in Rockhampton on 3 May 1879, McMaster was destined for life as a western Queensland grazier. The family had a number of properties. He married Edith Scougall in 1911 and they had a daughter, but Edith died of typhus in 1913 and daughter, Jean, was largely brought up by an uncle and aunt.
McMaster had passionate loyalty and devotion to the Empire. When World War I started, he tried to enlist, but as a 37-year-old widower in a ‘protected profession’ he was rejected. He tried again and in December 1916, he tried a third time and was accepted into the Field Artillery, arriving in France in January 1917. McMaster declined promotions and took part in battles at Villers Bretonneux, Hamel, and Amiens, in April, July and August 1918 respectively, before being discharged in London in March 1919. Three months later he had his first aeronautical experience with a joy flight in an Avro 504K at London’s Hendon aerodrome.
On returning to Australia, McMaster became chairman of the Northern Anti-Cattle Duffing Association based in Cloncurry where, in December 1919, he met Paul McGinness who helped repair a broken axle on McMaster’s car. Seven months later, a meeting between McMaster, McGinness and Hudson Fysh in Brisbane led to the formation of an organisation which was registered on 16 November 1920 as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited – or Q.A.N.T.A.S.
McMaster was chairman from 1921 to 1923 and then from 1927 to 1947. He was a staunch fighter for the company in the community and especially at political levels with his firm belief that the air service was crucial not only to western Queensland, but as a way of bringing the Empire closer together. In 1922, the year Qantas started regular services, he married Edna Faulkner and they had three sons.
McMaster’s faith in the fledgling air service was unshakeable. When the first air mail service landed at Longreach on 2 November 1922, he made a speech in which he predicted that the service would “develop into one of the greatest services in the world” – a brave and far-sighted concept for an airline based in the middle of Queensland with five single-engine wood and fabric biplanes. May and June of 1935 saw him become the first passenger to do the return Australia to England flight on a regular air mail service.
He was a director of Tasman Empire Airways Limited, North Queensland Woollen and Worsted Mills and a member of the Executive Council of the United Graziers Association, but his primary focus was on Qantas. He suffered from poor health following a heart attack in 1937, but continued to work tirelessly throughout World War II.
Knighted in 1941, Fergus McMaster continued as chairman of Qantas until 1947 when he retired to Clayfield in Brisbane, where he died on 8 August 1950.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame proudly inducts Sir Fergus McMaster.