MMA arose from the efforts of Horrie Miller, who commenced his role in the aviation business in South Australia. He registered the name Commercial Aviation Company on October 8, 1920, but was unsuccessful in gaining government support, and did not commence operations under that name until 1923. From then, the company conducted limited services, including a route to Mount Gambier, using a DH-9 aircraft.
Miller saw a need to expand, but he needed financial support. In the absence of government money, he turned to Macpherson Robertson (the chocolate manufacturer, and sponsor of the Melbourne Centenary Air Race in 1934). They jointly established the MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co Pty Ltd on May 28, 1928.
In 1933, the company gained a government mail contract servicing the north of South Australia (Whyalla, Kimba and Cowell). With this experience base, in 1934 the company was awarded the mail contract previously held by Western Australian Airways, to service the north west of Western Australia. Horrie Miller moved the Perth to manage the operation, leaving the South Australian side under the management of Cyril Kleinig.
Growth of traffic led to the adoption of larger and faster aircraft, firstly the De Havilland DH-86 in 1938, then the Lockheed Electra in 1939.
By the outbreak of World War II, MMA was servicing the whole of the north west of the state, with flights to Darwin linking to the QANTAS route to the United Kingdom.
World War Two
Wartime was a difficult period for MMA - not only due to enemy action, but also their aircraft being "called up" for national service.
The Lockheed Vega was one of the "conscripts", in November 1942, along with the DH-86s. However, the airline managed to retain its Lockheed Electras (VH-ABV and VH-ABW) as essential transport or the north-west of W.A.. Two were added to its initial pair, giving it a fleet of four by the war's end.
The Electras featured in several wartime incidents. In one, Jimmy Woods flew an M.M.A. Electra out of Darwin just prior to the Japanese raid on March 3, 1942, arriving in Broome shortly after another raid there. He then made a number of trips carrying (largely Dutch) refugees from Broome to Port Hedland, even after minor propellor damage encountered while taxying (which he rectified using a hacksaw!). For his heroic efforts, he was awarded a Dutch knighthood.
In another incident, on January 16, 1942, Electra VH-ABV piloted by Jim Branch made a forced landing due to engine failure, at Napier Downs station, in the Kimberleys. It was later recovered by Jimmy Woods. This involved repairing the engine, constructing a temporary airstrip on suitable ground nearby, then towing the aircraft (using a mule team) there for takeoff. The repaired Electra did not return to Perth until February 19.
With the conclusion of the war, rather the opposite happened to the events at its start. Wartime made aircraft scarce, but with the end of the war there was a flood of surplus aircraft, many of them transports adaptable for airline use.
Initially, all MMA could obtain to support its operations were two aged, ex-RAAF DH86s, registration VH-USF and VH-USW. The first of these had a short and tragic period of use, ending on its first flight for the company in an accident at Geraldton, in which both crew members died. The other operated through 1946 before being sold.
The Electra fleet suffered immediately after the war. VH-ABW crashed on takeoff at Broome on June 17, 1946. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but the aircraft was damaged beyond repair. Electra VH-MMD (renamed from VH-ABV), the aircraft that was recovered at Napier Downs during the war, experienced a similar accident to that one June 26, 1949. Again due to engine failure, it again made a forced landing near Napier Downs station; fortunately, there were no injuries and no damage. (Later, in October 1952, it suffered further damage when its port undercarriage leg collapsed, while landing at Nookenbah station)
The major post-war expansion of the MMA fleet initially took the form of five Avro Ansons, VH-MMB, VH-MMC, VH-MMG (initially VH-AYN), VH-MMH (initially VH-AYO) and VH-MMJ (initially VH-AYQ). These formed the backbone of MMA's operations for several years, and were kept working on shorter flights and on behalf of the Royal Flying Doctor Service through most of the 1950s. However, the core of the fleet was drawn increasingly from wartime C-47s converted to DC-3 standard. The conversions were largely done by MMA engineers, with a 28-seat layout, four abreast, being used.
MMA's first DC-3 appears to have been VH-AEU, obtained in 1945 and flown until 1947. Others used the "MM" registrations, VH-MMA and VH-MME being added in 1947, VH-MMF in 1949, VH-MMK in 1950, VH-MML in 1954, VH-MMM in 1955 and VH-MMB in 1962. The last addition was VH-MMT, in 1965. These were usually named after a WA river starting with their last registration letter - i.e.,
VH-MMA - Ashburton , VH-MMB - Blackwood, VH-MMD - Durack, VH-MME - Fitzroy (an exception to the rule), VH-MMF - Fortescue, VH-MMK - Kimberley, VH-MML - Lyndon, VH-MMM - Murchison, VH-MMT - Turner
Of these, VH-MME suffered a fatal accident, on July 1, 1949. It crashed after takeoff from Guildford (Perth) airport, with the loss of the lives of 14 passengers and 4 crew.
By 1955, MMA had grown to be an major carrier. An article in Flight magazine of November that year reflects the level of success the airline was experiencing.
The Merger with Airlines (WA)
Both MMA its its competitor, Airlines (WA), were at the time operating on several unprofitable routes, supported by a state government subsidy. The state government felt that it could not continue to subsidise two competing airlines, and proposed a merger. This occurred in late 1955, the combination of MacRobertson Miller Aviation with Airlines (WA) being reflected in the new name, MacRobertson Miller Airlines.
The retirement of MMA's Ansons was probably accelerated by the merger. Three de Havilland Doves (Airlines registrations VH-AWA, AWD and AWF) were added to the fleet, Airlines' other Doves VH-AWB and VH-AWE being sold to Southern Airlines. The Doves had the same seating capacity as the Ansons, but much better performance and passenger comfort.
Of the three Doves retained, VH-AWD became
VH-MMO, VH-AWF became VH-MMP and VH-AWA became VH-MMN. Two served until 1959, VH-MMO and VH-MMP being then sold to the Royal Flying Doctor Service, with VH-MMN going to the Northern Territory Medical Service at an uncertain date between 1961 and 1967.
The Doves that were kept in operation provided 'feeder' services on shorter routes, the last being withdrawn in 1963.
While MMA now operated a substantial fleet, it was clear the DC-3s were becoming obsolescent, and the Fokker F-27 Friendship was chosen as the replacement. This carried a greater passenger load (36 rather than 28 passengers) in pressurised comfort at nearly twice the speed of the DC-3. The first,
VH-MMS, was brought into service in 1959, remaining the airline's only F-27 until 1964. MMA promoted the new aircraft as its "Jetstream Service", which it certainly was in comparison to what had gone before.
Being the only truly modern aircraft in the fleet, this F-27 was kept on the airline's routes as much as possible. As noted in the aircraft's section in the Ed Coates Collection, "it became the highest time F.27 in the world due to the long stage lengths of outback WA, flying an average of over 10 hours a day, 7 days a week and logging between 3,000 to 4,000 hours each year".
The Ansett Takeover
Faced with a clear need to replace its entire fleet of DC-3s, the airline needed funds beyond its resources at the time. As a result, Ansett-ANA was approached, and in 1963 this airline acquired a 70% share of MMA.
With the takeover, one further F-27 (VH-MMO "Ord") was immediately obtained from Ansett's fleet, with two further aircraft (VH-MMR "Robe" and VH-MMU "Mabulay" - the latter leased for one year from the Phillipines) added in 1966. Another two were added later, one in 1968 (VH-MMV "Victoria"), the other in 1970 (VH-MMB "Blackwood"). The F-27 Friendship fleet took over MMA's main routes, with the DC-3s being progressively retired from service - although most weren't sold until 1969.
Western Australia experienced the first of its "mining booms" in the late 1960s, and in response to the rapid traffic growth, MMA leased two Vickers Viscounts (VH-RMO and VH-RMQ "Quinninup") from Ansett. Unfortunately, this purchase provided MMA's only major accident of modern times, when VH-RMQ crashed near Port Hedland due to a structural failure affecting its main wing spar. All on board died in the accident.
Over this period, MMA also operated two smaller aircraft, a Piaggio 166 and a de Havilland Twin Otter. The Piaggio 166 was used for charter work, mainly in the state's north west, while the Twin Otter was operated on the airline's smaller Kimberley routes.
1969 saw the start of another major shift in the airline's fleet, with the introduction of the first Fokker F-28 Fellowship (VH-MMJ "Pilbara"). This type was MMA's first jet airliner, further improving services to the north west regions. The first F-28 was also the last of MMA's aircraft to take on a "VH-MMx" style registration - and even then, breaking the link between the last letter and a river name - with later ones using the Ansett "VH-FKx" style.
By 1982, the airline's fleet was composed entirely of F-28s, eight in all. This was soon to change, however, with a progressive change to the BAe 146 (shown at right), two being included in 1985, two further in 1988, and one each in 1989, 1992 and 1993. Records show registrations VH-JJP, JJQ, JJS, JJT, JJX and JJW for Ansett WA BAe 146s, so the seventh must have been added after final incorporation into Ansett (See below).
But further change was to occur. From 1981, the airline gained a new name, Airlines of Western Australia (no doubt held "in reserve" since the merger of 1955), and new livery. This was to change again in 1984 to Ansett WA, with a reversion to (revised) Ansett colours (as on the BAE 146 at right). Finally, the separate identity was lost entirely in 1993, when Ansett WA was merged into Ansett Transport Industries.