The PM’s Smoking Plane

A Token of Ben Chifley

In December 1946 Australia’s Prime Minister (PM) the Honorable Ben Chifley launched Butler Air Transport’s six-day-a-week service from Sydney to Bathurst. It was the first service of its kind to link the NSW capital with the regional city. To thank the PM, Butler Air’s founder, Charles Butler, gifted to Chifley a fitting desk ornament.

Chifley’s launch of the privately-owned service may have raised eyebrows, given his commitment to the state ownership of airlines. That same year, his government established Trans-Australia Airlines to compete with private carriers. And a year later, in 1947, Chifley would oversee the conversion of Qantas Empire Airways to a state-owned airline.

While aware of the PM’s political stance on the private ownership of airlines, Butler also knew that Chifley had a first-hand appreciation of the need for improved transportation between Australia’s regional towns and city centres. Chifley commuted to Canberra weekly by car, travelling on long stretches of unsealed and treacherous roads.

Chifley also officiated the airline’s launch given his devotion to Bathurst, which was his native-town. His  wife Elizabeth accompanied him, though typically she only periodically attended official functions with Ben.

Chifley’s gift was personalised with his initials JBC, standing for for Joseph Benedict Chifley, inscribed on the fuselage. Inside the fuselage is a small leather-lined cavity, made to fit smoking paraphernalia. It still houses Chifley’s pipe made by Gainsborough of London, a box of Waratah safety matches, and a compartment for tobacco.

Chifley’s pipe would become a symbol of him. And as one biographer noted, it was invariably attached to his bottom lip and consumed more matches than it did tobacco.

As part of the theatre of the Butler Air service launch a Douglas DC3 was landed safely on Bathurst’s Raglan Airstrip, formerly the town’s military runway that was established during WWII. From the aircraft stepped twenty-one smiling passengers who were cheerfully greeted by the Prime Minister.