The Last of the Mavericks
The barely-believable story of how Max Hazelton walked back from the dead to revolutionise aviation – and take on Qantas and Virgin.
On Saturday, 16 October 1954, bad weather stopped Max Hazelton from flying home after a trip to Sydney. The grazier, from Toogong, near Orange, was in town to put a new engine in his Auster Aiglet four-seater plane, but atrocious conditions over the Great Dividing Range hampered his efforts to get going. After one bodged attempt that morning, the 27-year-old called the weather office for a forecast but was told, in no uncertain terms, that things weren’t likely to get any better, with low clouds extending right down the mountains. Still, after being reassured by his mother that the skies were improving, he took off in his little silver and red plane anyway.
Around 45 minutes into the journey, Hazelton spotted a break in the weather where he could spy the other side of the range. But as he made a play for it, the clouds closed in all around him, and he decided to turn back. He was too late. Moments later, the Auster’s airspeed increased to 160 mph and he entered a spiral dive. Air crash investigators, reporting the incident, would later reveal the aircraft crashed in “heavily timbered” terrain, 2,000 feet up a mountain, just southeast of the Jenolan Caves. Or, in other words, in the middle of nowhere.
“I don’t remember much about the crash,” Hazelton said years later. “But I was hanging upside down, and the top of the cabin was crushed in.” He scrambled out, checked himself over and discovered he’d survived without a scratch. It was a miracle. He clambered to the top of the mountain to get his bearings, but the fog was so thick there was only a few yards of visibility. “I was getting nowhere, so I decided to go back to the plane for the night but couldn’t find it. I walked around until it got dark and then huddled down between some rocks with the wet blanket over me. By this time, I was soaking wet and frozen to the bones. I felt miserable and couldn’t sleep a wink. I had lost my pride and joy. I think it was the worst night I’d spent in my life.”
Hazelton would walk for 27 miles over six days alone in the bush. During that time, nails pierced his feet, and brambles ripped his clothes. He lived on grass, berries and wild lemons. And when the soles of his flying boots came off, he used his tie to hold them together. At one point, he bodged together a makeshift raft to float down the river, using logs secured with his blanket, but later hit a submerged rock and was flung into the water. “I kept saying to myself, play it safe, and you’ll get out. And that’s the motto I used right through.”
What he wouldn’t have been aware of during his trek was that his disappearance sparked one of the largest searches in Australian history. Reports suggest up to 30 aircraft were involved – including RAAF Dakotas and Beaufighters alongside six planes from Orange Aero Club – as well as a ground search involving hundreds of people. Yet the fog never broke, so five days later, efforts to find him were scaled down. His brother, Kerry, later admitted some of the family never thought they’d see him again.
But Hazelton never gave up and stuck to his plan of following the Coxs River to civilisation. About mid-day the following Friday, he heard voices and came across two timber cutters. “I told them who I was, and they gave me some tea and corn beef sandwiches, which was the best meal I’d ever had.” The men pointed toward a post office where there was a phone, but Hazelton insisted on walking the final few miles alone. According to reports, his mother wept “unrestrainedly” when she heard he was safe. “I don’t think there has been any farming done in the district for a week,” she said.
Today, some 70 years later, and shortly after Hazelton’s death, Rex deputy chairman John Sharp believes the story is indicative of his old friend’s bloody-minded refusal to accept the cards fate had dealt him. “They’d already started to organise the memorial service,” he reveals. “It was an extraordinary experience to live through, and it’s an example of his determination and doggedness.”
For many, such an incident would have defined their life, but Max Hazelton would go on to become one of the most significant figures in Australian aviation history. He introduced agricultural aviation to the country and then revolutionised it by doing it at night. He broke endurance flying records and even locked horns with Bob Hawke to smuggle merino sheep to Argentina. But most of all, he’s remembered for creating Hazelton Airlines – a business that would grow to carry 400,000 people a year and eventually morph into Rex.
“Max was a quiet, humble character,” reflects Sharp. “But also a very determined, tough and disciplined person. He did some extraordinarily brave things from a business perspective. There were moments in his life that were the equivalent of betting the family home on the roulette wheel. Nothing, nothing would stop Max.”
There is, Sharp tells me, no shortage of anecdotes. He remembers one occasion where Hazelton was annoyed that there was no spare seat for him on a passenger service his airline was flying from Orange to Sydney. After personally loading the suitcases onto the plane, he secretly snuck into the luggage compartment and was discovered at the destination, sitting on top of a bag. “That’s just the sort of thing Max would do if someone tried to stop him. He just found another way.”
He remembers another – absurd! – incident when Hazelton was told one of his aircraft’s landing gears wouldn’t lock down and decided to improvise to get his plane back on the ground. “Max was at the airport and told the pilot to keep circling while he set things up.” He fetched two powerful cars, placed them on either side of the runway and strung a rope between their tow bars. As the plane approached to touch down, the vehicles sped off in tandem, just in front of the aircraft, to lock the wheels in place. “God knows how they did it, but they managed it,” laughs Sharp. “I mean, you would go to jail for doing it today! But that’s just another example of Max doing whatever he felt he should do, regardless of the rules or laws of probability.”
Charles Maxwell Hazelton was born on 6 May 1927 to a family of six boys and two girls. Growing up, he hated school and was far happier messing around with machinery on the family’s 1000-acre farm. “When an aeroplane flew over the farm, I’d watch until it was out of sight,” he said. “I made up my mind then to spend my life with machinery that flew.” He was able to leave school aged 14 because his brothers went off to war, and he joined the air training cadets two years later. He was told, though, that when the war ended, the returning RAAF pilots would get first dibs at all the best jobs. “I didn’t take any notice because my mind was made up,” he said. Hazelton took a job in a garage and planned to learn as much as possible so that when he became a pilot, he could do the maintenance on the planes himself. Eventually, he received his licence in Parkes, NSW, on 15 September 1952.
“He didn’t finish school and wasn’t regarded as a top student,” explains Sharp. “He did his apprenticeship as a motor mechanic and could have made a lifelong career out of that and been comfortably off. In those days, if you weren’t very good at school work, you became things like a mechanic or a truck driver or something. And so, there were low expectations of his life, and he just decided to prove them all wrong. The only person who believed in him was his mother, and she supported him in all his endeavours.”
After qualifying as a pilot, Hazleton got straight into starting his business. Hazelton Airlines launched in 1953, and it began with a hired aero club plane used to fly cattle buyers, stock and station agents to towns around western NSW and Queensland. Before long, he’d persuaded his mother to lend him the money to buy his first aircraft – the Auster Aiglet – and business grew so quickly that a second aircraft was added to the fleet just six months later. Hazelton found all manner of ways of increasing profits, from 10-shillings-a-head joy flights to daily newspaper runs. “On weekends when charter was slow, I used to take the Auster on barnstorming trips around the country shows,” he said.
His eureka moment came when he heard pilots in New Zealand were pioneering “aerial agriculture” – better known as spreading superphosphate from the air. He flew across The Ditch to watch it for himself and returned with a conversion kit to attach to his aircraft. “Nobody had ever done it back then,” explains Sharp. “So he had to devise his own mechanisms for navigating, not just the aircraft, but also identifying where was the last bit of crop that he had just sprayed.”
But the practice wasn’t perfect. Wind during the day meant the chemicals could blow onto a neighbour’s land, causing the spraying to be halted until conditions improved. An American client of Hazelton’s informed him that, back home, the pilots sprayed at night when the wind naturally subsided. “Why can’t you fellows do that in Australia?” he was told. Within days, Hazelton ordered his planes to fly until 4 am – despite the police turning up to watch on. So, explains Sharp, Hazelton flew straight to Melbourne to speak to Donald Anderson, the minister responsible at the Department of Civil Aviation. “He told him, ‘I’ve just broken the law.’ Anderson replied, ‘What have you done this time?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been spraying crops at night, but the law says that’s illegal. But I’ll tell you what, the law is wrong, and it should change.’ And it did.
“Max would have done this a dozen times during his career; he changed the law to allow illegal things to become legal because he proved that it could be done and done safely. And so that’s another example of what a pioneer is – somebody who doesn’t accept that things are as they are.”
Yet aerial agriculture would only take the business so far. In 1974, Hazelton took his biggest gamble yet by purchasing a nine-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain, effectively a mini airliner, to launch regular passenger flights. The comfortable aircraft, purchased from America, joined his charter fleet of three Cessna 310s and a Piper Twin Comanche. The following year, he put it to work on a new 40-minute commuter service between Orange and Canberra that enabled passengers to connect onwards with jets in Melbourne. His mother was a passenger on the very first flight.
The growth of the airline was mind-boggling. In 1979, Hazelton started flying into Sydney. In the early 1980s, he introduced pressurised turbo-prop aircraft into the fleet and by 1983, the airline was linked to Ansett’s computerised reservation system. The success culminated in a listing on the ASX ten years later, and by the turn of the millennium, it was flying to 23 country ports and earning revenue of nearly $70 million per year.
Despite its success, Hazelton insisted that the business stay true to its humble values. “Our current chief operating officer, Neville Howell, started his flying career at Hazleton,” says Sharp. He recalls that at the end of his shift, he’d often be asked to wash the plane or mow the lawn. “Any handy job that had to be done, you did. As a consequence of that, it created a family business culture because, in a family business, when there’s a job to be done, you just do it. You don’t worry about who’s more important.”
The airline’s success, though, didn’t go unnoticed, and in 2001 the business was subject to a tug-of-war takeover battle between Qantas and Ansett. The latter was eventually declared the winner after the ACCC cleared its $27 million offer. Yet the arrangement didn’t last long: six months later, on the day after 9/11, Ansett was placed into voluntary administration. The move meant Hazelton was effectively back on the market and would end up joining fellow regional airline Kendall to become Rex. Now in his late 70s, he would continue to work for more than 20 years as an ambassador for the carrier and was active deep into his tenth decade.
“Physically, he couldn’t walk very far, but mentally he was 100 per cent,” Sharp says. Despite his advancing years, he also refused to accept that old age was a limitation. “One of the manifestations of that was that he continued to drive his car, a very old Holden, around Orange. And the locals who knew Max, well, they gave him a very wide berth because his driving skills weren’t what they used to be! He was the man to avoid on the main street.”
But there was to be one final twist. Aged 93, Hazelton would be present the first day Rex made the final leap, operating domestic jet services between capital cities with a fleet of leased 737s. “Tears were streaming down his face,” said Sharp “And he said, ‘You know, it was a great goal of my life to have a domestic airline business. While I don’t own it anymore, it still gives me great pride to see the company I created achieve that objective.” The aircraft that operated the inaugural service was flown by captains John Veitch and Brett Brown, both ex-Hazelton pilots who took voluntary redundancies from Virgin Australia.
Max Hazelton died on 9 April in Orange, NSW, just three weeks short of his 96th birthday and as the last surviving sibling in his family. “His was a life well lived,” reflects Sharp. “He created a very successful business and gave lots of people a really good career and start in life. His regional airline business connected people living in remote and regional parts of Australia to the capital city, so they could access medical services, visit their relatives or watch a cricket match. He made a very significant contribution to life from a person who was never thought to be anything more than a motor mechanic.”
With thanks to Orange Aero Club, who kindly provided Australian Aviation with a copy of The Hazelton Story by Denis Gregory, from which Max’s quotes were taken. To find out more and order a copy, visit orangeaeroclub.com.au