• Max Hazelton in the door of a Rex B737 before the type's entry to service in March 2021. (Rex)
    Max Hazelton in the door of a Rex B737 before the type's entry to service in March 2021. (Rex)

Most people would be forgiven for thinking about Max Hazelton as a pioneer of regional airlines, but to think of him in only that context would be to ignore his significant contribution to general aviation.

One of the founders of Regional Express (Rex), Hazelton began his flying career the way so many of Australia's pilots have: flying people and cargo in a variety of small aeroplanes between regional locations in NSW. Only he did it without the infrastructure and support that exists today.

Hazelton's aviation journey was completed last Sunday, when he died aged 95. The accolades collected during an adventurous aviation career included an AM, and OBE, and in 2012 he was one of the first people inducted in the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame.

“Max was a much loved member of the Rex family, who will be forever remembered as a remarkable trailblazer who built an airline from scratch, was a catalyst for change and left an indelible mark on the Australian aviation industry,” Rex Executive Chairman Lim Kim Hai said. “He remained close to the airline as a Rex Ambassador right up to the present day."

“We have lost a true national treasure,” Rex Deputy Chairman John Sharp AM, said. "Max’s heart was always in the country which is why this sentiment is emblazoned on our aircraft and remains the ethos on which this company has been built.

“Today, though, Rex’s heart aches more than a little at the loss of someone very special who meant so much to so many.” 

Hazelton learned in the time-honoured method of all post-war students: in a Tiger Moth. His passion for flight led him to start Hazelton Airlines started in 1953, by coaxing £2500  out of his mother to buy an Auster J5F Aglet. The single-engine aircraft could carry a pilot and three passengers and provided charter services to stock and station agents from Max’s brother-in-law’s property at Toogong, NSW.

But the following years, it all nearly ended in disaster when Max and his Auster were caught in bad weather and crashed in rugged terrain near Oberon NSW.

”Just as I thought the aircraft had cleared the highest point of the valley, trees loomed up in the windscreen," he later recalled. "I applied full power, but the aircraft hit heavy timber and landed upside down.”

Having walked away from the wreckage, Hazelton then trudged 100 km back to civilization.

Branded variously as "pioneer", "innovator" and "maverick", Hazelton pushed old envelopes and created new ones as he established an aerial agricultural operation at Cudal, NSW. Not everything was according to the book, but sometimes books just don't cut it in a pioneering world.

His company also provided medevac services and delivered the daily papers to places a van just couldn't reach whilst the news was still news.

Hazelton pioneered several aerial agriculture techniques, including night spraying of cotton, set flying endurance records, flew medical mercy flights, used fought  bushfires from the air.

It was in 1975 when Max Hazelton branched out into the RPT world, running regular services between Orange and Canberra. With more routes added, his company became one of the largest general aviation operators in Australia. Within four years they were flying into Kingsford Smith International in Sydney.

Growth had always been part of the Hazelton culture, so it was natural that the aircraft would take on turbo-props and a tie-in with Ansett was struck. In 1993, Hazelton Airlines went public on the ASX, and by the turn of the century they were flying 400,000 passengers per year to over 20 destinations, employing around 280 staff, and earning revenue of around $69 million per year.

Ansett Group took over Hazelton completely in 2001, but by the end of that year, Ansett itself was in administration. The Hazelton component would form the basis of the emerging Regional Express the following year.

What started as a one-person, one-aeroplane operation in 1953 thrived and grew into the Regional Express that still plies the skies of Australia today. Hazelton has been credited with proving that safe, reliable airline services to regional NSW was not only possible, but desperately needed.

Max Hazelton died on Easter Sunday and is being remembered as a pioneer with a touch of larrikinism, and one of the central pillars of the general aviation industry in Australia.

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