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James Valentine Fairbairn (28 July 1897 – 13 August 1940) was an Australian politician who served in the House of Representatives from 1933 until his death in 1940, representing the United Australia Party. He served as Minister for Air and Minister for Civil Aviation in the first Menzies Government. He was killed in the 1940 Canberra air disaster, along with two of his cabinet colleagues.

James Fairbairn
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Flinders
In office
11 November 1933 – 13 August 1940
Preceded byStanley Bruce
Succeeded byRupert Ryan
Member of the Victorian Parliament
for Warrnambool
In office
May 1932 – October 1933
Preceded byHenry Bailey
Succeeded byKeith McGarvie
Personal details
Born(1897-07-28)28 July 1897
Wadhurst, Sussex, England
Died13 August 1940(1940-08-13) (aged 43)
Canberra air disaster
Political partyUAP
Daisy Olive Forrester (m. 1923)
RelationsGeorge Fairbairn (uncle)
David Fairbairn (nephew)
OccupationFarmer, soldier


Early life, war service and business careerEdit

Fairbairn was born in Wadhurst, Sussex, England, second son of Charles Fairbairn, a wealthy Australian grazier and nephew of George Fairbairn. He was brought up at Banongill, near Skipton, Victoria and educated at Geelong Grammar School from 1908 to 1915. He then travelled to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps as a flying officer. On 14 February 1917, he was shot down and captured by the Germans. Fourteen months later he was released in a prisoner exchange. Despite permanent injuries to his right arm, he continued to fly for the rest of his life.

He returned to Australia in 1919 and took over the management of Peak Downs station, in Queensland. On 21 March 1923, he married Daisy Olive "Peggy" Forrester in Toorak. In 1924 he bought Mount Elephant station, near Derrinallum, in western Victoria. He was elected to the Hampden Shire Council in 1930 and subsequently became a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and the Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd. He played polo, golf, lawn tennis and squash, becoming the president of the Australian Squash Racquets Association.[1]

Political careerEdit

In 1932 Fairbairn was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as the member for Warrnambool, representing the United Australia Party. In 1933, he resigned his seat to contest the House of Representatives seat of Flinders at a by-election following the resignation of Prime Minister Stanley Bruce. He was successful, and held the seat until his death. He regularly flew between his property and Canberra and was recognized as an authority on aviation. He flew around Australia in 1935, and in 1936 he bought a De Havilland Dragonfly in England and flew it back to Australia.[1]

On 26 April 1939 he was appointed to the first Menzies Ministry as Minister for Civil Aviation, and Vice-President of the Executive Council; he also assisted the Minister for Defence.[2] On the outbreak of war in September 1939, he travelled to Canada to help establish the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. On 13 November 1939 he was sworn in there as the first Australian Minister for the Air by the Governor General of Canada, John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir.

He resigned as Vice-President of the Executive Council on 26 January 1940. On 14 March 1940 he was appointed to the second Menzies Ministry as Minister for Civil Aviation and Minister for Air. In July 1940 he flew himself around Australia in his Dragonfly to review all RAAF stations.[1]

Death and legacyEdit

Memorial opened by Sir Robert Menzies in 1960 (20th anniversary).

On 13 August 1940, in what became known as the Canberra air disaster, a RAAF Lockheed Hudson flying from Melbourne to Canberra crashed during its landing approach into a small hill to the east of the airport. Four crew and six passengers, including the Chief of the General Staff and three Federal Government ministers, including Fairbairn, were killed in the accident. Prime Minister Robert Menzies said in parliament, next day,

His mind and character were strong, and he displayed an unusual combination of cheerful fellowship with, perhaps, a hint of Scottish dourness. He was slow to speech, but, once engaged, he was gifted in exposition and resolute in advocacy of what he believed to be true.[1]

He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and a son, Geoffrey Forrester (1924–1980) who lectured in history at the Australian National University.

Fairbairn Airbase, (the eastern component of what is now known as Canberra Airport), was named after him in 1953. In 1962 the military side of the Airport was renamed RAAF Base Fairbairn. The RAAF base has now been decommissioned, but the North-East quadrant of the Airport still retains the Fairbairn name.

His nephew Sir David Fairbairn was also a federal politician.


  1. ^ a b c d Persse, Michael D. de B. Collins (1981). "Fairbairn, James Valentine (1897–1940)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 11 December 2007.
  2. ^ Key people Archived 24 December 2005 at the Wayback Machine in the government of Sir Robert Menzies.
Political offices
Preceded by
Harold Thorby
Minister for Civil Aviation
Succeeded by
Arthur Fadden
New title Minister for the Air
Preceded by
George McLeay
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Percy Spender
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Stanley Bruce
Member for Flinders
Succeeded by
Rupert Ryan