Today in Transportation History – 1937: From Autos to Air Service

In Southeast Asia, the newly established Wearnes Air Services (WAS) began operations. This marked the first regular commercial air service between the island of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, with a de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide biplane known as “Governor Raffles” making the inaugural flight from Singapore (at the time part of the British territories collectively known as the Straits Settlements) to two destinations in present-day Malaysia: the then-town of Kuala Lumpur (within the British protectorate of the Federated Malay States as of 1937) and the state of Penang (likewise part of the Straits Settlements at the time).

The origins of this pioneering air service can be traced to 1906 when Charlie Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin Wearne first launched their transportation enterprises in that region of Asia. They established C.F.F. Wearne & Company, which initially was based in the Singapore home of their brother-in-law James Craig, to acquire and sell imported automobiles. The enterprise became Wearne Brothers Limited, a public-listed company, in 1912.

The Australian brothers originally focused on Oldsmobiles, and eventually included such other sought-after vehicles as Rolls-Royces and Fords, for the company’s automobile franchises in Singapore and other areas in Southeast Asia. Along with selling those automobiles, the company also initiated motorized taxi services throughout the region.

By the late 1920s, Charlie Wearne was looking to the skies for other transportation opportunities to pursue. The founding of WAS became the fulfillment of those airborne dreams. After its maiden flight on behalf of the service, “Governor Raffles” – along with another de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide biplane called “Governor Fullerton” – undertook regular runs between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang over the next few years. Over time, WAS also made regular flights to such other Malay Peninsula destinations as Alor Setar, Taiping, Ipoh, and Kota Bahru. In addition to transporting passengers, WAS delivered both bulk mail and copies of the Singapore Free Press newspaper.

Just as WAS began making a profit, however, its operations came to an end with the Japanese occupation of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula during World War II. Despite the short-lived existence of Wearnes Air Services, its first-of-a-kind commercial flights remain an important part of Southeast Asia’s aviation heritage.

This picture of a DH.89 DeHavilland Dragon Rapide is an example of what the plane would have looked like.

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