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Aviation Industry - Early Developments

In the early 20th Century, of the countries adapted by nature for aviation, Australia, perhaps, with its perfect climate, open spaces, and almost natural landing grounds, was the best. Flying conditions were ideal on the average 90 days in every 100. It is a country of scattered cities and limited railway communications; and the aeroplane is indifferent to, and, indeed, superior to, all difficulties, such as mountain chains, forests, morass and desert. What Australia suffered from was lack of up-to-date machines and equipment.

Lawrence Hargrave was the first in Australia to experiment with powered flight. Hargrave was born inthe United Kingdom and came to Australia in 1872. In 1878 he was appointed as an assistant astronomical observer at the Sydney Observatory, a post which he held until 1883, when he retired todevote the remainder of his life to research into problems connected with human flight. Hargrave constructed various monoplane wing designs between 1884 and 1892. In 1893, Hargrave invented the box kite and the following year, 1894, he lifted himself off the ground under a train of four box kites at Stanwell Park.

First powered flight in Australia occurred in 1910. Several aviators made attempts to the first powered flight that year and, to this day, who was actually achieved the first successful, verifiable, sustained and controlled powered flight, remains a point of debate. One of thecontenders was visiting American magician and escapologist Harry Houdini. At dawn on 18 March 1910 Houdini flew a French Voisin biplane at Plumpton Dam, Diggers Rest, Victoria. The flight took 3 minutes 37 seconds.

The first Australian-built aeroplane to fly was made and flown at an isolated Victoria farm by a 28-year-old farmer and engineer who had never seen a plane - John Robertson Duigan. In 1908 John Duigan was working at Spring Plains, Mia Mia, Victoria. An interestin machine, somewhat on the lines of the Curtiss, underwent trials at MiaMia. This is (as far as can be ascertained) the first machine built entirely in Australia, which had succeeded in leaving the ground. Apart from the engine, Duigan built the entire aircraft himself, constructing and testing individual components before he assembled them. Using a four-cylinder engine built by JE Tilley of Melbourne, Duigan's plane, piloted by himself, made a few hops of slightly more than seven metres. Duigan's first recorded "hop" took place on 16 July 1910 at Spring Plains Station, Mia Mia(Vic.). Short hops were intially made, and the inventor accomplished longer flights as soon as it was fitted with a new propeller.

In 1910 Colin Deines accomplished the first flight made in Australia using a Wilbur Wright aeroplane. Fishermans Bend in Melbourne was the early center of aeronautical development in Australia. In 1920, the Melbourne Air Service commenced operations out of an airstrip in Graham Street, Fishermans Bend, using four Maurice Farman Shorthorn aircraft. They were soon joined by the Shaw-Ross Engineering and Aviation Company, which created an airfield in Williamstown Road, Fishermans Bend. Though they started in the business of providing joy flights, they soon moved to providing charter flights to regional towns in Victoria.

Australian Aircraft & Engineering Co. Ltd. was formed in 1919 by N.B. Love, W.J. Warneford and H.E. Broadsmith. In August 1921 a tentative contract was agreed upon for the construction in Australia of Australian parts of six airplanes to be used as training machines for the air force. The contract was to be let by the air council, according to Vice-Consul Ray Fox, and supervision and inspection is to be carried out by the arsenal branch of the defense department, while orders for the construction were given to the Australian Aircraft & Engineering Co. of Sydney. Steel of the required specifications was not manufactured in Australia, but it was anticipated that with the definite establishment of the airplane industry the necessary steps would be taken at the existing steel plants to comply with the special requirements. The company had been engaged in commercial construction of airplane parts and repairs for some time and proposed to undertake commercial as well as official construction work.

In the mid 1920s, the Larkin Aircraft Supply Company filled in a swampy island in the Yarra River (Coode Island, opposite AMRL) to build an aerodrome, hangars, offices and an aircraft factory. In October 1927, the Government licensed it as the (first) 'Melbourne Airport'. Thirty-six aircraft were built on Coode Island and the airport was used by light aircraft up until the Second World War.

The government established an aircraft factory in Melbourne in 1936 as part of an endeavor to increase local production of motor engines and to foster industrial technology. In the mid 1930s, some large Australian companies (BHP, GM, ICI), worried about the growing militarism of Japan, formed a syndicate to assist in developing an aircraft (and motor vehicle) manufacturing industry for Australia if war broke out. In 1936, the syndicate sent a mission (led by L.J.Wackett) of senior Air Force personnel to survey aircraft types that could be made in Australia.

The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC), established in 1936, manufactured aircraft in its factory located in Fisherman's Bend, Victoria. The company began as a private corporation founded by Lawrence Wackett who had been a Captain in the Australian Flying Corps. This led initially to the proposal to build the Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bomber at CAC. The CAC built a total of 1,683 aircraft from the Lorimer Street factory, and flew them out from their airstrip, the fourth to be built in the Fishermen's Bend area.

The need for the backing of scientific research became evident and a CSIR report completed in February 1937 recommended the building of facilities for aircraft and engine testing and complementary research laboratories to support aircraft and engine manufacture in Australia. Soon afterwards, the government invited Henry Egerton Wimperis, the retiring Director of Scientific Research for the British Air Ministry, to make suitable recommendations to enable Australia to embark on aeronautical research. He submitted his report to Parliament on 21 December 1937. The government acted upon the report and acquired a 10-hectare site at Fishermans Bend in suburban Melbourne, close to the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, for the laboratory.

Japan's entry into the war isolated Australia temporarily from sources of military supplies. The Australian aircraft industry which was also producing British Beaufort and Beaufighter aircraft (with local modifications) at the Government Aircraft Factory and Mosquito aircraft at de Havilland's was continually beset by materials problems.

The threat forced Australia to attempt the design and production of a stop-gap fighter aircraft. With only small experience in the development of a light trainer at CAC, that company set about producing the Boomerang, using as many parts of the Wirraway as possible and introducing the Pratt & Whitney R1830 radial engine then entering production in Sydney. The wind tunnel at Division of Aeronautics CSIR, only just commissioned, was pressed into service. The Boomerang, later fitted with a turbo-charger, performed quite creditably. While it was not employed in direct combat, it was used in New Guinea for patrol and reconnaissance.

During World War II CAC produced two prototypes of local design which never made it into production. One was the CA-15 Kangaroo interceptor, a 720 km/h fast fighter with a range of 4000 km. One only CA-15 fighter aircraft was developed by CAC Ltd as the ultimate piston engined fighter. Its timing meant that it was overtaken by the jet age, and piston engine aircraft already in production like the Mustang. Only one airframe was built in 1946 and flew until 1950.

The second was the Woomera, a three seater medium bomber with remotely operated turrets in the rear engine nacelles. This original design of bomber came from L. J. Wackett. Conceived originally in 1940, a prototype CA-4 was completed in 1941 and test flown by the RAAF. Under threat of invasion, another prototype was armed with a 40 mm Bofors gun intended for anti-tank use. A remotely controlled machine gun was located in the tail of the aircraft. The crisis passed before further significant progress could be made and the project was abandoned in 1944. The aircraft never made production status due to cheaper aircraft being made available from the USA.

Other Australian manufacturers such as Department of Aircraft Production [DAP], Government Aircraft Factory [GAF] and De Havilland Australia built aircraft in Australia for the RAAF. The Department of Aircraft Production was established in 1939 and its production branch, known as the Beaufort Division, was set up at Fishermen's Bend, next to CAC. DAP produced the Beaufighters which became known as "Whispering Death" to the Japanese. DAP also produced the Beaufort, and many more licensed aircraft. De Havilland Australia produced huge numbers of Tiger Moths that were used for training in Australia as well as the Mosquito for Pacific service.

Keith Meggs notes "The most remarkable feature of the wartime history of the Australian aircraft industry was its impressive growth. From a handful of people in 1937 and without a developed base of sub-contractors, it grew to 5,000 in June 1940 and to a peak of some 44,000 people in 1944 operating in four main factories and several annexes. Sub-contractors accounted for another 10,000 people. This industry delivered some 3,500 aircraft of all types to the R.A.A.F. and, at the end of the war, was capable of designing and manufacturing aircraft equal to the best in the world."

In comparison, before World War II, the Canadian aircraft "industry" consisted of only eight small plants in the entire country, making about forty aeroplanes annually. In 1939 the Canadian aircraft industry, moving easily, employed about 5,000 people and produced a total of 31 planes. During the Second World War, the Canadian aircraft industry grew to employ nearly 116,000 workers, 30,000 of whom were women. It delivered 16,418 aircraft to fill Allied orders, chiefly from Britain and the United States, but also for use by the RCAF and BCATP. At its 1944 peak it provided a gainful living for over 130,000 people and produced approximately 4,300 planes.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2012 18:13:14 ZULU