By T.H. Cooke ASTC, FIE Aust.
Tom Cooke’s professional career began at the Weapons Research Establishment in South Australia, where he was involved with the development of rocket vehicles. Subsequently, he worked for two years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in England, for eight years back in Australia at NVRE and Woomera, then for three years with the European Launcher Development Organisation in Paris. He returned to Australia with similar responsibilities in other engineering fields.
Tom Cooke is a Foundation Member and Past President of the Australian Society for Aero Historical Preservation. He is also a Past Councillor of the Institution of Engineers, Australia and Past Chairman of Canberra Division.
THE first controlled powered flight in Australia by a heavier than air machine was made by F.C. Custance who flew for five and half minutes at Bolivar in South Australia on 17 March 1910, at roughly the same time as the location of the National Capital was being chosen. Barely two years later a report on the suitability of sites for a flying school near Duntroon was prepared by Captain Oswald Watt of the Australian Army. It may thus be said that, at least in visionary terms, the planning of aviation in the ACT is as old as the ACT itself and that it predates the naming of Canberra.
This chapter traces the development of aviation facilities and events in the ACT, including the early proposals of Watt which related to the establishment of a military flying school, the commissioning of the first aerodrome in 1924, its subsequent relocation to the present site at Fairbairn Airport in 1926, the transfer of the airport to civil control in 1931, and its development as a joint user airport from 1940 to the present time. It also covers proposals to establish a separate civil airport for Canberra and the development of general aviation in the Canberra district.
Proposals for a Military Flying School
The earliest evidence of the consideration of sites within the ACT as suitable for the establishment of a Central Flying School appears in a report by Captain Watt on 9 March 1912.1 He reported that he “considered the Duntroon plain absolutely ideal for flying”. This view was strongly opposed by Charles Scrivener, Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys, who stated “The average aeroplane is extremely noisy even at a distance of a mile and I regard the proposed site as quite unsuitable for the purpose intended”.2 He also felt that those using the Queanbeyan-Uriarra Road would be endangered.
Possibly because of Scrivener’s opposition, the Administrator of the Federal Capital Territory requested the Chief of General Staff to make a “technical examination” of sites in the Federal Territory.3Captain Henri Petre, who had been recruited in England in August 1912 and had thus become Australia’s first military aviator, was assigned the task. Petre’s appointment had been foreshadowed in an announcement by the Prime Minister and Treasurer Fisher, who is reported in Hansard of 1 August 1912 as stating that “It is intended to establish a school of training of officers in aviation. Provision has been made for two pilot aviators and four mechanics; also for the purchase of stores. Four machines have already been purchased.”
On 5 February 1913 Petre reported on five sites in the Territory, that at the western end of the present Fairbairn airport being considered by him to be “a very good site”.4 Petre thus endorsed the earlier recommendation by Watt. A second site on what are now the playing fields adjacent to Dickson College was judged by Petre to be “very little inferior” to the first. (Fig. 11.1)
The ultimate recommendation of a site at Altona Bay (Point Cook) as the most suitable for the establishment of a Central Flying School was made by Petre on 13 March 1913, one day after the naming of Canberra as the Nation’s Capital. The site near Duntroon had been rejected because of the height above sea level, which would have demanded training planes of greater power than desirable in training and because of the difficulty of access to Canberra from Melbourne, then the interim seat of the Federal Government.
Early Aircraft to visit Canberra
So far as can be ascertained the first aircraft to fly in the vicinity of the ACT was a Bleriot XI monoplane flown by the Frenchman Maurice Guillaux, who passed to the north en route from Harden to Goulburn on 18 July 1914. This flight set a world record for a mail flight in flying from Melbourne to Sydney between 16—18 July, a distance of 585 miles.5
The first aircraft to alight in Canberra landed at Duntroon in July 1920.6 These were two de Havilland DH9 aircraft of the Australian Flying Corps which were flown by Lt Colonel Richard Williams and Major Lawrence Wackett, both destined to achieve greatness in Australian aviation history. (Fig. 11.2)
It seems probable that the first private aircraft to land near Canberra was a Moth from Goulburn Aero Club which visited the Canberra District in 1922.7 Another Moth also provided joy flights in that year from a paddock near the present Dairy Flat Road.
From the mid-twenties Andy Cunningham, who lived at Top Naas and flew a Moth, was the focus of many tales; he called his plane the ‘Orroral Dingo’ (Fig. 11.3) and delighted in aerobatics. Flying a Moth, he came third in the 1929 Sydney to Perth Air Race. Often, his plane would return home on a horse-drawn dray. Pioneer residents recall his well developed techniques of attracting attention by ‘shooting up’ the local gasoline supplier in Queanbeyan until the supplier drove to the local oval with more fuel.8 In 1930 Cunningham planned to fly solo to England in an Australian designed and built Genairco, but got only as far as Burma.
Williams and Major Lawrence Wackett. Photo: National Library of Australia.
Northbourne Aviation Ground
The need to provide an airfield for Canberra was again raised in October 1921 when the Department of Defence advised the Secretary, Home and Territories, that provision should be made for commercial aircraft. In July 1922, C.S. Price, Secretary, Federal Capital Administrative Committee (FCAC) confirmed arrangements for the Director General of Works to consult with Colonel Brinsmead, Controller of Civil Aviation and Wing Commander R. Willams, Director Intelligence and Organisation, RAAF, regarding the location of an airport and on “size, shape and other essential factors”.9
A site on an allotment then leased by Mr Ed Schumack and which is roughly bounded by Majura Avenue, Cowper Street and Antill Street was selected in May 1923 following inspections by an officer representing the controller of Civil Aviation and members of the FCAC. In December 1923 S/L H.N. Wrigley flew to Canberra to take aerial survey photos which were to be exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in London10 and, on 4 March 1924, following a visit by Captain E.C. Johnston, Superintendent of Aerodromes, Northbourne Aviation Ground became operational.11
It is interesting to note than in 1924 the Northbourne Aviation Ground consisted of an area (now the playing fields adjacent to Dickson College) which was identified by white mounds at the corners and equipped with a wind sock. It had cost a total of £17:12:2 to bring it to operational standard.12Use of the airfield was infrequent and the Commission extended the lease by Schumack for grazing purposes at a reduced rental.
The Northbourne Aviation Ground served as an emergency airfield on the Adelaide-Sydney service commenced by the Australian Aerial Service on 6 June 1924 but Canberra was not at that time a routine stopping place. Services connecting Melbourne, Broken Hill and Adelaide via the Riverina commenced in 1925. Again Canberra was an emergency airfield rather than a scheduled port.
In February 1926 an RAAF DH9 aircraft crashed while approaching the Northbourne Aviation Ground. The pilot, Flying Officer Pitt, was killed in the accident and his observer, Flight Sgt Callinder, died later and was buried at St John’s, Reid. Both Pitt and Callinder had been pulled from the crashed aircraft by a farm worker named Johnson who later received a medal commemorating his bravery.13
Late in 1926 Capt. Johnston talked to the Federal Capital Commission about an extended tenure to Northbourne Aviation Ground. The Commission was unwilling to give such guarantee because of the need for future development and under these circumstances Johnston recommended to Brinsmead on 8 October 1926 that another site — “On the whole a better site” — be chosen at the junction of Majura Lane, Queanbeyan Road and Gundaroo Road.14 Following a visit to Canberra by Brinsmead in November 1926 the selection of the site at the western end of the present Fairbairn Airport was confirmed. Thus, some thirteen years after Petre had chosen this as his “preferred” airfield site approximately the same location was agreed as the site for the Canberra Airport.
A factor which had brought pressure for the resolution of the site for Canberra Airport had no doubt been the decision by the Chief of Air Staff, Group Captain Williams to give the first mass flying display by the RAAF at the opening of Parliament House in May 1927. (Figure 11.4)
As a prelude to the opening ceremony the annual civilian Air Force summer camp was arranged at Canberra and the full strength of the RAAF was assembled. This included three amphibian Seagulls, three DH9’s, four DH9A’s and four SE5A’s from No. 1 Squadron, Pt Cook, whilst No. 3 Squadron, Richmond, deployed four DH9’s, four DH9A’s and four SE5A’s.
The fly past was marred by the crash of one SE5A in which Flight Lt. F.C. Ewen was killed. He was buried at St. John’s Church will full military honours on 11 May 1927,.15
Federal Capital Commission leasing policies
The principal reason for abandoning the Northbourne Aviation Ground had been the unwillingness of the FCC to grant a lease for more than 25 years.
The Department of Defence was unwilling to erect hangars and carry out major works without assurance of extended tenure. It came as some surprise that, following the excitement of the ceremonies in May 1927, the Federal Capital Commission under J.H. Butters, demonstrated the same reluctance for extended lease over the new Canberra Airfield site.16
This impasse was not resolved until the visit to Australia in 1928 by the Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir John Salmond, to advise on air defence developments. Salmond recommended the establishment of an Army co-operation squadron at Canberra and, on the basis of the estimated expenditure on buildings in excess of £100,000, Butters finally supported a lease to Department of Defence for 99 years, including additional land for military buildings.17
The continuing lack of facilities at Canberra Airport drew frequent criticism and in June 1930 the Secretary, Department of Defence, suggested that, as Canberra was not on an air service route, the reponsibility for the airport should be transferred to the Administration of the Territory.18 On 4 April 1931 Federal Capital Territory Branch of Department of Home Affairs agreed to accept responsibility for the airport, and on 4 September 1931 Canberra Airport was granted Licence No. 84 for a period of 12 months and cleared for “all types of land planes”.
Some uncertainties of civil administration
In recalling the situation in the 1930s it must be remembered that the civil authorities administered Canberra Airport at a time when the airport was a large field for which grazing rights were granted, and the arrival of an aircraft was an event of notice. One illustration is chosen to indicate the problems in administering this new undertaking about which the civil authorities were totally ignorant: On 15 February 1933 it was reported that the wind indicator had been stolen from the airport. Inspection showed that the indicator was indeed missing; a file was raised, the police were alerted, interviews followed. Finally the Police Constable noted that the indicator appeared to have torn away and, with admirable deduction, concluded that it had blown away in the high winds of the previous week. The “wind indicator” was, of course, a canvas wind sock — a replacement would have cost next to nothing and hardly warranted two weeks of investigation.19
Three notable visits
Only ten months after Parliament House was opened the arrival of Bert Hinkler marked the beginning of a succession of aviation greats to visit Canberra, Hinkler had flown his tiny Avro Avian solo from England and had almost halved the time taken by Ross and Keith Smith nine years earlier.
The Avian landed at York Park on 17 March 1928 and Hinkler was greeted at Parliament House and at a civic function in his honour. He was presented with a cheque for £1,000 by the Prime Minister, S.M. Bruce, on behalf of the people of Australia.20(Fig. 11.5 & 11.6)
Three months later, on 15 June 1928, the ‘Southern Cross’, landed at Canberra Airport piloted by Charles Kingsford Smith and with Charles Ulm, Warner and Lyons as crew. One week earlier the ‘Southern Cross’ had completed the first trans-Pacific flight from San Francisco to Brisbane between 31 May and 9 June 1928.21(Fig. 11.7)
On 15 June 1930 Amy Johnson was flown to Canberra airfield in a monoplane piloted by Major de Havilland and, although it was proposed that the Commonwealth should purchase her aircraft, the ‘Jason’, no action was taken.22
Aerial Service to Canberra
Plans to link Canberra with Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney by aerial services receive mention in the mid 1920s, and on 10 September, 1926, The Canberra Times forecast that aerial services to Canberra would operate during the parliamentary session. It was proposed that ANEC seven seat aircraft be used but at the same time the paper questioned the adequacy of service in view of there being 36 Senators and 73 MHR’s.2324
Captain H.J. Larkin, who had been active in Australian aviation since World War I and had established aerial services from Melbourne to Adelaide, Adelaide to Sydney (quickly modified to Cootamundra due to poor flying conditions over the Dividing Range) and Melbourne to Mildura and Broken Hill, tendered for the Canberra-Port Augusta special service in 1926 to carry the Duke of York’s mail. No evidence could be found that this contract was granted or service provided.
Joe Collins, who flew a Monospar, operated one of the first services from Sydney to Canberra in the mid 1930s until, as Nancy Bird Walton recalls, “the engines fell out”.
Although a regular service connecting Canberra with the State capitals in NSW, Victoria and South Australia had been proposed in 1926 it was not until 1936 that regular air services to Canberra were established. These were to Sydney and Melbourne, and were operated by Holyman ANA using de Havilland DH86 aircraft.
Development of the Aerodrome
In 1933, following requests from the Canberra Chamber of Commerce, the matter of developing the airport was raised in Parliament. Following agreement between the RAAF and civilian authorities on the location of their respective establishments on the aerodrome, plans were drawn up for the construction of a large hangar. This hangar was completed in mid 1936 after several delays, as the design was modified to accommodate the rapidly increasing size of aircraft operating from Canberra.
Canberra Aero Club was formed in 1937 and began flying instruction. The Club was incorporated in 1938 and, with the exception of a short period during the War, has operated continuously from that time.
Canberra Airport was operated as a civil airport administered by the civic authorities until 31 October 1940, when responsibility was passed to the Department of Air and the airfield became known as ‘RAAF Station, Canberra.25Since that time the airfield has been operated on a joint user basis.
RAAF Presence in the ACT
RAAF Station, Canberra, was officially established on 1 April, 1940 under the temporary command of Squadron Leader P.G. Heffernan,, AFC, who was Commanding Officer of No. 8 Squadron. This squadron had been stationed at Canberra since 11 September 1939, and a number of personnel who were previously serving with the squadron were posted to Station Headquarters, Canberra, to establish a nucleus of personnel for establishment of the new station. An orderly room was set up in an office at the civil aerodrome administrative building. Sleeping accommodation at that time consisted solely of tents.
Construction of the RAAF facilities and accommodation began in 1940. From 1940 to the end of World War II, RAAF Station Canberra was an operational base for anti-submarine patrols and a training school for Army co-operation personnel.
Not only Australian Air Force personnel were stationed at RAAF Station, Canberra, during the war. From April, 1942 till December 1943, three squadrons of Netherlands East Indies planes were based there and used to practice bombing on the Isabella Plains in Tuggeranong.
In February 1941, it was announced by the then- Minister for Air, Mr McEwan, that Canberra Aerodrome would be known as Fairbairn Aerodrome. The change of name was decided upon to commemorate the work of Mr J.V. Fairbairn, Minister for Air, who was killed in an air crash at Canberra on 13 August 1940.
Mr Fairbairn had been an enthusiastic advocate of the role of the aeroplane in Australia and was himself a keen pilot. (Fig. 11.8) The crash at Canberra had severe implications for Australia’s war effort as other senior officials who died in the accident were the Minister for the Army, Mr G. A. Street, and the Chief of General Staff, General Sir Brudenell White.
RAAF Station, Canberra was re-formed on June 1, 1952, as Headquarters, RAAF Canberra, and Base Squadron, Canberra.
On completion of the Department of Air move from Melbourne in 1962 to its administrative offices in Canberra, and to facilitate administrative arrangements for the RAAF formations and units located at RAAF Base, Canberra, it was decided that, from 19 March, 1962, the name of RAAF Base, Canberra, would be changed to RAAF Base, Fairbairn.
The need to construct hard-surfaced runways on the base was first addressed in 1942, as due to the clay surface, 4 mm of rain was sufficient to close the airfield. The priority assigned to the project, however, was low and at an estimated cost of £51,000, it was postponed indefinitely.
In mid 1944, the project was resurrected with a proposal to consruct two heavy runways and the necessary taxiways to reduce the risk to both civilian and service personnel and aircraft using the poor surface of the aerodrome. Later that year, because of the poor carrying capacity of the sub-grade, concrete pavements were promoted as the only viable solution. In early 1945, the project was recommended at a cost of £211,000. The works were undertaken by the Allied Works Council and were not put out to contract because of the delays that would have been involved in preparing plans and tender documents, the lack of experienced contractors and the number of claims expected because of the interference from operating aircraft. By mid May that year soil testing was complete and the War Cabinet approved the project. A 300 mm cement-stabilised pavement thickness was used for runways but a 350 mm thickness was used for taxiways.
The NSW Department of Main Roads carried out the work which was completed in January 1948 at a final cost of £209,000.
The maximum gross weight of the largest aircraft using the airport increased from 12 tonnes in 1945 to 150 tonnes in 1980. In the same period the runways had been cement stabilised and capped with bituminous concrete with a total thickness of 0.5 metre to provide for the increased loading.
A second Canberra airport
The first consideration of separate civil and service airfields to serve Canberra appears to have been in 1938 when the Department of Defence sought a base for an RAAF presence. There was considered to be no alternative to developing facilities at the existing Canberra airport.
The establishment of NCDC in 1957 led to investigations of alternative sites to meet projected needs and for strategic planning purposes.
NCDC saw the need for a new civil airport with a landscaped parkway approach to the city, an idea which is still being pursued some twenty-five years later. The major problem has been the choice of a site within reasonable distance from the Parliamentary Triangle, yet meeting the stringent standards of the civil aviation authorities.
In the early 1960s NCDC favoured urban development in the Majura Valley, adjacent to the airport, and within reasonable distance of the Parliamentary Triangle. The Department of Civil Aviation had identified an alternative airport site at Mulligan’s Flat (Gungahlin) to the north of which if adopted, would allow urban development in Majura valley to proceed.
However, DCA was in no hurry to leave the present Fairbairn site as a report noted:
‘DCA studies indicated that even in the light of operational difficulties associated with the general siting of Fairbairn, further development could be undertaken to provide satisfactory facilities beyond 1973. The present airport could be modified to cater for most of the demands of forseeable aircraft usage then likely to be servicing Canberra.’
The RAAF, as proprietor of the airport used by civil airlines, had no reservations about staying at Fairbairn, whilst the Army also resisted urban development in the Majura Valley.
However, by 1967 Canberra had experienced a growth rate averaging nearly 11% per year over ten years and, in response, NCDC had developed a comprehensive metropolitan growth plan which became known as the ‘Y’ plan. This provided for the development of a series of new towns in the valleys to the north and south of existing Canberra, and the alternative airport site at Mulligan’s Flat could be no longer considered as it fell within the new urban area.
Based on aircraft movements at Fairbairn (Fig. 11.9) which were considered to be nearing the capacity of the airfield and the continued high growth rate of the population, the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) supported the identification of an eventual long term alternative to Fairbairn.27 DCA, in liaison with NCDC, continued the investigation of 38 possible sites in and near the ACT.
DCA favoured Bungendore/Lake George although it would be costly to develop. In 1970 the total project was estimated to cost $30 million, including $3 million to drain Lake George, (to minimise fog) plus $18 million for a four lane “controlled access road” (Freeway) to the airport from Canberra. A submission was made to the Government recommending the detailed investigation of the site together with other related actions, but this was not approved.
This led to the decision to upgrade the Fairbairn facilities and to extend the main runway by 2,000 feet with a corresponding deviation of Pialligo Ave. The latter action called for referral to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the ACT, who chose to examine the need for and the nature of these extensions. While the extensions and deviation of Pialligo Ave. were approved in March 1972, some reservations were expressed about the eventual need to develop another airport at Bungendore.
Indeed, the House of Assembly at that time included members who questioned the Department’s choice of take- off path from Fairbairn for a twin engined aircraft with the possibility of losing one of those engines on take off. This led the Department to arrange actual demonstrations taking off with members aboard and simulating such a situation. All along the aisle of the aircraft white knuckles were seen as members gripped the sides of seats. The members quickly became convinced that the Departmental officers were right.
The most recent examination of future airport needs to aid strategic planning of Canberra was instigated in 1974. The study was conducted by an interdepartmental committee with representatives from eight Commonwealth Departments and authorities together with representation from NSW and liaison with citizen groups. After examining 25 sites, the primary conclusion of the IDC was that Canberra (Fairbairn) Airport should remain at its present location and that Canberra airport should be capable of meeting Canberra’s regular public transport (RPT) and military aviation needs for the next thirty years.
In 1982, with the low growth rates and the combined effects of the imposition of the fare scales resulting from the Holcroft recommendations and the depressed economic climate, the projected time at which Fairbairn will again approach saturation levels must remain a matter of speculation.
Eventually Fairbairn may reach movement saturation, accelerated by the wide range of aircraft types all operating from the one airport — home made light aircraft, general aviation and regional commuters, RPT and military aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters.
Photo: The National Library of Australia.
this building. Photo: The National Library of Australia.
The RAAF have always wanted to stay at Fairbairn and the strongest case exists for their VIP Squadron to do so.
Fairbairn is ideal for the citizen’s convenience, being so close to the city yet separated by the Ainslie-Majura ridge to the North, and the industrial area to the south. With more efficient aircraft, the existing airport is suitable for future needs. If general aviation for sport and recreation flying increases, a second airport may be necessary for this purpose.
Government announcements of intention to provide adequate airport facilities for overseas visitors in time for the 1988 bi-centenary opening of Parliament House reinforce decisions announced late in 1980 to provide a new domestic terminal. This latter decision in a way recognises the inevitability of Canberra as a commuter city in easy reach of the eastern States which makes one-day visits for business or tourism a practical proposition.
Aviation in the ACT has grown from a point where the first Canberra Airport was merely an emergency landing ground for scheduled airlines to a centre with major airline links to other State Capitals and by commuter services to many regional centres.
Before the first aircraft had visited Canberra in 1912 Oswald Watt recommended that the Duntroon plains be chosen for an airfield. Whilst Watt could not envisage the development of aircraft in the following seventy years the subsequent choice of the site of Fairbairn airport in 1926 and the development and operation of the airport since that time is a tribute to his foresight.
n.a. — not available.
The author wishes to acknowledge assistance given by the staff of the Australian Archives, The National Library of Australia, Australian Survey Office, Mr R.K. Piper, RAAF Historical Section, Capt P.J. Gibbes MVO, DFC, AFC, officers of the Department of Aviation, the Department of Transport and Construction, NCDC, and members of the Canberra and District Historical Society.