Australia has played a significant pioneering role in aviation, pushing the limits of technology and developing a sound reputation for innovation and reliability. Ryan Hart and Nicole Murrell take a look at some of the great Australian-made aircraft and one of the nation’s ‘true blue’ icons – the Royal Flying Doctor Service – and discovers a rich, incomparable history unsurpassed worldwide.
Due to its size and geographical isolation, just before the outbreak of World War II, Australia had been one of the world’s leading centres of aviation. With its tiny population of around seven million, Australia ranked sixth in the world for scheduled air mileage, had 16 airlines, was growing at twice the world average, and had produced a number of prominent aviation pioneers, including Lawrence Hargrave, Harry Hawker, Lawrence Wackett, the Reverend John Flynn, Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler and Charles Ulm. Governments on both sides of politics, well aware of the immense stretches of uninhabitable desert that separated the small productive regions of Australia, regarded air transport as a matter of national importance.
On reflection, in 1921, the first scheduled air service was commenced by West Australian Airways flying from Derby to Geraldton and the following year Qantas commenced operations with a service from Charleville to Cloncurry. Following their record-breaking and pioneering flights, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm formed Australian National Airways in 1930.
The importance of aviation in the development, and to the continued maintenance of communication, support, and service to rural communities cannot be understated; indeed, the remoteness of the Australian outback led to the development of the unique and successful “Flying Doctor Service” by Dr John Flynn in 1928.
In 1934, the Centenary Air Race from London to Melbourne proved the viability and safety of long distance air travel, while many other aviation ventures developed. Ansett began services in Victoria from Hamilton to Melbourne; and Trans Australia Airlines (TAA), started flights from Laverton, Victoria.
Australians also played a significant role in aircraft development. In addition to Hargrave and Duigan’s early work, Australians such as Harry Hawker from Moorabbin, Victoria and Edgar Percival from Albury/Wodonga on the NSW/Victoria border, travelled to England to work in aircraft design and manufacturing during the First World War. The Percival Aircraft Company built touring and trainer aircraft for the RAF, while the Hawker Company built a range of aircraft from 1930 biplanes to jet fighters, both becoming famous British manufacturers.
But Australians also built aircraft in Australia, with LASCO building 32 Gypsy Moths for the RAAF at Coode Island, Melbourne in 1931 and then a consortium of industrialists formed the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) in Melbourne with Lawrence Wackett as manager, to build Australian aircraft. The Department of Aircraft Production, later named Government Aircraft Factory (GAF) was also created in Melbourne, and preceeded de Havilland Aircraft in Sydney, to produce aircraft for the defence of Australia. Later Australian manufacturers such as Victa, Transavia, and Yeoman developed Australian light civil, utility, crop-dusting and trainer aircraft. GAF developed the Nomad, of which 170 were built in Melbourne and a number exported overseas.
Australia continues to have a small but successful aviation industry. Companies such as Brumby Aircraft, GippsAero (formerly Gippsland Aeronautics), Jabiru and Seabird Aviation have successfully developed niche markets worldwide; while various otehr aviation businesses produce parts for foreign aircraft manufacturers.
To follow are some of Australia’s most decorated aircraft, a combination of the old and the new; military and civilian; plus a brief overview of the remarkable Australian icon known as the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Made in Australia. Made for keeps.
BRUMBY 600 LSA
According to renowned aviation historian Keith Meggs, the Go Air Trainer is one of finest GA aircraft ever built in Australia. Designed by Phil Goard, the original Go Air was a low-wing monoplane, first flown in July 1995 and powered by an 118hp (88kW) Lycoming O-235 piston engine. It had a fixed tricycle landing gear and an enclosed cockpit for two in side-by-side configuration with a sliding canopy for access.
Since then, the Go Air Trainer has developed into the Brumby 600 LSA, a sleek recreational aircraft produced by Goard’s new company, Brumby Aircraft Australia.
An all-metal design, the Brumby retains the compact two-seat design and expansive canopy of its predecessor, and is a substantial aeroplane capable of accommodating two 85 kg occupants and a full load with ease.
Up front, the 600 is powered by one of three options: the Jabiru J3300, Rotax 912ULS and Lycoming IO-233. With this range of engines, fuel burn and endurance is equally sufficient for cross country touring or having a blast in the training area.
As expected of an LSA, the Brumby is light on the controls but unlike many recreational types, is also very stable. Ideal as a trainer or touring aircraft, historian Keith Meggs would be happy that the Brumby has come such a long way since the Go Air made its mark all those years ago.
Brumby Aircraft Australia is a family-owned business based at Cowra, a small town in the Central West of NSW. Its associate business, PG Aviation, is the manufacturing arm which takes care of engineering and production.
CAC AVON SABRE
Following the failure of the English Hawker P1081 to meet both RAAF and RAF requirements, designer Lawrence Wackett turned to the USA in search of a design for local production, once again selecting a North American Aviation design to be built by CAC.
Although the F86 Sabre was already acknowledged as a successful aircraft, Wackett proposed to Rolls Royce that the Sabre be fitted with the Avon, with 50% greater thrust than the original engine, which was presently being tooled up for production by CAC for use in the Australian built GAF Canberra.
Other modifications included replacement of the six 50 calibre machine guns with two 30mm Aden cannons, and although the resulting aircraft still has the classic looks of the F86, the fuselage required 60% of the fuselage structure to be redesigned. Not obvious to the eye is the 25% increase in the air intake to meet the different needs of the Avon engine.
Known originally as the Avon Sabre by its manufacturer CAC and in service with the RAAF, one CA-26 prototype and 111 CA-27 production aircraft were manufactured from 1953 to 1961, and the type remained in service with the RAAF until 1971.
The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1936 to manufacture aircraft in Australia. The First General Manager of CAC was the noted engineer Lawrence Wackett whose influence over design was to be seen throughout his time at CAC.
British manufacturers tried to discourage local Australian production and loss of their natural markets, but there was great outcry when the “colonial upstarts” selected an American design for production.
Based on the North American Aviation NA-33, but modified to suit local requirements, the aircraft was named Wirraway, an Aboriginal word meaning challenge, and this was appropriate, for at that time Australia was not even able to fully manufacture motor cars. CAC produced not only the airframe but the engine, while industry provided support with equipment and fittings.
Total production between 1939 and 1946 amounted to 755 aircraft. While intended as a general purpose trainer aircraft, the Wirraway was used in combat against Japanese Zero fighters in the desperate defence of Malaya and New Guinea with terrible losses. Their principal contribution was as a trainer and in Army co-operation duties in New Guinea. Wirraways remained with the RAAF as advanced trainers until replaced by the CAC Winjeel in 1958.
The Bristol Beaufighter was designed and built in England as a development of the Beaufort bomber, and initially saw service as a night fighter. English built aircraft were delivered to the RAAF for service in the Pacific with No. 22, 30, 31 and 93 Squadrons operating the type.
In Australia the Department of Aircraft Production was in the process of producing the Beaufort bomber and in 1944 began the manufacture of the Beaufighter as a follow on project. Design changes included revised armament and a dihedral tailplane, and between September 1944 and 1946, 365 Australian Beaufighter Mk 21’s were built.
Powerfully armed, fast at low level and very quiet in flight, the Beaufighter earned a grim nickname from the Japanese, who called it “Whispering Death”.
DE HAVILLAND TIGER MOTH
With almost 1,100 aircraft built the DH-82A Tiger Moth represents the largest production run of any aircraft built in Australia. De Havilland’s factory in Mascot, NSW produced the aircraft between 1940 and 1945 with General Motor’s Holden manufacturing the engine at their Fisherman’s Bend plant. The Tiger Moth was the basic flying training aircraft of the RAAF during and after WWII and, as such, was involved in the worldwide Empire Air Training Scheme through which many thousands of young men had their first experience of flight. Post-war the aircraft went on to become the mainstay of many flying clubs and is now a highly prized antique aircraft. Despite the Tiger Moth’s sterling reputation, historian Keith Meggs believes the Wackett Trainer was superior to the DH-82 and should have replaced it as the nation’s primary flight trainer.
The GAF Nomad is a twin-engine turboprop, high-wing, short take off and landing (STOL) aircraft. It was designed and built by the Australian Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) at Fishermens Bend, Melbourne. Major users of the design have included the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, the Australian Army and the Australian Customs Service. The Nomad is to be re-engineered and put back into production as the Gippsland GA18.
Development of the Nomad began in 1965 at GAF as Project N. The Australian government funded two prototypes in January 1970 for the twin engined, multi-purpose transport. The government was keen to build an aircraft in order to maintain aircraft production at GAF after the end of Mirage III production. The first prototype (registered VH-SUP) flew for the first time on 23 July 1971. The aircraft was now known as the N2, and was aimed at the military and civilian markets. The designation N22 was to be used for military aircraft (becoming N22B in production), and N24 was to be used for the lengthened civilian version.
The original design intention was that the entire empennage would be hinged, such that it could be swung open providing rear loading access (the target payload was a small vehicle). This necessitated the raised cruciform tail.
The Nomad design was considered problematic and early Royal Australian Air Force evaluations were critical of the design. An early, stretched-fuselage variant crashed, killing GAF’s chief test pilot Stuart Pearce (father of actor Guy Pearce), and the assistant head designer. The Nomad has been involved in a total of 32 total hull-loss accidents, which have resulted in 76 fatalities.
Only 172 Nomads (including the two prototypes) were manufactured, due to the limited foreign sales achieved by GAF. In 1986, GAF was incorporated into Aerospace Technologies of Australia.
In June 2008, Gippsland Aeronautics (now GippsAero) announced it had won bidding to take over the Nomad’s type certificate. Some of the GippsAero design and testing engineers, including co-founder George Morgan, worked on Nomad development at GAF. The N24-based GA18 will be re-engineered with new powerplants, propellers, glass cockpit and weight-saving measures. It is planned to bring it into service after the development and certification of the new 10-seat GA10.
Since the 1970s GippsAero, based in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, has designed and manufactured aircraft, operating on a philosophy of simple, innovative solutions that suit businesses. Today that ethos remains the cornerstone of its success, with the company now boasting a family of practical, efficient aircraft, a thriving, skilled and dedicated workforce and an export trade throughout the world.
GippsAero is unique to Australia for having both design and manufacture capabilities, and maintains CASA approvals for these functions. Indeed it is amongst only a handful of businesses on the planet in this category.
The company’s flagship product is the GA8 Airvan, designed and built to handle the gruelling conditions of the Australian outback. The Airvan is an eight-seat, high-wing, single-engine utility aircraft that has proven ideal for operators in remote areas. The Airvan is capable of operating on short, semi-prepared airstrips and is designed for ease of maintenance.
After taking over the type certificate of the iconic GAF Nomad in 2008, GippsAero is currently developing the 18-seat GA18 twin turbine, a rejuvenated Nomad that provides a highly versatile platform capable of a wide variety of roles, including airfreight, sightseeing, skydiving, humanitarian aid, search and rescue, and military operations. It is specifically designed for short-range, low traffic operations, and is a rugged, maintainable aircraft that offers low fuel consumption and operational costs.
The GA18 will be re-engineered with new engines, propellers and glass cockpit and is scheduled to enter service after the development and certification of the new 10-seat GA10.
Jabiru Aircraft, the Bundaberg-based outfit established by Rodney Stiff and Phil Ainsworth, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013, a remarkable milestone for a company that continues to evolve worldwide.
So how did it all begin? From humble beginnings in the shed at his home Rod designed and built the first prototype. Needless to say the first test flight was a much anticipated and exciting affair for all involved. However Rod did breathe a big sigh of relief when the flight went well and he landed successfully. The success of the prototype spurred them on and they decided to push ahead and build their second test Jabiru and move their operations out to the Bundaberg Airport. Jabiru is still located at the same site today; however from a tiny shed of some 200 sq metres, it has now grown to incorporate offices and hangars covering 2800 sq metres.
Initially seeking to develop a highly efficient, composite designed, light aircraft, the duo selected a lightweight Italian engine as the powerplant. Unfortunately, just after their first aircraft was type-certificated in Australia, the Italian engine manufacturer ceased production, compelling Jabiru to produce their own engines. The fledgling company had developed into both an aircraft “and” engine manufacturer – one of very few in the world.
From these bold steps, Jabiru has gone on to boast around 2,000 flying airframes and more than three times as many engines spread over 30 countries. In achieving this, the Bundaberg facility has the capacity to produce 20 airframes and 90 engines per month. The range of aircraft includes both two and four seat versions while the engines are available with 4, 6, or 8 cylinders. The aircraft can come ready-to-fly as type-certificated, factory built aeroplanes or as amateur built or experimental kit aircraft.
In 2005, Rodney Stiff acquired 100% ownership of Jabiru and has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal and been recognised by the US-based Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) for his contribution to aircraft design and technological advancements. Jabiru is not a small concern, but an integral member of the Bundaberg economy and a genuine export industry for Australia. Proudly Australian, Jabiru thrives on its role of exporting Australian technology to the world.
In June 2013, Seabird Aviation, based at Hervey Bay, Queensland, demonstrated its new “Spy Plane”, the Seeker A3. Police representatives, energy company staff and others were on hand to see the niche aircraft in action.
Seabird Aviation managing director Peter Adams said the Seabird Seeker A3 would be marketed to the military, police and fire and rescue services, but first, they needed to be able to demonstrate to their prospective customers how the new aircraft actually worked.
Dean Johnston, who is involved in business development for Oregon-based UTC Aerospace Systems, said his company was supplying the camera technology, after talks with Seabird for two years. He said the US military was another of UTC Aerospace Systems’ customers.
The camera systems featured daylight imagery and infrared technology, similar to that used to find the Boston bombing suspects in April, when one was found hiding in a boat. Johnston said that technology could also be useful fighting fire.
“One of the benefits of the thermal imagery is it can see through smoke and enable people to see the hot spots and where the fire is burning so groups can direct responses there,” Mr Johnston said. “They can see where water bombers drop water and if the drops are hitting the targets. And you could use it to map the fire line, identify where the fire is and send out GPS co-ordinates.”
Seabird Aviation is well-known for the design and development of its SB7L-360 Seeker-2 (Seeker), a multi-role utility aircraft that is sold worldwide. A result of thousands of hours of tough military patrol, surveillance and training operations, the Seeker can be used in commercial operations, providing operating costs a third that of the helicopter equivalent. The Seeker provides an efficient and cost-effective alternative for missions such as power and pipeline inspection, coast watch, environmental and stock monitoring, aerial photography and security where VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) is not mission essential. The Seeker’s visibility is unrivalled by any other fixed-wing aircraft and is superior to many helicopters.
In 1953 Dr. Henry Millicer entered and won from 103 other contestants, a design competition held by the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain for a two-seat light aircraft. A small team was formed to build a wooden prototype, VH-FMM, which first flew on the 31st of March 1959 piloted by Flt. Lt. Randall Green.
Promoted by its founder, Mervyn Richardson and his son Gary, the Victa Lawnmower manufacturer formed an aviation division in 1960 to manufacture and develop Millicer’s design as the Victa Airtourer. The first prototype flew in December 1961 with the first production machine flying in mid-1962.
The Airtourer was an immediate success, so much so that the U.S. manufacturers of light aircraft began to ‘dump price’ their aircraft on the Australian market. Victa applied to the Australian Government for protection against this tactic, but in early 1967 after a much delayed Tariff Board Hearing, Victa closed down production. A total of 170 Airtourers had been built. The tooling was sold to AESL in New Zealand which continued to build the aircraft.
AESL developed the 4 seat Victa Aircruiser design into the successful CT4 Airtrainer used for primary pilot training by many airforces including 50 by Australia’s RAAF, and later 26 by BAE Systems at Tamworth, demonstrating the lost opportunity of ongoing Australian manufacture caused by the Tariff board decision.
ROYAL FLYING DOCTOR SERVICE
Australia’s vast remoteness and the basic need for access to health and medical services was the catalyst for the establishment of a national icon – the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
In the 1920s, South Australian Presbyterian Minister, the Rev John Flynn, in charge of the Australian Inland Mission, saw first hand the daily struggle of pioneers and indigenous people in the remote areas of central Australia where just two medical doctors covered an area of some two million square kilometres. He also saw the incredible benefit air travel provided in such remote areas. The combination of medical service with air travel was inspirational and on 15 May 1928 the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Services was opened. Two days later the first flying doctor service began with a doctor and pilot taking off for remote stations from Cloncurry in Queensland. The aircraft was a de Havilland DH 50 biplane on loan from the fledgling QANTAS.
Over the next few years the service spread nationally with sections established in all States. As Victoria had no outback as such, that State’s service established and funded by Victorian Presbyterian Church benefactors, provided services in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. Its first base opened in Wyndham in 1935.
New South Wales’ section was based in Broken Hill where the RFDS has a significant base today. South Australia and Northern Territory were served from Alice Springs and Western Australia from Kalgoorlie and Port Hedland.
The use of radio communications was instrumental in the development of the service enabling people in remote areas to contact the RFDS for support, especially in emergencies. The expansion of the pedal radio across remote stations and communities also led to the establishment of the “School of the Air’, which used the RFDS radio network, to link remote students with their teachers.
Known nationally in the early days as the Aerial Medical Service, its name was changed to the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and then the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955. It was acknowledged by the then Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies as “… perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.”
Until the 1960s the RFDS contract hired aircraft, crews and maintenance services. Subsequently the service acquired its own aircraft and specialist aviation personnel to complement its medical and support staff.
Today, with its six operational sections, the RFDS covers an area of 7.15 million square kilometres, operates a fleet of 61 aircraft from 21 bases across Australia and employs over 1,000 staff. It provides a 24 hour emergency accident assistance service, medical transfers from remote areas to regional and central medical facilities, a tele-health service and 14,000 clinics covering a wide range of medical specialisations in remote centres. Some 278,000 patients are treated annually. It remains a not for profit organisation and receives funding from governments and public donations.