At dawn on 18 March 1910, escapologist Harry Houdini became the first person to fly an aeroplane in Australia (like many aspects of Australian aviation history, this is the subject of fierce debate, and some claim that it was actually Colin Defries or Fred Custance). Earlier, in 1856, one M Pierre Maigre had attempted to demonstrate a hot air balloon in front of a crowd of 6,000, who had paid to watch ‘the first flight in Australia’. The balloon failed to take-off, and many of the onlookers rioted. In the ensuing chaos, somebody knocked Maigre’s hat off, and fearing for his life, he ran from the site, chased by an angry mob of thousands (he found refuge in a government building). Meanwhile, the crowd set fire to the balloon and “created a bonfire from the tent and seats”.
Actually, Australia had an even earlier start with the first recorded flight by English racing driver Colin Defries (not quite controlled as it ended in a crash) taking place in 1909. With a strong air corps in World War I (followed by one of the world’s earliest air forces) and vast expanses of country to travel, it is no wonder that aviation took hold so swiftly in the 1920s and ’30s. The Royal Flying Doctor Service is the best-known example of this trailblazing growth, alongside QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services). Despite this strength in aviation services, most aircraft were of foreign design and build (albeit with local assembly) with only a few indigenous designs.
The spectre of another war brought about great changes. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1936, and in the early days of WW2 the government also set up what was to become the Department of Aircraft Production (later called the Government Aircraft Factory).
There have been many very successful aircraft built under license or by local subsidiary companies over the years. These include variants of the Beaufort and Beaufighter, many de Havilland aircraft such as the Mosquito, P-51, Sabre, Canberra, Aermacchi MB.326, Mirage III, and the F/A-18.
However, for this list I am looking at those designed entirely in Australia or significantly modified from their original design. Selected with no firm criteria, I have chosen designs that had either a successful service career, an interesting history, or were just plain pretty.
10. John Duigan biplane
The first Australian designed and built aircraft to fly was allegedly inspired by a postcard. In 1908, whilst working at his father’s sheep station ‘Spring Plains‘ in central Victoria, John Duigan saw a postcard of a Wright biplane in flight and was possessed with a desire to fly. Starting with box kites and progressing through experimentation with gliders (and a copy of Sir Hiram Maxim’s book ‘Artificial & Natural Flight’), he took to the air briefly on 16 July 1910 at the farm. With modifications the flights increased in length until he achieved what Duigan regarded as his first fully controlled flight of almost 200 yards on 7 October 1910. On 3 May 1911, five public flights were made at Epsom Racecourse, Melbourne, the longest of these being of 3000 ft.
Unfortunately Duigan was unable to attract official attention to his design, so the aircraft languished while John departed for England to pursue his career in aviation. In 1918 Duigan won the Military Cross for fighting off four Fokker triplanes, despite being severely wounded, in a lumbering RE8 whilst serving with the Australian Flying Corps.
The aircraft itself was constructed of locally sourced materials, including, for example, reworked metal bands from wool bales to make fittings for the aircraft. The aircraft is currently displayed, suspended from the ceiling in the foyer of Melbourne Museum. It was donated to the museum by John Duigan himself in 1920.
9. CAC Woomera (CAC CA-4 and CAC CA-11)
Noting that Britain, its traditional supplier of armaments, was quite tied up with fighting Germany and faced with the prospect of potential invasion by Japan, this twin engine torpedo-bomber project was born out of the realisation that aircraft and parts might well be cut off in the early years of WW2. With local production of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 being arranged, prospects for the new domestic aircraft were bright – the design was basically sound, it was well armed and potentially versatile. Unfortunately, amongst its other technical innovations, the prototype CA-4 featured a wing in which the internal cavities had been sealed, forming an enormous integral fuel tank. It was never an entirely satisfactory system and the prototype caught fire and exploded in flight, probably due to a fuel leak in January 1943.
As well as the ‘wet wing’ fuel system the CA-4 and later CA-11 had a number of interesting technical innovations, including remotely controlled twin-gun turrets built into the rear of the engine nacelles, and the use of the nacelles to accommodate a 500lb bomb load. The intent appears to have been to create a flexible and versatile medium bomber, but with additional capabilities including torpedo attack, dive-bombing and reconnaissance.
Despite the loss of the prototype, the CA-4 was deemed sufficiently successful to gain an order from the RAAF for 105 improved CA-11 ‘Woomera’ production aircraft, but this proved to be unnecessary. The redesigned and improved CA-11 didn’t fly until 1944 and by this time large numbers of US-built aircraft werew available for service and successful licence production of Bristol Beauforts and Beaufighters was in full swing. The sole CA-11 was scrapped in 1946.
3 . GAF Jindivik
Despite its challenging pronunciation, the diminutive Jindivik is Australia’s most successful military aviation export. The word Jindivik appropriately means to ‘destroy’ or ‘burst asunder’ in the Woiwurrung Aboriginal language and this aircraft was designed expressly to be shot down. Although there were a pair of piloted test aircraft (named Pika and which may well be the cutest jet aircraft ever built), the Jindivik is primarily an unmanned target drone. Built to aid missile testing with the UK, this aircraft had a very long and successful career starting in 1952 and was used in the development of such systems as Bloodhound, Seaslug, and Firestreak.
The Jindvik was an extraordinarily successful design, 502 were produced between 1952 and 1986 but the Jindivik was apparently so indispensible that the line was reopened in 1997 to produce a further 15 for British use. Despite being unable to carry a pilot or passenger or indeed any human being, the Jindivik is the third most successful Australian designed aircraft, after the Commonwealth Wirraway and the Jabiru light aircraft. As well as its extensive use by the UK and Australia, Jindivik has also served in Sweden and with the US Navy. (photo at Woomera, SA)
7. AAC A-10 and A-20 Wamira
By the 1980s it was clear that the RAAF needed a turboprop aircraft to replace the long serving CAC Winjeel and PAC CT/4 Airtrainer designs. The Australian Aircraft Consortium (CAC, GAF, HdH) came together to produce the A-10 with side by side seating for the initial competition. A tandem seating version (A-20) was also devised with a view to international sales (a MoU was even signed with Westland for a joint venture). However, it was a non-flying clean-sheet design, whereas the other contenders (Shorts Tucano, Pilatus PC-9) were already in the air. The PC-9 was selected in 1985 and thus killed by politics, economics, and general governmental unwillingness to back a local product, this aircraft never made it into the air.
The A-10 and A-20 were unfortunately always on the back foot in seeking to enter a market where there were preexisting strong competitors already in service. Possibly, had the RAAF initially specified a tandem-seat design, the aircraft might at least have been able to reach the same point as the NDN Turbo-Firecracker, which was another of the contenders for the RAF order, but it wasn’t to be. The Engineering mock-up and components of the first aircraft are now with the Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin, Victoria.
6. CAC CA-25 Winjeel
In Australian Aboriginal mythology, Bunjil is a creator deity and ancestral being, often depicted as a wedge-tailed eagle. The Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri people who lived in the area of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation at Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria pronounced Bunjil as Winjeel, hence the name of this excellent trainer. Designed to meet a 1948 requirement to replace the Tiger Moth and CAC Wirraway (a NA-16 PT-6/Harvard development), this three-seater was so sweet and free of vices that it was almost impossible to spin, thus necessitating a redesign to the tail to make it a better training aircraft! First flown in 1951 and in service as a trainer until 1975, it soldiered on in the Forward Air Control role until 1994.
The Winjeel is an attractive little aircraft, with a strong resemblance to the Hunting-Percival Provost. I have heard a rumour that the RAAF initially wanted the Provost, but the UK refused to modify the aircraft to meet Australian requirements, so a domestic solution was sought. And a happy solution this was, with the Winjeel replacing the Wirraway and Tiger Moth in service, and numerous examples still flying in civilian hands today. Curiously Henry Millicer, who designed the Provost, ended up working for CAC’s great rival GAF and was chief aerodynamicist on the Jindivik. Small world.
The changes to encourage the aircraft to spin were moving the fin forward, which reduced stability in yaw; increasing the rudder size to increase control authority; moving the engine slightly further forward, and giving the wing 3 deg. sweepback which moved the c.g. forward compared to the centre of lift, which would improve spin recovery.
5. GAF Nomad
Probably best known from the title sequence of the TV series ‘The Flying Doctors’, the Nomad has had a successful career overall with many military and civilian operators in a wide range of roles. Very much in the mould of the Britten-Norman Islander, the Nomad concept started in the 1950s, but the final design was really born out of the experiences from Vietnam. Twice as many engines as the Pilatus Porter and dH Beaver, yet with similar STOL performance. First flown in 1971 it was well received until problems with fatigue in the tail: in 1976 a tailplane failure killed the GAF’s chief test pilot Stuart Pearce, father of actor Guy Pearce.
The Nomad was designed to have outstanding STOL performance, and achieved this through the use of full-span double-slotted flaps, the outer portions of which could be operated differentially to act as ailerons. 170 production aircraft and 2 prototypes were built in a number of different variants. Operators included the Australian Army, Indonesian Navy, Thai and Philippine Air Forces, US Customs Service and various civil operators.
4. CAC Boomerang (CA-12, CA-13, CA-14 and CA-19)
The Boomerang was another urgent design brought on by the dark days of early WW2. The CAC Wirraway was not a capable fighter – despite the ‘Wirra-schmitt’ nickname and its record as the only Australian designed aircraft to destroy another in air to air combat. Deliveries of British or US designs could not be guaranteed and in 1941 the concept of a locally produced fighter was born. Valuable time was saved through the use of many existing parts and the portly Boomerang was the result. The fighter used the Wirraway centre section, wing, tail assembly and undercarriage. Although outclassed as a pure fighter, it was manoeuvrable and powerfully armed with two 20-mm Hispano or CAC cannons and four 0.303 Browning machine guns.
and earned an excellent reputation as a ground attack aircraft. Originally powered by the R-1830 engine, one later variant trialled a R-2800 with the supercharger situated rather oddly on the side of the fuselage.
Outpaced by better British and US aircraft as soon as it first flew, this stubby yet pretty aircraft had a remarkable career. Given their success with the Brewster Buffalo I’m betting that the Finnish would have loved it…
The Boomerang is stubby, yet purposeful, rugged and reliable, and it is a pleasure to see the two airworthy aircraft in Australia being put through their paces. It is clear, however, that the aircraft lacked the speed to be competitive as a premier league fighter, its most successful role being in Army cooperation. A total of 250 aircraft of all variants were built.
Inexplicably named after a large stork, the tallest flying bird found in the Americas, the Jabiru is more a family of light and kit aircraft than a single design, I’ll cheat and lump them in as one. The first aircraft flew in 1991 and since then the company has produced many two and four seat aircraft. Built largely in composite materials it is a very conventional high-wing monoplane. Available in a variety of configurations from Light Sport Aircraft to General Aviation approved, the Jabiru range has been very successful and is the most produced Australian design ever marketed (the Gippsland Aviation AirVan just doesn’t have the numbers). Interestingly the Jabiru company also makes a series of air-cooled engines for aircraft.
A huge variety of Jabiru aircraft have been produced, with 16 different types listed in the Wikipedia entry for the aircraft. These vary from the lightest ULA variant up to fully-certified 4-seat aircraft.
Jim Smith notes “The Jabiru is the only one of the Australian aircraft discussed in this article that I have flown, and the variant I flew was at the bottom end of the spectrum. On a hot and bumpy day out at Ballarat, Victoria, it was fun, but hard work due to the rough conditions.”
Later and heavier variants are more sophisticated, and the design has been very successful, with more than 2000 aircraft being built.
2. CAC-15 Kangaroo ‘The Mighty Roo’
With the Boomerang becoming more and more obsolete, in 1942 a more up to date locally designed high performance fighter was proposed. The initial design was to incorporate a supercharged R-2800, but as development progressed this became unavailable and a switch to an inline engine was made. A Rolls-Royce Griffon was made available and the CA-15 as we know it was built.
Often mistaken for ‘simply’ a modified P-51, the ‘Kangaroo’ was a very different beast. In the same way that the Griffon engine was in many ways a larger and more beefy take on the Merlin, the CAC-15 was a larger and more beefy aircraft in the same general mould as the P-51. Possibly the best looking ‘what if’ aircraft of WW2, showing much cleaner lines than the somewhat similar Martin Baker MB 5. Lord Hives, the Executive Chairman of Rolls-Royce, is reported by Sir Lawrence Wackett as remarking that it was the neatest installation of the Griffon achieved.
The looks did not belie the performance, which was spectacular. In the same performance class as the Sea Fury and MB 5, the sensational Kangaroo is a contender for the title of finest piston-engined fighter ever built.
If the RAAF had known how limited early jets would be or how long the P-51s would soldier on in service, the CAC-15 might have made a brilliant impact. Sadly the design was never really pushed and became regarded as a design exercise rather than an essential project, with the only prototype first flying in March 1946. The availability of new overseas built types, local production of the P-51, and the emergence of jet power all played their part.
Sadly the CA-15 is relatively little known, probably due to its antipodean origin but should be held in the same regard as the brilliant Martin-Baker MB 5. The latter may not have had the clean lines of the CA-15, but its engineering can only be described as brilliant. All accounts of the CA-15 describe its performance as excellent, and the aircraft can justly be regarded as one of the finest piston-engine fighters ever built. Great optimism surrounded the project, but in the end, the Mustang soldiered on in RAAF service until the arrival of the Sabre, and the solitary Kangaroo was scrapped in 1950.
- CAC Sabre CA-27 ‘Avon Sabre’
Based on the North American F86 Sabre, the decision to use a locally built Rolls-Royce Avon engine required so many substantial redesigns to the airframe that I’m including it as an Australian product. The Avon was shorter, wider, and lighter than the US engine. The fuselage was greatly altered and the intake was 25% larger. The six .50 cal machine guns in the original were replaced with a pair of the heavy hitting 30-mm ADEN cannon, the cockpit modified, and provision for more fuel capacity included.
First delivered in 1954 and serving during the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War, the aircraft were out of service by the end of 1968.
The Sabre in all its forms was probably the prettiest of the early jet fighters and the Avon Sabre is regarded as one of the best overall.
The Avon Sabre turned out to be a remarkable design, and its combination of performance and firepower made it far superior to US-built aircraft. In this respect, it had similarities with the Orenda-engined Canadair Sabre, but this aircraft retained the armament of the US F-86E on which it was based. The Avon Sabre had a maximum thrust of 7500 lb, compared to 7250 for the Orenda and 6100 for the J-47 engined F-86F.
Engineering changes to the Avon Sabre were very substantial. In effect, the fuselage was cut in half along a horizontal line down the fuselage, and a wedge inserted, dropping the front of the aircraft some 3.5 inches (~9cm) to provide a larger intake for the engine. The lighter and more powerful Avon engine was placed further aft in the fuselage, necessitating further changes. About 40% of the original F-86E fuselage parts were retained.
Jonny, an aviation enthusiast and former history teacher from Australia.
His grandfather flew Westland Wapitis at RMC Duntroon. His great uncle was a navigator posted to long range units in the Western Desert who was mentioned in dispatches for his capture by Italian forces and subsequent ‘taking of Tobruk’ (a long story). His father achieved the rank of ‘Aircraftsman, Minor, Provisional’ during his national service days. His own service was short lived but provided the useful life lesson of learning when not to get the giggles at shouty ‘career’ corporals in the Australian Army Reserve.
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