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Early Australian aviation

Landing of Ross Smith

Frank Hurley (1885-1962) Landing of Ross Smith's Vickers Vimy at Mascot - Sydney, NSW, 14 February 1920. Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales


Aviation in Australia stretches back to the early pioneering days of manned and powered flight. In Australia, its development has been significant because of the vast interior of the country where long distances were a hindrance to many services. Until the Second World War, Australia was one of the world's leaders in aviation in terms of both air mileage and prominent aviation pioneers.

Since the early development of powered flight in Australia in 1910, various air services have been established: passenger and cargo transport, airmail, medical, and search and rescue services. The development of military aviation from 1912 and the engagement of the Australian Flying Corps in the First World War contributed greatly to pilot training and investment in aircraft and hangers. Since the first air trial between England and Australia in 1919, international aviation has also played an important part in Australian aviation history.

Early Australian aviation, 1880s–1920s

Lawrence Hargrave was the first in Australia to experiment with powered flight. A gentleman inventor, his observation of waves and of the motion of fish, snakes and birds had led Hargrave to consider flight. His theoretical approach was based on the necessity to 'follow in the footsteps of nature'. Hargrave constructed various monoplane wing designs between 1884 and 1892.

Lawrence Hargrave and his kites at Stanwell Park, 1894

Charles Bayliss, Lawrence Hargrave and his kites at Stanwell Park, 1894. Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

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. This earned Hargrave the title of being the first successful aeronautical inventor, if not aviator, in Australia. By 1909, the models were accepted by the Bavarian Government for display in the Deutsches Museum at Munich after being rejected by Australian institutions.

It wasn't until 1910 when the first powered, controlled flight was made in Australia by the visiting Harry Houdini, at Digger's Rest, Victoria. The flight was made in a Voisin biplane, demonstrated again at Rosehill in Sydney.

Australian Flying Corps, air defence bases and RAAF

The formation of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in 1912 paved the way for use of aircraft for military purposes. The first role that the AFC played was in the invasion of German New Guinea in September 1914 during the First World War. The first complete AFC squadron, 1 Squadron, was formed and engaged in the Middle East from early 1916. Three other squadrons operated on the Western Front in France. In Australia, the New South Wales Aviation School was formed and began civil and military aviation training in August 1916.

AFC Ace, Captain Thomas C.R. Baker

AFC Ace, Captain Thomas-C.R. Baker MM, bar to MM, DFC (1897 - 1918), 4 Sqn AFC, 1918. Courtesy of Australian Flying Corps.

To support the three operational squadrons in Europe, 1 Wing Australian Flying Corps was formed in England under the command of Lt Colonel Oswald Watt until it's disbandment in March 1919. Four Squadrons were formed in the Wing, including 5, 6, 7 and 8 Squadrons. The aircraft were most noticeable for their colours and insignia, including Kangaroos, Emus, Boomerangs, Kookaburras and Dragons. The aces of the Australian Flying Corps included Australians, New Zealanders, Englishmen and an Irishman.

In addition to the establishment of the air defence base at Point Cook, Victoria, in 1914 as the Central Flying School for the AFC, the Brisbane Flying School, known as the Queensland Volunteer Flying Civilians (QVFC), was formed in 1915 by Major Thomas McLeod and Lieutenant Valdemar Rendle. The school was funded by 550 from 'The Courier Aeroplane Fund', a fund from a Brisbane newspaper. This funding paid for the reconstruction of the aircraft, the aerodrome at Hemmant and the hangar that was built on the aerodrome.

The New South Wales (NSW) Government established the NSW School of Aviation at Richmond in 1916, a favoured location for pre-war aviation enthusiasts. The New South Wales Government purchased four Curtiss Jenny planes for the school: two JN-4s in 1916 and two JN-4Bs in 1917. The chief instructor of the school, WJ 'Billy' Stutt, used one of the Curtiss Jenny JN-4Bs to fly from Sydney to Melbourne in November 1917 to promote flying as a 'post-war transport prospect'. The return trip on 12th November 1917 was the first one-day flight between capital cities in Australia. In addition to the Curtiss Jennies, a Caudron G111 was used for instruction in aircraft mechanics, maintenance and construction.

RAAF, World War I

RAAF, World War I. Image courtesy of Royal Australian Air Force.

Partly because of the perceived potential of air power, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was established in 1921. The period between the First and Second World Wars was difficult for Australia's airmen. The army and navy argued persistently that there was no place for independent air power, and that air forces would always only support the army and navy. From a civilian standpoint, though, activities were rapidly gaining momentum. Lt Colonel Oswald Watt contributed significantly to the development of civil aviation standards.

Before his death [in 1921] Watt had been President of the Australian Aero Club and installed many new safety initiatives including the 'Safety First' campaign which resulted in several Acts of Parliament reinforcing better civil aviation standards. Watt's legacy is remembered by the Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia awarding of the Oswald Watt Medal for aviation to aviators who have shown pioneering spirit in aviation.
The Australian Flying Corps

England and the Pacific, 1920s–1930s

[Ross and Keith Smith] - Arrival of Vickers Vimy at Mascot Aerodrome, 14 February 1920.

William Kimbel, [Ross and Keith Smith] - Arrival of Vickers Vimy at Mascot Aerodrome, 14 February 1920. Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

Air trials between England and Australia were a high priority for civil aviation in the second decade. A 10,000 prize was offered by the Australian Government for the first flight from England to Australia to be completed in 30 days. Ross Smith and Keith Smith won that prize in December 1919 when they touched down in Darwin in their Vickers Vimy. Both had flown in the First World War, Ross extensively in the Middle East campaign. Both were immediately knighted, although Ross did not live long enough to enjoy either his wealth or status, dying in a plane crash in England in April 1922.

Bert Hinkler and his Avro Avian

Bert Hinkler and his Avro Avian, 1928. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1928, Bert Hinkler left England for Australia, following the same route that the Smiths had flown in 1919. After just 15 days he landed in Darwin, a little more than half the time of the Smiths' flight. An instant national hero, Hinkler received a special 2,000 prize from the Australian Government.

The Smiths' England-Australia flight and Ross Smith's subsequent death established the pattern for the heroic age of Australian aviation, stretching through the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Australian aviators' feats at this time had three outstanding characteristics. First, extremely long flights, indeed the longest in the world, were an Australian specialty ... Second, it was extremely hazardous. All too many of Australia's pioneer aviators died in their machines ... And third, there was a strong element of entrepreneurship, and the pioneering flights often brought in considerable funds, often used to fund airlines or further flights.
The heroic age of Australian aviation , Robert Lee, Linking a Nation: Australia's Transport and Communications 1788 - 1970, Australian Heritage Commission, 2003.

Charles Kingsford Smith was a pioneering aviator who flew across the Pacific from America to Australia in 1928 with Charles Ulm. In 1930, he soloed from London to Australia in 9 days 22 hours. Then in 1934, he and PG Taylor flew the transpacific route from Australia to America. On 10 November 1935, Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot died trying to set another England-to-Australia flight record when their plane went down off the coast of Burma.

Air services and searches, 1920s–1930s

Air searches

Lockheed Hudson bogged at Bathurst Island

Charles 'Moth' Eaton, Lockheed Hudson bogged at Bathurst Island, c. 1941. Courtesy of Peter Dunn's Australia@War.

Group Captain Charles 'Moth' Eaton, an RAAF instructor, entered Australian aviation legend when commanding the air searches for two lost aircraft, the Kookaburra and the Golden Quest 2, in Central Australia. His aircraft caught fire in the air and crashed at Tennant Creek, Northern Territory in April 1929. Remnants of the aircraft are on display at Tennant Creek Airport.

He earned his nickname 'Moth' after flying the first metal DH Gipsy Moth in the 'Great Air Race' from Sydney to Perth in 1929. Eaton went on to command and train many RAAF pilots and command squadrons. He was the first CO (Commanding Officer) of Darwin Base 1940-1941, CO for 72 and 79 Wing's South West Pacific Area (1943-1944), and finally Air Officer, Commanding (AOC) Southern Area in 1945.

Aviatrices, 1930s

Unidentified Queensland aviatrix

Unidentified Queensland aviatrix, ca.1935, ca. 1935.
Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 34578.

Australian women aviators, or aviatrices, also led in aviation at a time when flying was considered to be a male-only domain. Millicent Bryant (1878–1927) became the first Australian woman to gain an Australian pilot's licence on 28 March 1927. She drowned later that same year in a Sydney ferry accident.

Maude Rose Lores Bonney started flying in 1931 and became the first pilot to fly between Brisbane and Cape Town. In 1933, she flew from Darwin to England to gain the title of the first woman to fly from Australia to England. Freda Thompson (1906–1980) was the first female flying instructor in Australia and the British Empire, gaining her Instructor's Rating in 1933. In 1934, she was the first Australian woman to fly solo from England to Australia.

Nancy Bird-Walton became the youngest commercially licensed female pilot in the British Commonwealth in 1934. The following year, she ran an air ambulance service in outback New South Wales. Nancy became known as the 'Angel of the Outback' for her work with the Royal Far West Children's Health Scheme. She flew many hours in her Leopard Moth, operating the first aerial baby clinic and aerial charter services. During the Second World War she became Commandant of the Women's Air Training Corps and in 1950 she founded the Australian Women Pilots' Association.

Peggy Kelman, (nee McKillop), OBE (1909–1999) began flying training in 1931, gained her licence in 1932 and got a job flying for Nancy Bird, barnstorming in western NSW in 1935. In Scotland, she bought a used twin-engine light aircraft and decided to fly home with her groom to Moree NSW, arriving home on 15 January 1937.

Qantas, the inland medical service and overseas flying boats

In August 1920, former AFC officers Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness bought an Avro aircraft and established what later became known as the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (Qantas). By 1922, a scheduled mail service operated between Charleville and Cloncurry, and operations had moved from Winton to Longreach. By 1927, the service had extended first to Camooweal then Normanton. In 1929, the route extended to Brisbane and the company moved its headquarters there.

Royal Flying Doctor Service

In Sydney in 1920, Paul McGinness and Hudson Fysh were buying the first Qantas planes when they met Reverend John Flynn, Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission. Flynn saw that aviation could help inland Australia if four vital ingredients could intersect: medicine, communication, aeroplane design and finance.

The Australian Aerial Medical Service was formed on 27 March 1928, with its first base at Cloncurry. Qantas signed a year's contract to operate medical flights on demand. The Royal Flying Doctor Service was born.

Overseas flying boats

In 1935, Qantas took over the Darwin-Singapore sector of the Royal Mail route. By 1938, to meet the growing demand, the airline introduced Short C Class Empire flying boats. As flying boats needed only a mooring buoy, terminal building and fuelling facilities, Qantas established a base at Rose Bay in Sydney. The aircraft flew the entire Australia-England route, with the Qantas and Imperial Airways crews changing in Singapore.


Ansett Australia was founded by Sir Reginald Myles Ansett in 1935. It made its first passenger flight on 17 February 1936 from Hamilton in western Victoria to Melbourne. In 1946 the company began Melbourne to Sydney and Hobart flights before developing a successful service as a domestic carrier throughout Australia.

Second World War

RAAF, World War II

RAAF, World War II. Image courtesy of Royal Australian Air Force.

From 1940, the RAAF established 41 different schools to train airmen to meet the commitment to the war effort. The duration of the Second World War saw 37,000 aircrew trained in Australia. On 19 February 1942, Darwin was bombed by the Japanese. There were 64 raids on Darwin, as well as on other towns such as Derby, Katherine and Townsville. The day the Second World War ended the RAAF had a total of 173,622 men and women working in 570 Units around the globe, maintaining 5,620 flying aircraft.

By October 1946 the RAAF's personnel numbers had fallen to 13,238 as government defence spending was drastically reduced. In the hope of improving career prospects for younger personnel, many of its most experienced senior officers were discharged or retired off. In 1948 RAAF strength hit a low of just 8,025; however, in the same year expenditure was increased to gradually raise Air Force capability again.
RAAF History - Post War, 1946

Further wars, such as the Korean War from 1950, Malta in 1953 and Vietnam from 1964 saw the deployment of squadrons for border patrols and freight runs.

Throughout this period, a number of RAAF air bases were established around Australia. This included Pearce (Perth) in 1937, Amberley (Ipswich) in 1938, Darwin in 1940 and Tindal (Katherine) in 1942. More recent bases include Edinburgh (Adelaide) in 1954 and Curtin (Derby) in 1988.

Useful links

History of aviation

Australian Flying Corps



Aviation services

Listen, look and play

Print references

N Hayes, Billy Stutt and the Richmond flyboys: the New South Wales State Aviation School 19151918 and beyond, Pacific Downunder, Cowes, 2008.

Last updated: 5th November 2008

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