Australia Builds an Air Force

by Keith Palmer

The Aussies have created their own aircraft industry "down under." It may well prove a decisive factor in the outcome of war in the Pacific.

The war of design and production between the aircraft makers of the United States and Britain and the technicians of Germany, Japan and Italy has its echoes in Australia.

Australia's aircraft industry is only four years old. Originally it was geared to produce nothing more than primary and advanced trainers. During the first two years of war Australia — if it appeared in the world aviation picture at all — appeared as a manpower farm for aircrews (20,000 aircrewmen scheduled annually) who would fly the combat ships of Britain. The role of the aircraft industry was to turn out enough trainers to relieve the technically advanced plants of Britain from the job of producing the workhorses of the air schools. That Australia was able to do this at all — that it could announce after mid-1941 that 1,000 Australian-built warplanes were in the air — was a matter for Australian self-congratulation.

As the Pacific crisis deepened, Australia began producing its first combat type airplane — the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber. Two considerations dictated the type. It seemed the logical type for offensive action against shipping (it had just rolled up an impressive victory at Taranto) and Australia had 11,300 miles of coast. The other matter was that its twin-row American power plant was similar to that of the Wirraway (single row).

In November, 1941, the Australian aircraft industry seemed to have everything under control. Pearl Harbor changed all that. Australia suddenly needed first-line aircraft and plenty of them. More, the United States would have first call on the American aircraft part and machine-tool industries, both of which had contributed to the establishment of the Australian industry. It was not the first time Australian production problems had been increased by world events. The collapse of France and the air blitz against Britain robbed Australia of aircraft and plant ordered in 1939.

But this was nothing to the drastic revision dictated by Japanese entry into the war. Australia needed fighter planes and first-line bombers. Immediately aircraft production was given an absolute priority of men, plant and finance over everything else in Australian war production. The aircraft production chief, Essington Lewis became the most powerful official in Australia. The painfully created Australian machine tool industry began turning out the specialized tools necessary to make — for the first time — fighter and fighter-bomber types.

Government statements in April seemed to indicate that production of these new first-line ships would not be delayed. In any case, whether or not they arrive soon enough to alter the immediate picture of General Brett's air strategy in the Southwest Pacific, production in any quantity — for a country that has yet to make its first automobile — will have been a minor production miracle. At this stage it might be appropriate to give some background to Australian airplane building.

Key technical man in Australian plane-making for years had been Lawrence James Wackett, World War I flyer, now the 45-year-old head of Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. He made his first airplane in 1923, called it the Wackett Warbler, and eventually coaxed it up to 5,000 feet. It had a two-cylinder motor producing about 22 hp at its best. But it flew and its engine, like the rest of it, was Australian-made.

Next Wackett job was the Widgeon I, an amphibian powered with a 230-hp Siddeley Puma motor and with Queensland maple in its hull. After an initial flop into Sydney harbor, this airplane was rebuilt and did about 500 hours' flying. By 1927 Widgeon II was in the air. It was quite an airplane for those days. It weighed 6,000 pounds total, had a top speed of 130 mph and a range of approximately 1,000 miles.

Then came Warrigals I and II, two-seat general-purpose military landplanes. Each looked good enough to develop into a standard military plane but two things combined to wipe out Wackett as a 1933 aircraft maker. First, Australia was in the middle of a financial depression; second, British aircraft manufacturers explained to the Australian government of the day that airplane manufacture was a highly technical business, requiring all the resources of a great and fully established industrial and scientific nation.

If Australia tried to develop its own aircraft industry, they said, it would find itself isolated from the main streams of new aeronautical thought. And so on and on.

Until Tugan Aircraft was formed in 1936, airplane manufacture died in Australia.

A dozen or so of the old gang went into Tugan Aircraft with Wackett. In a more highly industrialized country they might have been lost, for their all-around knowledge was shared by many, and only in Australia was their special genius needed.

That genius was for improvisation. If a specialized material wasn't available, something else as good had to be found. If the recognized way of doing a job wasn't possible, through lack of tools, perhaps, the job still had to be done. And in finding a way out, often they found a better way.

By the time war rumors began to look like more than rumors, Tugan had built eight seven-place Gannets, some for Royal Australian Air Force communication units and some for airlines. Repeat orders had been won for this twin-motored (Gypsy Six or Menasco) high-wing aircraft when war began to seem a certainty.

Blockade became a shadow across Australia's strategic plans. The theory that airplanes should be made in Australia, of Australian materials, made sense. Could this theory be turned into practice, and in time?

First requirement was hard cash. Australia has a large-scale heavy industry; its Broken Hill Proprietary Company breaks out iron and coal from the earth, carries them through to the ships, bombs, guns and steel air raid shelters which have been included in Australia's recent exports. Its many plants — one steel plant at Newcastle contains 64 miles of roadway within its fences, and is the biggest single steel mill in the British Empire — are modern and efficient by any standard. So Australians were not surprised to learn that this company was putting up one-third of the cash in a $5,000,000 company to build airplanes.

Two great metal-producing companies, a steamship firm, the Australian subsidiaries of Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries, and of General Motors Corp (the latter took 10% of the shares) provided the rest. What did surprise Australians was to find that a special mission was already touring the world to choose a suitable airplane to build. Its members were two technical officers of the Royal Australian Air Force and Wackett, who was to become manager of the corporation.

They toured the world. They saw British, German, French and American factories, bearing in mind all the time just what they wanted: a useful airplane, with the bugs worked out of it, with at least some stressed-skin construction in it so that Australia could begin its first major airplane-manufacturing project with the technique that seemed to have a strangle-hold on aviation's future.

At Inglewood, CA, they found what they wanted: an airplane which North American Aviation called the NA-33. The Royal Australian Air Force liked the airplane and, in January, 1937, ordered 40 — at the time a considerable order for Australia. A small team of technicians went to Inglewood and some to an American aircraft engine plant in the east. Steam shovels began to bite into sand hills on a bay near Melbourne. Equipment, gathered from every toolmaking country in the world, is now the envy of most production men who see it.

By March, 1938, licenses had been negotiated, most of the jigging and tooling finished, and drop-hammers began to bash out the first sheet-metal parts of the Australian version of the NA-33 while in the engine department, forgings were bored and turned and drilled for the cylinder-barrels of the first Australian-made 600-hp engines.

Australian light industry generally was not then accustomed to working to aircraft precision so it was necessary to make in the CAC plant a bigger proportion of the airplane than any other manufacturer in the world — fuselages and engines down to screws and studs, nuts and bolts.

A year after the first part was stamped out, the first airplane was ready. In outline, it was an NA-33; but there were differences. The wing of the Australian-built airplane that flew on March 27, 1938, was an NA-33 wing only in aerodynamic outline. Extra rows of rivets told of stiffening; main bomb load was carried outside the airscrew circle. Because it had to be a general purpose machine, there had been changes inside. The observer could kick a catch, swing his seat round and slide into the new prone bomb-aiming position for level bombing.

Two guns pointed forward, one aft. Not much by today's standards, but the Stuka still has no more, nor have some other dive bombers. Test flights showed the airplane did all it was supposed to do: 225 mph top, 600 mile range, handle like a pursuit ship — better than a fast one. It was given a new colorful name — Wirraway, the Australian aborigine word for Challenge.

The story since then has been that of any successful airplane plant: expansion, expansion, expansion. Now 5,000 employees work three shifts at the factory. From the test field runway RAAF pilots take off, every so often, ferrying Wirraways to service stations or advanced training schools.

The war revolutionized production schedules. By 1940 it was impossible to buy even the smallest part of an airplane from Britain or America. Technicians had to revise their plans and make everything in Australia. So instead of gradual establishment of local airplane manufacturing, the whole job had to be done almost overnight.

Besides the Wirraway and Wackett trainer, the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber is being mass-produced, and de Havilland Aircraft Proprietary Limited are turning out Tiger Moth elementary trainers at the rate of two a day. Engines for all these types are made in Australia. A $1,200,000 forge plant is making forgings for engines and propellers. De Havillands are operating a $1,000,000 plant for production of controllable pitch metal propellers of several types. The second largest type of drop hammer in the world, a monster 35,000 pounds air hammer capable of turning out the largest aluminum drop forgings, works in conjunction with this plant.

Two factories are supplying aluminum alloy sheets for airplane making. One of them, a $2,800,000 outfit operated by Australian Aluminum Company, fabricates aluminum alloy plates and extrudes all the aluminum bars, rods, tubes and structural shapes needed in aircraft construction. Landing gear is made in a $600,000 plant elsewhere and in factories and machine shops scattered far and wide through the commonwealth, a full range of aircraft instruments, engine generators, magnetos and starters, fireproof gas tanks, spark plugs, low-tension electric cable, electron castings, aircraft fabrics, high pressure hose, bomb racks and bomb sights are being turned out. In the production of aircraft steels, Australia is self-sufficient.

It is estimated the Australian production of aircraft and aircraft parts this year will exceed the value of $80,000,000 being aimed at by the close of 1941. Large proportion of this output will belong to the Commonwealth Aircraft Production Commission, the Government-owned concern formed in 1939 to make Beaufort aircraft in Australia.

An Australian-made Bristol Beaufort bomber was at Khota Baruh in northeast Malaya when a handful of RAAF planes beat off the first Japanese attempt to effect a landing there. When the Japs came again in strength, with a fighter cover, it was a case of too few against too many — and the yellow men won a footing for facing south.

But Australian flyers, proud of the performance of their American Lockheed Hudsons, still had a good word for the sturdy Beaufort.

The work of making the Beauforts is spread over three Australian states, the division being decided by the location of suitable equipment and sub-contractors with private engineering workshops. Minor parts pour into assembly plants from all directions, and all manner of workshops. Even the bush blacksmith and upstate automobile or tractor service shops are producing their quota, on time.

Railway workshops begin the assembling which is completed at the main factories in New South Wales and Victoria. More than 33,000 jigs, tools and fixtures are used to make a Beaufort, and Australia had to make 26,000 of them. More than 150 subcontractors were on the job a few weeks ago. Of Australia's 7,000,000 men, women and children, 8,000 men and women will soon be engaged solely on making the airplane types in the Aircraft Production Commission's manufacturing schedule.

To oversee such a production mosaic as the Australian manufacture of aircraft, the Commonwealth Government in January appointed Essington Lewis, successful, hard-driving head of BHP — the huge Broken Hill Proprietary Company — as Director of Aircraft Production. To obviate delays, and as a clear indication of the importance with which aircraft manufacture is regarded, the government handed Lewis almost unlimited regulatory powers.

He has sole control of the management and operation of factories and workshops doing the job. He may acquire new factories or premises for the construction and maintenance of aircraft or parts, control the output of any person or organization making aircraft, or capable of making it. He can take steps to secure material, tools and equipment; he can employ or train personnel, vary or set aside existing contracts or agreements, decide priorities. He can take over property rights, licenses or privileges, and use any inventions he may need.

Amazing as development has been, Australia knows it is still not enough. Fighters and long-range bombers must reach Australia from the United States if Australia is to be the base from which United Nations airmen will smash at Japan and Japanese bases in the south Pacific.

Australian Minister of Aircraft Production Cameron announced on April 22 that Australian-built fighter airplanes "soon will be undergoing initial tests" — but Australia cannot hope to produce them speedily enough to stem any large-scale Japanese attack, or even to replace adequately the wastage of fighter aircraft providing umbrella cover for our bombers.

According to Cameron the fighters have "all the marks of speed and efficiency" and it is a fact Australia is not standing still when tackling aircraft manufacture, or blindly following the designs of America and Britain.

Australia is capable of improving airplane design and there need be no worries about the aptitude of her workmen or the ingenuity of her engineers. By substituting American engines for British Taurus engines, miles per hour were added to the speed of the Bristol Beaufort in Australia. This in spite of all the adaptations necessitated by the changeover. Component parts of the airframe, and any of the systems working in relation the engines — electrical, fuel, oil and ignition, for instance — had to be redesigned.

But nothing can be done except by her allies to alter immediately Australia's major war disability — that of population. She is a small country doing a big job industrially as well as in the front lines of land, sea and air warfare. Australia is proud of the progress she is making in the specialized and highly technical field of airplane manufacture, but she is well aware of her dependence upon America for so many of the front-line aircraft that are needed to beat down the Japanese.

Australia is looking after herself with regard to training aircraft. Service flying schools all over the country are getting hundreds of reliable hours from locally-made Tiger Moths, Wackett trainers and Wirraways. Australia is determined to better her output aim of 20,000 pilots, observers and air gunners a year. Of these, only two-ninths do any flying training at all anywhere other than in Australia and on Australian-made airplanes.

That's the aircraft picture down under. Good, but not good enough for Australia — yet.

This article was originally published in the November, 1942, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 5, pp 22-24, 104, 110.
The original article includes 3 photos: Photos are not credited.

Note: Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II lists the Australian Beaufort engines as P & W R-1830-SC3-G Twin Wasps. The English-built Beaufort MkI, of which the Australian Beaufort was to be a copy, used Bristol Taurus engines. —JLM