Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation's contribution to Forward Air Control

CAC Boomerangs being assembled at Fishermans Bend, VIC: Photo from Wikimedia (public domain)
My interest in transport and communications stems from a childhood fascination with the military. In my twenties, I participated in a family tradition of Australian Army service that commenced with my great-grandfather in 1916 and continues with my son some 100 years later. In this post I revisit my childhood pursuits by writing a brief history of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation's (CAC) contribution to forward air control (FAC). CAC was responsible for producing Australia's only indigenous fighter aircraft, the CAC Boomerang, during World War Two.

2629 PTE E.B. Percy, 33rd Bn AIF
If I had done what I was told to do in life, I would have been a brickie's labourer by age 16. Fortunately, I rarely listened to others. After a light-bulb moment in 1989, I decided to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot. For a number of reasons that did not eventuate, but I became an artillery forward observer and qualified as an air contact officer (ACO) in 1996. Note this role is not as prestigious as the RAAF's Forward Air Controller (FAC) role, but it is certainly the poor man's version of it! In this role (under training conditions), I learnt to call-in fighter ground-attack aircraft (F/A-18A) and bombers (F-111) from ground-based observation posts, helicopters, and sometimes from the back seat of a Pilatus PC-9. It remains one of the most exhilarating experiences I have had to date.

But the Swiss PC-9 heralded the end of the local military aircraft industry. Had I been an ACO two years earlier, I might have experienced my role in the CAC Winjeel. But the beginnings of FAC date back to 1943, when the RAAF's CAC Wirraway is credited with the first recorded instance of a forward air control mission during World War Two in New Guinea. Later FAC missions would be flown by the faster CAC Boomerangs.

Despite the end of the local military aircraft industry, the RAAF continued its tradition of forward air control with the establishment of the Forward Air Control Development Unit (FACDU) in 2009 and more recently with No. 4 Squadron RAAF, a specialist squadron focused on FAC and related roles. Yet the connection between this important military role and the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation is largely understated.

ACO training in a PC-9 in 1996
The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd was founded in 1936 at the suggestion of Essington Lewis (1881-1961), an Australian industrialist, by a syndicate that included BHP, Broken Hill Associated Smelters and later General Motors Holden. The Victorian Government provided 140 acres for an aircraft factory and landing strip at Fishermans Bend, Victoria.  

Sir Lawrence Wackett (1896–1982), a veteran of the Australian Flying Corps and one of the first officers appointed to the Royal Australian Air Force, was selected to manage the company. Wackett is regarded as "the father of the Australian aircraft industry" and was recently inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame.

Despite objections by the British, Wackett selected the North American NA-33 to be made under licence by CAC as the Wirraway (an Aboriginal word meaning "challenge"). The first Wirraways were transferred to the RAAF in 1939. The Wirraway proved to be a favourite with the artillery in New Guinea:
[The Wirraways] spotted shell bursts, lured enemy AA into disclosing their positions, reported [Japanese soldiers] trying to escape; they were forced down and occasionally crashed in flames; one daring Wirraway pilot shot down a Zero. Their work, according to the official artillery report was "superb" (1).
The FAC tradition would continue with the CAC Boomerang and CAC Winjeel. Later CAC aircraft included locally manufactured Mustangs, the CAC Wackett, the CAC Avon Sabre, and prototypes of the CAC Woomera and CAC Kangaroo (these prototypes never went into production).

The Boomerang remains the only Australian designed and built fighter aircraft but there is little doubt that the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation made an important contribution to the development of forward air control as practised by the RAAF. It is fitting that the RAAF's No. 4 Squadron continues to provide FAC today. After all, it was No. 4 Squadron that pioneered the FAC technique in a CAC Wirraway in New Guinea in 1943.

References:

1. Post, C. (2007). The birth of Forward Air Control: A Royal Australian Air Force innovation. Australian Defence Force Journal, No. 172: 103-109.


Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio